The Maloofs have played their hand. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson is still assembling his cards.
By announcing a binding agreement Monday to sell its controlling interest in the Sacramento Kings to a group from Seattle, the Maloof family has forced Johnson to quickly pull together a bid to keep the team in Sacramento. The NBA, which must approve any sale and relocation, is expected to begin vetting the Seattle deal soon.
Operating with the open encouragement of NBA Commissioner David Stern, the mayor and his advisers say they've been approached by at least three ultrawealthy investors. Yet it's questionable whether the league would reject the Seattle deal, which puts a record price tag on an NBA team.
"I don't think it's a slam dunk, but I'd say the odds are highly in favor of the move," said Michael McCann, a sports-law expert at the University of New Hampshire. Only once in the past quarter-century has the league blocked a relocation, when the Minnesota Timberwolves were kept from moving to New Orleans in 1994.
The Seattle deal was submitted to the NBA late Sunday and announced early Monday. A source said the Seattle group, led by hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen, is buying the 65 percent of the team controlled by the Maloofs and their Oklahoma business partner, Bob Hernreich.
The deal values the whole team at $525 million. That implies the Seattle contingent is paying $341 million. The total valuation of $525 million surpasses the $450 million paid for the Golden State Warriors in 2010.
The source, who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said Hansen agreed to pay the Maloofs a nonrefundable $30 million deposit by Feb. 1.
The Maloofs had vowed never to sell the team. But in recent years, the family has endured personal financial setbacks. It also faced dwindling attendance at Kings games and increased fan animosity after the Maloofs abandoned two deals to build a new downtown arena and conducted well-publicized talks to move the team to Anaheim and later Virginia Beach, Va.
Still, the jaw-dropping price is "probably the only reason" the Maloofs are selling, said John Kehriotis, a Kings limited partner who isn't part of the sale.
"These people have been very passionate about this team," he said.
Hansen and the Maloofs each issued brief announcements.
"We have always appreciated and treasured our ownership of the Kings and have had a great admiration for the fans and our team members," said Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof in a statement. His brother Joe declined to comment when reached by The Bee.
While the negotiations with Hansen were public knowledge for nearly two weeks, the announcement sent a chill through Kings fans.
"I think it's a gut punch to know that the Maloofs are not giving Sacramento a chance to keep their team," said Tom Ziller, founder of the Sactown Royalty website.
Kings player Isaiah Thomas, who is from Tacoma, said he can sympathize with Sacramento fans.
"I was a Sonics fan," he said. "I've been through losing a team and seeing what it does to a city."
NBA expected to approve
Hansen, who is backed by Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer, first surfaced publicly last February and has loomed for months as a potential Kings suitor.
The team would move to Seattle and play at KeyArena while a new arena is built. City and county officials have tentatively backed a $490 million building.
Hansen would rebrand the team the SuperSonics, after the team that relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008.
The deal doesn't include the 35 percent owned by four limited partners: Kehriotis, the Benvenuti family, David Lucchetti and Bob Cook. Cook's 7 percent is being sold in bankruptcy court.
The NBA said it has received the purchase documentation and will now begin the process of reviewing Hansen's financing and other details. The deal must go through the advisory and finance committee, as well as the relocation committee, before going to the full board of governors.
The board, consisting of all the league owners, meets in New York in mid-April, but the examination of the Seattle plan will begin "almost immediately," said McCann.
That ramps up the pressure on Johnson to put his deal on the table as soon as possible, the sports-law expert said.
"There's a real need for him to get it done quickly," McCann said.
Johnson couldn't be reached for comment Monday. In the midafternoon he tweeted: "I keep getting asked do we still have a shot? You better believe it!"
Mayoral adviser Chris Lehane said there's no need to panic, arguing that Sacramento is in the same situation it was 24 hours ago: needing to come up with a deep-pocketed investor.