HOUSTON - NBA Commissioner David Stern had plenty to say about the ongoing Sacramento-Seattle saga during his state of the union address on Saturday night at the Toyota Center.
He reiterated that Seattle's agreement to buy the Kings and bring them to the Northwest was "strong," said the Board of Governors would decide between their pitch and Sacramento's at an April 18 meeting, and insisted that the toxic taste left in the NBA's mouth when they left Seattle for Oklahoma City in 2008 would have no bearing on the current efforts to bring the league back.
But as Sacramento mayor and former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson saw it, nothing that transpired during his visit to Houston this weekend or that was said by Stern dimmed the continued confidence he has in his efforts to keep his hometown team.
"No, (the weekend) just increased (his confidence)," Johnson told USA TODAY Sports before heading to his seat in the arena. "I'm focused, and I'm confident. Everybody we talk to, they're rooting for us - whether they're in the league or not. I feel like we can control our own destiny.
"We put our ownership group forward. We build a new arena, and our market speaks for itself. Those are three very strong components, and I feel like you can stack those up against anybody."
Johnson, who has spent the past three All-Star weekends making a pitch to keep the Kings in Sacramento, arrived at 6 a.m. on Friday and spent the next two days reminding anyone who would listen why his city's market is a better fit for the league than Seattle. The Seattle group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and hedge fund manager Chris Hansen has an agreement in place to buy 65% of the Kings from the Maloof family for approximately $341 million (a valuation of $525 million).
But as was previously reported by USA TODAY Sports, Johnson has been finalizing an ownership group that would include supermarket mogul and part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ron Burkle, and 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov. Johnson is expected to present his equity partners and a viable arena plan by March 1. Sacramento officials say the downtown arena plan constructed a year ago remains in place, as the NBA helped orchestrate the deal that was agreed on in principle by the Maloofs before they backed out last April.
Johnson refused to offer details on the nature of his discussions with owners and other influential parties in Houston, but his camp has recently focused on two aspects of their pitch where they see an edge: the arena component and the value of being the only major professional sports team in their town (the Sonics have four). While Seattle has a plan in place for a $490 million arena, potential obstacles remain unresolved relating to environmental impact studies and a lawsuit from the local Longshore Union. The Hansen-Ballmer group intends on having the team play in the former home of the Sonics, KeyArena, for two seasons until new arena is done.
"We have site control; we don't have lawsuits," Johnson said. "(The Sacramento arena plan) has already been approved by the NBA. These are facts that are undeniable.
"So I think when you look at economics, you look at the facts, and you look at the intangibles of our market, why in the world would the NBA want to give up a market that has been as good as ours - a top 20 TV market, which is real. And you have 100% of that market share. When you adjust market share in Seattle, or somewhere else, you've got to subtract three or four teams. All of that impacts the bottom line."
The irony, of course, is that Stern said the final decision wouldn't necessarily come down to that.
"I don't believe it's going to come down to economics because it's not about, OK, 'I say 525 (million), alright, I say 526," Stern said. "To me, that would be economics. I think the owners are going to have a tough issue to decide."
Asked how he interpreted Stern's comments regarding the economics, Johnson said, "I think it means that if both sides submit a competitive offer, then there are going to be other things that are going to have to be considered. If you look at the criteria and the guidelines for relocating a team, Sacramento is going to score very, very high in all those areas. It's just undeniable."
Stern, who was taking part in his last All-Star weekend before his scheduled retirement on Feb. 1, 2014, will advise the Board of Governors and the relocation committee on the final decision.
"Oh, certainly it's plausible to me (that the Kings stay in Sacramento), but I don't have a vote," Stern said. "But I expect that the owners have a very open mind on this. And it isn't plausible yet to talk about it until the predicates have been fulfilled."
While some had speculated that the NBA could persuade the Maloofs to take a deal in Sacramento while giving Seattle an expansion team, Stern seemed to dismiss that possible plan.
"I don't see any scenario where both cities are happy," Stern said before later elaborating on his expansion view. "There's a large group of owners who believe that expansion is an economic matter; is a neutral thing. At least the way we've done it to date, you get a lot of money in and in return for that you cut the new team in for a large and growing source of revenue from national TV, national licensing, and all things international and digital. And then it doesn't really seem to make that much additional sense as the increased revenue that demands to the gross (basketball-related income) and increased each player costs and the like.
"So it has to be parsed and analyzed but right now given that we've just come through an intriguing collective bargaining negotiation and coupled it with specific revenue sharing, over $200 million, I think the sentiment is to let it all settle and assess how we are doing and what the projections are for how we'll do."