The story isn't all that unfamiliar: a broke team owner falls out of love with his market and decides to sell his team. The best bids come from investors who'd move the team and screw the small market that supported the franchise. Local officials have been willing to help finance improvements to facilities, but the team owner isn't in a position to wait it out.
It happened in 2010 in New Orleans, and it's happening in 2013 in Sacramento. Hornets owner George Shinn -- the first man in memory to attempt to ruin two NBA markets, a veritable basketball version of Jeff Loria -- really did not appear to want to run a team in post-Katrina New Orleans. The guy applied for market rights to Oklahoma City after Clay Bennett bought the Sonics -- the Hornets had spent time during the hurricane recovery there in OKC, and Shinn wanted to take the team there permanently. (As "permanent" as anything can ever be for Shinn.) Frankly, the Hornets struggled to re-engage with a significantly smaller New Orleans after the team returned. Shinn was going broke, having tapped out the NBA's debt facility. By late 2010, he was ready to cash out. Rumors suggested Larry Ellison would buy the team and try to move it to San Jose.
But near the start of the 2010-11 -- the pre-lockout season -- the NBA swooped in and bought out Shinn for $300 million, taking over the team for more than a year before flipping it to New Orleans saint/New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson for a modest profit. There were controversies along the way, including David Stern's interjection -- as team owner, not league commissioner -- in the proposed Chris Paul to the Lakers trade. But in the end, Stern got what he wanted: the team ended up with a great owner, there were no nasty lawsuits and the Hornets stayed in New Orleans. Wins all around.
In Sacramento, the story's different. Like Shinn in NOLA, the Maloofs have tried their damnedest to leave Sacramento. Word is that back in 2006, when the Maloofs helped kill local arena tax ballot measures, they went to Stern and said they would be filing to relocate because, well, screw Sacramento. Stern got them to back down by sending big shot John Moag out to Sacramento to come up with an arena plan that included public funding that wouldn't need voter approval. Moag spent 18 months on a plan that was basically dead on arrival due to scope (way too expensive) and complexity (roping in a reluctant, provincial state board). After that, Stern seemed resigned to let the Maloofs leave, so the family worked out a deal to move to Anaheim and play in the Honda Center. A lease agreement was actually publicly considered by the Anaheim City Council. Renovations were funded and undertaken.
But then Kevin Johnson happened, and that's where this story really changes. No one really knows why Stern felt such a loyalty to New Orleans, who frankly hadn't been back in the NBA even a decade before Shinn wanted out. Other teams that have been relocated, like the dearly departed SuperSonics (41 years in Seattle), had much more robust municipal histories. But Stern felt it important to work with New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and the market's fans to make the Hornets great, like the Saints.
The case in Sacramento is, I believe, stronger. KJ has done everything the NBA has asked. The city found a way to fund a new downtown arena without placing an undue burden on the public (a 7-2 vote at the Sacramento City Council is a miracle on par with the Clippers suddenly becoming the best team in California). The city is formulating a serious ownership group that could provide stability and resources to make the team competitive. The city has produced actual sponsorship money for the Kings -- $10 million worth before the 2011-12 season to show Sacramento's support for pro basketball. And the fans and local businesses have certainly done their part, as well; there's no question that Clay Bennett, the Thunder owner and highly ironic (if not offensive) head of the relocation committee, was impressed during his spring 2011 scouting trip to Sacramento.
In a procedural sense, the biggest difference between the Hornets in '10 and the Kings in '13 is that Stern got to Shinn before he signed an agreement to sell the team. The Maloofs have been so sneaky and backhanded that they had a deal in place with a buyer, Chris Hansen of Seattle, before anyone knew the Kings were for sale. (The Maloofs have spent the past six years yelling -- literally yelling -- at anyone who suggested they might sell the team.) So a straight Hornet-style gambit won't work here. But there are creative ways for the league to broker a deal to keep the Kings in Sacramento. The Hook has been a strong advocate for expansion to 31 teams. Barring that, based on the league's very recent history in New Orleans, shouldn't Stern push for the Board of Governors -- his bosses, mind you, but folks who take his recommendations very seriously -- to direct the Maloofs to offer owners who would sign on to KJ's arena plan an opportunity to match the Seattle deal being brought to the table? In the spirit of NOLA, shouldn't Stern always work to protect this small, dedicated market?
Of course, chances are that he's already doing strong work to protect Sacramento. It's time for the NBA community of writers and fans to acknowledge that this isn't a done deal to Seattle. Sacramento has a real shot here, and the New Orleans Hornets help to explain why.