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The sale of the Sacramento Kings to Chris Hansen shouldn’t be a cause for celebration

This morning, the Maloof family, who have owned a controlling interest in the NBA’s Sacramento Kings for more than a decade, ended weeks of speculation by announcing that they have agreed to sell their stake in the franchise to a group of investors led by San Francisco hedge fund manager Chris Hansen.

Hansen’s group, as Northwest readers know, has been trying to lay the groundwork for more than a year to bring men’s professional basketball back to the Emerald City following the departure of the SuperSonics in 2008 (a sad story, chronicled in the documentary film Sonicsgate, which can be freely viewed online).

Hansen has proposed building a new arena in Seattle’s SoDo (South Downtown) neighborhood, near Safeco Field and CenturyLink field, that would serve as the home venue for an NBA franchise, and possibly an NHL franchise as well. Late last year, Hansen signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with King County and the City of Seattle to secure access to public financing and support from local officials for the arena project. Now, Hansen and his investment partners, including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Peter Nordstrom, have landed a team.

Hansen’s statement:

We are happy to announce that we have entered into a binding agreement with the Maloofs to purchase a controlling interest in the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise. The sale is obviously subject to approval by the NBA Board of Governors, and we look forward to working with the League in the coming months to consummate the transaction.

While we are not at liberty to discuss the terms of the transaction or our plans for the franchise given the confidential nature of the agreement and NBA regulations regarding public comments during a pending transaction, we would just like to extend our sincerest compliments and gratitude toward the Maloof family. Our negotiations with the family were handled with the utmost honor and professionalism and we hope to continue their legacy and be great stewards of this NBA franchise in the coming years and decades.

The Maloofs issued their own, equally cryptic statement:

The Maloof family announced today that an executed purchase and sale agreement has been reached to sell the family’s interest in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Sacramento Kings to a group led by investor Chris Hansen. The transaction requires approval by the NBA’s Board of Governors and therefore no comments or details regarding the agreement will be released.

“We have always appreciated and treasured our ownership of the Kings and have had a great admiration for the fans and our team members. We would also like thank Chris Hansen for his professionalism during our negotiation. Chris will be a great steward for the franchise,” said Gavin Maloof, Kings co-owner speaking on behalf of the Maloof family.

As noted in the statements, terms of the sales agreement have not been released for public consumption. Of course, that hasn’t stopped media outlets in Seattle or Sacramento from reporting on details of the deal and speculating that Hansen will move the Kings to Seattle later this year and that they will begin playing next season at KeyArena, which the Sonics called home for decades.

As far as some Seattle sports columnists seem to be concerned (ahem, Steve Kelly!) the deed is already done and the Kings are headed to Seattle.

Except that they aren’t. Not yet, anyway.

While Hansen surely intends to bring the Kings up north, he has to get permission from the NBA’s Board of Governors first. The NBA has historically given new owners permission to relocate teams, although that didn’t happen with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1994. NBA Commissioner David Stern has indicated that he will allow Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to present a counter-offer to the NBA’s Board of Governors, including a plan to build a new arena in Sacramento.

(The current venue, Sleep Train Arena, is the smallest stadium in the NBA, and is considered outdated, even though it is only twenty-five years old).

Johnson is reportedly trying to find a deep-pocketed buyer for the team who will match the price that Hansen and his group paid for the Kings.

Even if Hansen gets the okay from the NBA to move his newly-acquired franchise to Seattle, it will not mean the return of the Seattle SuperSonics, as Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine said today. McGinn and Constantine are both wrong when they talk about “bringing the Sonics home” or “the return of our hometown team” being “within reach”.

The Sacramento Kings are not Seattle’s “hometown team”. The Kings are not the Sonics; they are the Kings. Chris Hansen can choose to rebrand the team if he gets permission to move it up here, but that will not make the Kings the Sonics of old.

If the Oklahoma City Thunder were relocating back to Seattle, it would be accurate to say “The Sonics are coming home!”, for that franchise was the Sonics for forty-one years before Clay Bennett and his Oklahoma City Raiders moved the team to the middle of the country. But that is not what is happening.

(Bennett, as Northwest readers know, bought the team in 2007 from Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz with the intention of moving it, though he initially claimed to be interested in trying to keep the team playing in Seattle).

Why is this important? Because McGinn and Constantine are speaking as if a deal has miraculously been struck to bring the team formerly known as the Sonics back here — or as if Seattle has been awarded a brand new franchise by the NBA to replace the stolen Sonics, when in fact the NBA has done no such thing.

At the risk of sounding like a robot, I’ll say this again: The Kings are Sacramento’s team. If they move to Seattle, they will no longer play in Sacramento. Seattle will have taken the Kings away from Sacramento, just as Oklahoma City took the Sonics from Seattle nearly a half decade ago.

Where is the justice in that?

The taking of the Kings from Sacramento is not the return of the Sonics; it is the relocation of the Kings to Seattle. Let’s not deceive ourselves here.

I seem to remember diehard Sonics fans feeling pretty bitter about the loss of the Sonics back in 2008. And those fans had, and still have, every right to feel that way. Our region was robbed of its men’s professional basketball franchise by a group of wealthy conservative business tycoons from the Sooner State.

Well, imagine how basketball fans in Sacramento are feeling right now. (Or better yet, read what they’re saying).

They’ve just received the news that the majority stake in their beloved team – the only major league sports team in Sacramento – has been sold to an ownership group from out-of-town who are building an arena in another city.

They’re hearing news reports that their team is as good as gone. They’re enduring the same unsettling scuttlebutt and gossip that became a fixture of conversations around these parts after Howard Schultz announced the sale of the Sonics and the Storm. (The Storm stayed in Seattle after being resold to Force 10 Hoops).

My guess is that many of you reading this post feel the same way I do about this news: it’s not a cause for celebration. If the Kings come here and are rebranded as the Sonics, I know I won’t think of them as the Seattle SuperSonics. I’ll think of them as the Seattle Kings. New colors, new uniforms, and a new name won’t change the fact that our region will have taken another city’s major league team… something we haven’t done before. (Sounders FC, the Mariners, and the Seahawks all began play in Seattle as expansion teams).

Some of you reading this post, on the other hand, may be happy and excited, because you’ve wished, hoped, and prayed for the return of men’s professional basketball to Seattle for years, and you don’t care how the city gets a team as long Chris Hansen (who doesn’t even live here) gets one. It is after all, true that the Kings have moved before… from Rochester to Cincinnati, from Cincinnati to Kansas City/Omaha, and then from Kansas City to Sacrament in the mid-1980s.

If you feel that way, fine, but be open and upfront about what’s going down. Have some compassion for the fans in Sacramento. Don’t ignore what they’re going through by calling the potential relocation of the Kings a homecoming.

Remember, the Kings are not the Sonics. They are a club that began playing decades before the Sonics even existed.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 23rd, 2013 at 2:28 PM | Permalink

    The Kings are probably in the position that the Mariners were in before the special session of the legislature was convened. I believe that the Kings coming here would mark the first time that Seattle would receive a Professional team through relocation rather than expansion.
    Because of that, many fans are feeling uneasy about obtaining the Sacramento Franchise.
    According to agreement, though, the new team will be known as the Sonics and sdopt the Sonics history, as weird as it seems, it was the agreement that Mayor Nikkles made with Clay Bennett, other than receiving improvements to Key Arena should Seattle receive an NBA franchise in a limited amount of time that has already past.
    So know it is wait and see. I’m just glad we didn’t get the New Orleans franchise, nothing would make us look worst than taking a franchise from a hurricane torn city,