BY Art Thiel 02:54PM 10/26/2012

Thiel: Why Stern’s pettiness now helps Seattle

With a 15-month runway to his retirement, Stern’s farewell agenda includes a make-up to Seattle, not for reasons of fairness or justice, but to buff up the legacy.

NBA Commissioner David Stern is ready to help fix Seattle, because it's legacy time./ Getty Images

Can messiahs retire? Guess we’ll find out when David Stern leaves the NBA commissioner’s job Feb. 1, 2014. But in order to avoid being crucified in one part of his world, he would like to turn back time to when there was a hugely successful franchise in Seattle.

Turning back time is normally the province of Superman. But let’s not mix our myths here. Stern can do it just as well.

While never apologizing, and with only a mumble of regret, Stern nevertheless knows he blew it in Seattle. Now, as he is carried around the world on a sedan chair for the next 15 months receiving the adulation of the basketball unwashed, he wants to wash some soiled sheets  — not for Seattle’s sake, or any sense of justice, but for his legacy.

His mishandling of the Sonics situation is the single biggest blight on his resume, which does have numerous redeeming features. As the man in charge of  the renaissance of the NBA from a league run out of the trunk of a car to world sports force, he deserves credit. Not as much as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, and not as much as Stern thinks, but the league is doing so much better on so many fronts than when the Sonics won the 1979 championship (the title series was tape-delayed for CBS broadcast at 11:30 p.m.).

Nevertheless, his belief that he was dismissed by state and local politicians during his February 2006 campaign visit to help then-owner Howard Schultz get a publicly funded arena was never forgotten. Stern’s messianic self-regard was at its apex, and five months later, the Sonics were permitted to be sold to Oklahoma City’s Clay Bennett, a man who subsequently proved he knows much about bowing and scraping (Bennett to Stern email: “You are just one of my favorite people on earth”). Ew.

But that same petty, adolescent passion for vengeance that catalyzed the Sonics’ departure now works in Seattle’s favor. Yahoo! sports writer Adrian Wojnarowski, a longtime, knowledgeable reporter on the NBA, wrote from the league meetings in New York that Stern is eager to return a team to Seattle.

That team, no surprise, is the Sacramento Kings, ostracized for much the same emotions he had for Seattle in 2006 — somebody there pissed him off. In this case, it wasn’t the politicians, it was the club’s owners, the Maloof brothers of Las Vegas casino notoriety.

In order to avoid another franchise relocation, particularly from a one-horse town of the sort that Stern prefers — no NFL or MLB competition — Stern over a span of more than three years went to great personal and financial lengths to help the Maloofs create a downtown arena that would secure the Kings; far more effort than he applied in Seattle.

At the All-Star Game in February, Stern and the Maloofs publicly celebrated a tentative deal to fund a $391 million arena that would open for the 2015-16 season in the downtown Sacramento rail yards.

Co-owner Gavin Maloof was in tears then during a joint announcement. The Sacramento City Council passed the deal in March, but by April, the Maloofs backed out, citing financial terms it considered onerous.

Stern was beyond furious. He believed he and the league had been humiliated. And Stern takes humiliation like a baby takes sandpaper diapers.

At the same time in Seattle, native son Chris Hansen was buying property, making friends and hustling up support for his arena proposal in SoDo, knowing full well the house politics in the NBA was working in his favor regarding the potential availability of the Kings. A source within the Hansen camp said there was a small shot at getting the Kings here by the start of the 2012-13 season. Arena events in Seattle did not move fast enough.

But Stern is working his sledgehammer magic now to get the Kings moving to Seattle after this season and before he retires — or at least having them on their way. Although he has met and likes Hansen, Stern has long been more impressed with one of his investors, Steve Ballmer, who runs a little software shop in Redmond.

“Stern is determined to get a franchise back into Seattle, league sources said,” Wojnarowski wrote. “He has become a strong ally of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s group to bring back the NBA there. Ballmer’s group has been trying to get the Maloof family to sell the Sacramento Kings, so that the franchise can eventually play in a new arena in Seattle.”

According to league sources, Stern’s plan for his vindication includes pressuring the Maloofs, who have adamantly refused to sell the team, to cave by freezing out the Kings from further NBA assistance as well as calling due notes from from the NBA’s line of credit. The Maloofs have reportedly borrowed many millions. And if necessary, Stern probably will doctor up unpleasant photos and tweets from the Maloofs.

Stern also will cajole Hansen and Ballmer into paying a record price for the franchise, which would give the Maloofs some cover in Sacramento by accepting an offer they couldn’t refuse, as well as helping float the boats of every existing franchise with an inflated value.

In the corporate world, that’s the sort of deal that earns and keeps the title of messiah. The league rids itself of clowns, gains participation of Microsoft, restores the Seattle market and hurts only Sacramento, where, unlike Seattle, it cannot be said that Stern didn’t make best efforts.

As Hansen and Ballmer dig deeper into their pockets while literally picking a fight with longshoremen and the baseball club over arena location, Stern flicks a little lint off his lapel, tugs at his cuffs and walks smiling into the sunset, encouraging everyone to ignore the noise behind him while they kneel to kiss his ring.

You’ve heard it’s good to be the king. Soon enough, it will be better to be Kings owners, and best to be the messiah.


YourThoughts

  • Matt712

    Ugh. The thought of having to accept the role of predator in order to obtain a team is distasteful enough. But to be complicate with Howard Stern and his agenda feels about like a Labrador retriever is complicate to the guy with the shotgun, now that we know what a rolled up newspaper to the snout feels like.

    With all due love and respect for Chris Hansen, I hope the Maloofs give Stern hell for the rest of his tenure or until Castro dies. It may be wishing upon a star, but I’d rather wait for expansion than accept a blessing from His Sternness. I feel dirty just thinking about it.

    • Matt712

      The word is ‘complicit’. Sorry. Auto-correct continues to be more of a curse than a blessing.

      • art thiel

        I also think you meant David Stern, but the idea of Howard Stern running the NBA is too glorious for my feeble brain.

        To your point, Matt: It is a slime fest. Having to bow in supplication to Stern, after his misconduct, is galling. And then to have the inevitable attaboys come his way for resolving Seattle, by people who did not have to live through the saga, doubles the gall. Then to pilfer another city as we were pilfered . . . The only hope is that Stern will be out of office by the time a team is shows up.

        • ron

          When Howard Schultz got tired of losing over $15 million a year running the Sonics in 2006, was there a local group or buyer willing to purchase the team from him? I ask because at the time of the sale Schultz said he would have taken a lesser offer from a local group, but there was none. In the six years since he made that statement, no one has contradicted Schultz on that.

          In a June 2012 interview with the Seattle Times, Peter Nordstrom stated there was no local group willing to buy he team from Schultz in 2006 because there was no clear path to success for a local ownership group.

          If there was no local group willing to buy the Sonics fom Schultz, did Stern get the best result he could have? At that point isn’t the team headed out of Seattle, unless the new owner likes losing over $15 million year indefinitely and had no other options? Was getting Bennett’s group to promise to stay even one year while Seattle worked on an arena solution better than what usually occurs in such situations, where the team is sold and immediately moved.

          I understand the anger of the Sonics fans for the loss of the team. Is directing that anger at Stern shooting the messenger for the message: the elements neede to support a NBA franchise, other than fan support, did not exist from 2006 to 2008 in Seattle.

          • Matt712

            Ron,

            You’re painting a very benign picture of what actually went on. Yes, Shultz had every right to sell the team, and naturally no one was going to step up to buy a losing franchise immediately because, as yet, there had been no threat of departure. But, by the time that threat had been established, there were several groups (including Balmer’s) trying to make something work. But also by that time, it was too late. Why? Because Clay Bennett never intended to keep the Sonics in Seattle from day one, and there was plenty enough evidence supporting this to win in a court of law. Instead, our civic leaders folded. The more galling thing is the deceit of the Oklahomans and, really, what can only be called deceit on the part of Shultz. I mean, c’mon… he sold the team to a city who’d tasted and loved the NBA while hosting New Orleans during the hurricane aftermath, had built a new arena, and had already been schmoozing Stern before they ever landed at Sea Tac. Your telling me the CEO of the one of the most successful franchises in the world couldn’t read that writing?

            Now, look at the Mariners. Do you think they deserve fan support right now. I think not. But that doesn’t mean we want them gone. It means we want them to fix their problems. Owning a pro sports team is much more than simply owning a business, because there is a huge element of public trust and civic stewardship involved. Howard Shultz abandoned that principle in this case. And David Stern not only facilitated it, he did so while publicly and loudly chastising the this city. It’s one thing to simply be the messenger. Stern was dubiously SO much more.

          • ron

            Is that analysis minimizing the importance of having local ownership willing to buy the team? Once no local ownership emerges in 2006, the only reason an out of towner stays is because he has no other place to move the franchise. Had there been no Clay Bennett, the team would have wound up in Kansas City, San Jose, or Vegas. It was not staying in Seattle without a local owner willing to absorb $15 million+ a year losses until Key Arena could be upgraded or replaced. No matter who Schultz sold to, the team would have left.
            It is easy to villify Schultz for selling, but in a city with lots of incredibly wealthy individuals, no single individual or group offered to switch places with him.
            I would agree that fan support was never the problem in Seattle. Sadly, fan support, by itself, is not enough to keep a pro sports franchise in a city.

            Stern had no power to force Schultz to continue owning the team. He also had no power to force a local group to buy the team from Schultz. Stern did not have any good options once Schultz decided to sell the Sonics.

            Stern also had no ability to force the people in the Seattle area to help publicly finance an arena. Even after Bennett’s group had filed for relocation, the state legislature failed to even bring up Ballmer’s plan for consideration, even though Ballmer offered to pay $150 million plus cost over-runs of a $300 million upgrade. Finally, it is not Stern’s fault there was no local group or individual willing to privately finance a new arena in Seattle.

            Again, blaming Stern seems like blaming the messenger for the message: the elements needed to support a NBA team, other than fan support, just weren’t present in Seattle from 2006 to 2008.

          • art thiel

            Ron, you miss the part about Schultz’s sense of entitlement to the public trough, not realizing that asking for public money to fund nearly all of a new arena in the Seattle of the 21st century was a dead man’s proposition ever since Tim Eyman managed to bully the Legislature into believing I-695 was good law.

            His ownership group had no chance with his plans, and everyone who knew a lick about politics told him so. The world changed on him and he failed to adapt. He bought a team in 2000 with a five-year-old arena that was becoming economically obsolete because of the NBA’s ridiculous compensation system. How is any of that the fault of Seattle?

          • ron

            Can’t blame Seattle for wanting private ownership to pick up most of the tab for any arena upgrade. Seattle may even be on the side of the angels in that regard.

            On the other hand, didn’t the opposition to public funding extend way past rejecting Schultz’s plan? Ballmer’s plan never even got considered.

            Isn’t that the tragedy of the Sonics relocation: everyone did what they thought was right, and it created a situation where, in 2006, no one in the Seattle area wanted to buy the Sonics from Schultz when he decided to sell.

            My heart goes out to the NBA fans in Seattle, who did everything they were supposed to do and the Sonics still relocated. Having said that, I have trouble seeing how Stern could have changed that outcome, as he could neither force Schultz to continue owning the team or force local buyers to take it off of Schultz’s hands. It sure seems like that without that local ownership group in 2006, the Sonics were headed out of town, although I may be simplifying the situation too much..

        • Matt712

          Ha! Put Howard Schultz, David Stern and a 22oz. bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale in my head, and what do you get?

  • Matt712

    Ugh. The thought of having to accept the role of predator in order to obtain a team is distasteful enough. But to be complicate with Howard Stern and his agenda feels about like a Labrador retriever is complicate to the guy with the shotgun, now that we know what a rolled up newspaper to the snout feels like.

    With all due love and respect for Chris Hansen, I hope the Maloofs give Stern hell for the rest of his tenure or until Castro dies. It may be wishing upon a star, but I’d rather wait for expansion than accept a blessing from His Sternness. I feel dirty just thinking about it.

    • Matt712

      The word is ‘complicit’. Sorry. Auto-correct continues to be more of a curse than a blessing.

      • art thiel

        I also think you meant David Stern, but the idea of Howard Stern running the NBA is too glorious for my feeble brain.

        To your point, Matt: It is a slime fest. Having to bow in supplication to Stern, after his misconduct, is galling. And then to have the inevitable attaboys come his way for resolving Seattle, by people who did not have to live through the saga, doubles the gall. Then to pilfer another city as we were pilfered . . . The only hope is that Stern will be out of office by the time a team is shows up.

        • ron

          When Howard Schultz got tired of losing over $15 million a year running the Sonics in 2006, was there a local group or buyer willing to purchase the team from him? I ask because at the time of the sale Schultz said he would have taken a lesser offer from a local group, but there was none. In the six years since he made that statement, no one has contradicted Schultz on that.

          In a June 2012 interview with the Seattle Times, Peter Nordstrom stated there was no local group willing to buy he team from Schultz in 2006 because there was no clear path to success for a local ownership group.

          If there was no local group willing to buy the Sonics fom Schultz, did Stern get the best result he could have? At that point isn’t the team headed out of Seattle, unless the new owner likes losing over $15 million year indefinitely and had no other options? Was getting Bennett’s group to promise to stay even one year while Seattle worked on an arena solution better than what usually occurs in such situations, where the team is sold and immediately moved.

          I understand the anger of the Sonics fans for the loss of the team. Is directing that anger at Stern shooting the messenger for the message: the elements neede to support a NBA franchise, other than fan support, did not exist from 2006 to 2008 in Seattle.

          • Matt712

            Ron,

            You’re painting a very benign picture of what actually went on. Yes, Shultz had every right to sell the team, and naturally no one was going to step up to buy a losing franchise immediately because, as yet, there had been no threat of departure. But, by the time that threat had been established, there were several groups (including Balmer’s) trying to make something work. But also by that time, it was too late. Why? Because Clay Bennett never intended to keep the Sonics in Seattle from day one, and there was plenty enough evidence supporting this to win in a court of law. Instead, our civic leaders folded. The more galling thing is the deceit of the Oklahomans and, really, what can only be called deceit on the part of Shultz. I mean, c’mon… he sold the team to a city who’d tasted and loved the NBA while hosting New Orleans during the hurricane aftermath, had built a new arena, and had already been schmoozing Stern before they ever landed at Sea Tac. Your telling me the CEO of the one of the most successful franchises in the world couldn’t read that writing?

            Now, look at the Mariners. Do you think they deserve fan support right now. I think not. But that doesn’t mean we want them gone. It means we want them to fix their problems. Owning a pro sports team is much more than simply owning a business, because there is a huge element of public trust and civic stewardship involved. Howard Shultz abandoned that principle in this case. And David Stern not only facilitated it, he did so while publicly and loudly chastising the this city. It’s one thing to simply be the messenger. Stern was dubiously SO much more.

          • ron

            Is that analysis minimizing the importance of having local ownership willing to buy the team? Once no local ownership emerges in 2006, the only reason an out of towner stays is because he has no other place to move the franchise. Had there been no Clay Bennett, the team would have wound up in Kansas City, San Jose, or Vegas. It was not staying in Seattle without a local owner willing to absorb $15 million+ a year losses until Key Arena could be upgraded or replaced. No matter who Schultz sold to, the team would have left.
            It is easy to villify Schultz for selling, but in a city with lots of incredibly wealthy individuals, no single individual or group offered to switch places with him.
            I would agree that fan support was never the problem in Seattle. Sadly, fan support, by itself, is not enough to keep a pro sports franchise in a city.

            Stern had no power to force Schultz to continue owning the team. He also had no power to force a local group to buy the team from Schultz. Stern did not have any good options once Schultz decided to sell the Sonics.

            Stern also had no ability to force the people in the Seattle area to help publicly finance an arena. Even after Bennett’s group had filed for relocation, the state legislature failed to even bring up Ballmer’s plan for consideration, even though Ballmer offered to pay $150 million plus cost over-runs of a $300 million upgrade. Finally, it is not Stern’s fault there was no local group or individual willing to privately finance a new arena in Seattle.

            Again, blaming Stern seems like blaming the messenger for the message: the elements needed to support a NBA team, other than fan support, just weren’t present in Seattle from 2006 to 2008.

          • art thiel

            Ron, you miss the part about Schultz’s sense of entitlement to the public trough, not realizing that asking for public money to fund nearly all of a new arena in the Seattle of the 21st century was a dead man’s proposition ever since Tim Eyman managed to bully the Legislature into believing I-695 was good law.

            His ownership group had no chance with his plans, and everyone who knew a lick about politics told him so. The world changed on him and he failed to adapt. He bought a team in 2000 with a five-year-old arena that was becoming economically obsolete because of the NBA’s ridiculous compensation system. How is any of that the fault of Seattle?

          • ron

            Can’t blame Seattle for wanting private ownership to pick up most of the tab for any arena upgrade. Seattle may even be on the side of the angels in that regard.

            On the other hand, didn’t the opposition to public funding extend way past rejecting Schultz’s plan? Ballmer’s plan never even got considered.

            Isn’t that the tragedy of the Sonics relocation: everyone did what they thought was right, and it created a situation where, in 2006, no one in the Seattle area wanted to buy the Sonics from Schultz when he decided to sell.

            My heart goes out to the NBA fans in Seattle, who did everything they were supposed to do and the Sonics still relocated. Having said that, I have trouble seeing how Stern could have changed that outcome, as he could neither force Schultz to continue owning the team or force local buyers to take it off of Schultz’s hands. It sure seems like that without that local ownership group in 2006, the Sonics were headed out of town, although I may be simplifying the situation too much..

        • Matt712

          Ha! Put Howard Schultz, David Stern and a 22oz. bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale in my head, and what do you get?

  • PokeyPuffy

    Interesting stuff, quite different from other recent public statements from Stern that were more negative. Perhaps Stern is managing expectations?

    • art thiel

      Stern will manage the situation to give him the greatest credit, no matter the cost to anyone.

  • PokeyPuffy

    Interesting stuff, quite different from other recent public statements from Stern that were more negative. Perhaps Stern is managing expectations?

    • art thiel

      Stern will manage the situation to give him the greatest credit, no matter the cost to anyone.

  • jafabian

    I’ve always felt for the NBA to come to Seattle that Stern had to go. His actions in handling the Sonics bid for an improved arena situation was counter to what he did elsewhere. He supported them moving to OKC but woudn’t let the Hornets leave New Orleans. He says the league isn’t interested in having any teams move but allows the Nets to move to Brooklyn. He wants a more international league but lets the Grizzlies move to Memphis. I get the impression he’s spinning his wheels.

    Personally, the Kings never should have left KC. Or Cincinnati for that matter. The Hornets never should have left Charlotte, the Jazz never should have left New Orleans and the Sonics…well, never mind. Hopefully Silver will be more upfront in his dealings with people and represent the league in a more honest, consistent manner that Stern. In the past 8 or so years Stern seems to deal more with politicing than managing the NBA. Like it was a game to him and he certainly was looking out for number one all the time.

    I agree that Stern seems as enamored with Ballmer as Clay Bennett is of Stern himself. I doubt they’d do it but the Maloof’s should take a page out of Chris Hansen’s book and bring in an Apple exec as a minority owner since that’s what’s needed to get on Sterno’s good side.

  • jafabian

    I’ve always felt for the NBA to come to Seattle that Stern had to go. His actions in handling the Sonics bid for an improved arena situation was counter to what he did elsewhere. He supported them moving to OKC but woudn’t let the Hornets leave New Orleans. He says the league isn’t interested in having any teams move but allows the Nets to move to Brooklyn. He wants a more international league but lets the Grizzlies move to Memphis. I get the impression he’s spinning his wheels.

    Personally, the Kings never should have left KC. Or Cincinnati for that matter. The Hornets never should have left Charlotte, the Jazz never should have left New Orleans and the Sonics…well, never mind. Hopefully Silver will be more upfront in his dealings with people and represent the league in a more honest, consistent manner that Stern. In the past 8 or so years Stern seems to deal more with politicing than managing the NBA. Like it was a game to him and he certainly was looking out for number one all the time.

    I agree that Stern seems as enamored with Ballmer as Clay Bennett is of Stern himself. I doubt they’d do it but the Maloof’s should take a page out of Chris Hansen’s book and bring in an Apple exec as a minority owner since that’s what’s needed to get on Sterno’s good side.

  • Tim

    Art–”The only hope is that Stern will be out of office by the time a team is shows up.”
    Yes, it is a slimy business, but wouldn’t the ultimate fan catharsis be the night Stern christened the new arena and welcomed back the Sonics? I think the noise would trump the King Dome’s glory days.

  • Tim

    Art–”The only hope is that Stern will be out of office by the time a team is shows up.”
    Yes, it is a slimy business, but wouldn’t the ultimate fan catharsis be the night Stern christened the new arena and welcomed back the Sonics? I think the noise would trump the King Dome’s glory days.