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Ben Bolch / On the NBA

Courtship of Kings is heating up

Mayor Kevin Johnson works to keep the team in Sacramento, but the Seattle group is countering his moves. Presentations to NBA owners approach.

March 30, 2013|By Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times
  • Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson counts the votes in favor of the new arena on his fingers during a city council meeting.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson counts the votes in favor of the new arena… (Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Associated…)

Kevin Johnson used a basketball analogy when discussing Sacramento's odds of keeping the Kings, saying they were like Steve Nash at the free-throw line.

The implication, of course, was that the city has about a 90.4% chance of preventing the team from relocating to Seattle.

For accuracy's sake, the Sacramento mayor probably should have picked a different Laker: Dwight Howard.

It could easily go either way.

Sacramento's chances certainly seemed to improve last week when the City Council approved a preliminary plan to help fund a new $447-million arena. The deal would involve the city contributing about $258 million, with most of that money coming through the creation of a nonprofit entity that would borrow against future parking revenue controlled by the city.

It all sounds promising, except for two things: The deal is nonbinding, meaning a separate vote will be needed to approve the actual spending of the money, and the City Council endorsed a similar arena funding plan last year that amounted to nothing.

On the plus side for Sacramento, two more billionaires have emerged to keep cowbells ringing indoors in the state capital.

Silicon Valley investor Vivek Ranadive and Paul Jacobs, chief executive of the international technology company Qualcomm Inc., recently fortified the investment group that also includes 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and Southern California supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle.

It remains unclear how much the Sacramento group is bidding in its counteroffer to the proposal made by hedge-fund billionaire Chris Hansen and Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer, who agreed in January to purchase a 65% share in the team owned by Joe and Gavin Maloof for $341 million. Hansen and Ballmer intend to move the Kings to Seattle and rename them the Sonics.

Both sides will make presentations to a group of team owners Wednesday in New York before a vote among all owners is taken April 18-19 on whether to approve the sale of the team to the Seattle group. Fortunately for Sacramento, longtime nemesis Phil Jackson doesn't have a say.

Commissioner David Stern said during All-Star weekend that the Kings' fate would hinge on more than economics, meaning that the highest bidder isn't guaranteed to emerge with the team.

One problem confronting Sacramento is the Kings' recent attendance. The team has averaged 13,524 fans this season at Sleep Train Arena, the worst attendance in the NBA.

Johnson boosted his city's bid by registering more than 9,100 pledges to purchase season tickets should the team remain in Sacramento. The mayor also recently released a list of 24 businesses that have vowed $50 million in corporate sponsorships for the next five years.

Hansen has countered almost every move made by Johnson, the former All-Star point guard who has applied a full-court press to his Seattle adversaries. He launched a priority waiting list for tickets and reached a deal last week to acquire an additional 7% share in the team from a Sacramento businessman whose assets are in bankruptcy. Four minority owners of the Kings were given 15 days to match the offer.

Should it prevail, the Seattle investment group plans to have the team play at KeyArena for two seasons before moving into a $490-million arena south of downtown. KeyArena was last inhabited by the SuperSonics during the 2007-08 season before they moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.

Whoever ends up with the Kings is probably going to endure at least a few more seasons of bad basketball. The team hasn't made the playoffs since 2006 and its roster is littered with talented but erratic players.

The Maloofs obviously won't be sad to see them go considering they didn't apprise Sacramento investors about a possible sale before announcing a deal had been reached with the Seattle group.

Ultimately, the Maloofs could be back in control should NBA owners nix the Hansen-Ballmer bid. The Maloofs could solicit new bidders from outside Sacramento or further ratchet up the price for the group interested in keeping the team within city limits.

Johnson still seems to like his chances.

Even if they're nowhere near the gimme when Nash is at the free-throw line.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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