CHICAGO – They have called David Stern “King David” around the NBA at times, though quietly when he was nearby.
It’s been a successful reign for Stern, who said he will step down next February as commissioner.
But Stern may need the wisdom of King Solomon to make one of his biggest decisions, though technically all NBA actions are by a vote of the owners.
But everyone over these last three decades knows things happen or don’t in the NBA based on the views and beliefs of Stern.
Though this Gordian knot may be too difficult for even Stern to figure out.
It’s what should become of the Sacramento Kings franchise.
In American history, Sacramento is perhaps most famous for near where the famous California Gold Rush began in 1848 with the discovery of gold that led to the speedy settlement of the state.
Now, it’s gold once again everyone is fighting over, the money being raised like in a high-stakes poker game over the Kings.
And whoever would have expected it over a franchise that last won a championship when it was in Rochester, New York, in 1951 and subsequently relocated to Cincinnati and Kansas City before moving to Sacramento in 1985?
Since then, it’s been one of the sad sacks of the NBA with record losing streaks, reaching the playoffs just 10 times in 29 years and winning playoff series in just four of their 29 seasons in Sacramento. It is as much a record of futility as for any franchise in NBA history.
Yet, two groups are bidding for the Kings like they are the Lakers, one led by Seattle billionaires to move it to Seattle and another, a billionaire from India who has been a part owner of the Golden State Warriors, to keep the team in Sacramento.
Here’s the issue:
The NBA would rather have a team in Seattle. It is a far bigger and more lucrative market with a stronger and still growing financial base to support a team. It would strengthen the league.
Plus, the Seattle group has made, at least in bidding the price up, a far more lucrative offer for the majority interest in the team to the Maloof family that owns the team. It would come to a valuation of $650 million, some $200 million more that the most ever paid for an NBA franchise.
The Maloof family has suffered severe financial losses, especially in Las Vegas properties after the housing collapse of 2008.
Don’t they deserve the right to get the best price for their franchise?
After all, they take the losses and not the NBA.
And Seattle is the stronger market with the Seattle group offering a substantial relocation fee to the other owners that surpasses the Sacramento bid.
So what’s the problem?
Well, there was a franchise in Seattle, which was sold to a group of Oklahoma City businessmen in 2006. The state and community rejected a tax to pay for a new arena, which was an NBA requirement.
How dare the NBA come in and tell us what to do, they effectively said in telling Stern and the NBA to mind their own business.
The franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.
So the NBA told Sacramento to fund a new arena, which it has with a $250 million public subsidy, which Seattle failed to do when the NBA asked.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, rallied a group of business leaders and the community to support a tax to keep the team.
But Sacramento isn’t what it was before the Great Recession. It is the state capital of California, but it not a business or financial hub. Fan attendance has decreased dramatically in recent years to the point this season home attendance averaged 13,661, the lowest in the NBA.
Sure, there’s a loud vocal minority of citizens calling for the Kings to stay.
But it would remain the only major league franchise in the city. San Francisco is only about 150 km away.
And if they are not going to support their team when it is threatening to move can they be counted on when there is no pressure?
Community leaders say the fans would support a new ownership group. But that was the same plea Charlotte used after George Shinn moved the team to New Orleans and Charlotte was granted a new franchise.
It has been near the bottom of the league in attendance every season. And it is a stronger financial market than Sacramento.
Yet, the NBA also, in effect, told Sacramento to build an arena for the Kings. They have the funding. Build it and they will stay, as it were.
And what about the precedent of a city turning its back on its team and allowing it to leave?
And then taking a team away from another city and the NBA supporting that?
Shouldn’t the NBA stand by its cities that do what it asked to keep a team rather than supporting a city that didn’t?
But can the NBA tell an owner to take less for his team after he has been losing money and trying to sell?
It’s his business, after all.
What about the financial health of the league?
Isn’t it served better by a bigger market?
But doesn’t your word stand for anything as an NBA relocation committee recently recommended unanimously against a move from Sacramento?
Should a league do what’s right morally or what’s right economically?
After all, we’re told all the time that it is a business.
What would you do?
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”