The Maloofs have played their hand. 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 and Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer, 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 faced dwindling attendance at Kings games and increased fan animosity after the Maloofs abandoned two deals to build a 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.
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 Gavin Maloof in a prepared 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."
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has written a letter, dated today, to state officials asking them to detail how much money Ballmer's Microsoft company is making on state contracts. Steinberg said he wants to send a message to the NBA and the Seattle group that local leaders will fight to keep the Kings.
"I cannot stand idly by while a prominent out-of-state company that has significantly profited from business with the State of California actively attempts to acquire and remove one of my State and region's leading private assets," he wrote in the letter to the state Department of General Services.