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Steve Ballmer “on a rampage,” playing Russian Roulette with Seattle’s NBA future

May 14, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

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It has been said throughout the Sacramento Kings saga that the presence of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in Seattle’s ownership team has been a big plus as they seek to buy and relocate the team.

Worth $15 billion according to Forbes and ranked No. 51 on its billionaire list, he and Chris Hansen were called the “perfect prototype for an NBA owner” by David Stern shortly after the NBA relocation committee unanimously recommended to reject a move of the Kings to Seattle.

But now that Seattle’s advances have been rebuffed by the NBA, sources say it’s Ballmer that has taken on a larger role in decision-making for the Seattle ownership group. The polar opposite of the soft-spoken hedge fund manager in Hansen – Ballmer is known for being loud and outrageous. Vanity Fair ran a seething piece (Microsoft’s Lost Decade) last August detailing a violent incident and more.

Now that Ballmer has taken on a larger role with the Seattle group, league sources tell PBT that the same bravado he has employed with Microsoft is turning heads at the league office – and not in a good way. It’s no secret that Ballmer is a handful — but a well-connected and filthy rich handful that the NBA would love to have in its stable. At least that was the case. According to league sources speaking to PBT under condition of anonymity, the recent power plays made by Seattle and the Maloof family have “started to weigh on the NBA to the point where any Ballmer-led proposal now or in the future could fall on deaf ears if he doesn’t change course.”

When asked to clarify, the source said that should the Seattle group continue to pursue a scorched earth policy with the Sacramento marketplace, they would jeopardize the city’s ability to secure an NBA team down the road should an opportunity present itself.

When asked how Seattle got to that point, several sources with knowledge of the situation have told PBT that once they recognized the Sacramento bid was likely to meet league requirements, and ultimately secure the Kings, then decision-making for Seattle’s strategy and PR effort slowly shifted into Ballmer’s hands. That strategy has been at odds with the due process the NBA has been following, and recently it has been at odds with the NBA itself.

“He’s on a rampage,” said one source. “He assumed he could backdoor Sacramento with a willing partner in the Maloofs, but he underestimated Sacramento and now he thinks he can twist enough arms around the league to force his way into the association.”

As reported by multiple outlets, the Hansen-Ballmer group has chosen a curious route to team ownership by working primarily with the Maloof family and often with little-to-no communication with the league office. Conversely, the Sacramento group has worked directly with the league and had very little communication with the Maloof family, who have not ruled out selling to the Sacramento group but also have done everything possible to repel it.

Leading up to the NBA’s recommendation to deny relocation of the Kings to Seattle, the Seattle-Maloof group saw their first shift in public relations strategy. Leaks attacking the NBA, David Stern and the Sacramento group had been occurring with greater frequency, but the first shot across the bow at the NBA occurred when they ignored the league’s public and private statements and tried to force a bidding war.

They “voluntarily” raised their offer to buy the team by $16 million for a total of $357 million. This development was not seen as pivotal by the league, and the Sacramento group didn’t as much as blink when they stood pat with their originally matched offer of $341 million for the Maloof-controlled 65 percent stake.

The core of the Seattle-Maloof strategy was two-fold. First, they would seek to sell owners on the idea of a higher franchise valuation – a nebulous concept given the many intangibles of such measurements. Does an equal offer in both cities create better comps for owners if it’s accepted in a smaller market? Do the next purchasing owners even include this aberration of a situation in their valuations? Regardless of the merits of the strategy, throwing money at the issue has always been the Ballmer way.

The second and more important factor in increasing the bid, sources say, is that it raised the idea of a Maloof antitrust challenge should the family not be allowed by the NBA to sell to the highest bidder. League sources say that the NBA has planned for this contingency, and while the potential litigation would always play a role in their decision-making, the ammunition the league would have against the Maloof family in court has made this a mostly benign threat.

NBA.com’s David Aldridge reported this past week that Hansen is not interested in any legal challenges if his bid is rejected (no word on Ballmer). Nevertheless, the threat of a lawsuit would never come from a Seattle group that hopes to one day join the NBA. The antitrust threat, benign or not, starts with the Seattle group’s offer and draws a Family Circus style map for the Maloofs to posture with. Nothing more, nothing less.

In coordination with this threat, the Maloofs have made constant overtures that the league cannot force them to sell or tell them what to do. When asked about what the league would do if the Maloofs try to act against the league’s wishes, sources say the NBA has always reserved the right to use the ‘Best Interest of the League’ clause to remove the family from the league. Sources say this outcome is unlikely, however, because there is enough “natural leverage” to manage the situation without using it.

For one, the Maloofs cannot afford to run the Kings under normal conditions, let alone with an empty arena and no sponsors – something we’re told would not be held against the Sacramento market if the impossible scenario of them keeping the team came into play. The family is also indebted to the league to the tune of an estimated $150 million, and the family has done plenty of damage to the league’s reputation on the public subsidy front and in general.

“There are no shortage of claims to be made against the Maloofs should they stumble their way into court,” said a source speaking to PBT under conditions of anonymity.

Back in reality-land, Hansen’s announcement that he would “voluntarily” increase his bid was uncomfortable for the league, but because they had not gone public with a recommendation the strategy wasn’t seen as an affront to the league’s due process.

Any doubt about Seattle’s contempt for that process would eventually be erased once the league’s relocation committee unanimously recommended against a move to Seattle. Sources say it was at that point that Ballmer officially took control over the war room.

Immediately after the league’s announcement, an aggressive statement was put out by Hansen on the SonicsArena.com website stating that despite the NBA’s recommendation, they “fully committed to seeing (the) transaction through.”

“It was at that point that Ballmer put the league on notice,” said one league source. “Knowing that he could offer virtually anything with a decision on the Kings’ future all-but made, Ballmer has been dead-set on embarrassing the league by making them turn down a much higher offer.”

This past weekend the Seattle-Maloof group leaked news of an increased $406 million offer for the Maloof-controlled 65 percent stake of the team. They also leaked news that the Maloof family would not sell to the Sacramento group.

Lastly, they leaked a scenario in which 20 percent of the team would be sold to Hansen and Ballmer as a ‘backup’ bid in case their original bid for a majority stake was denied. The Seattle-Maloof group would supposedly work with the city of Sacramento on an arena deal in this impossible scenario – one that has drawn a collective eye-roll around the league. Sources with knowledge of the league’s thinking have called that scenario a “non-starter.”

In shades of past Maloofishness, the Sacramento Bee reported today that the family is still willing to consider the Sacramento offer. Whatever the case may be, league sources have consistently told PBT that not only do the Maloofs have practically no leverage in this situation, but they also have practically no chance of being NBA owners next season. Sources expect the family to accept Vivek Ranadive’s bid after the Seattle relocation bid is denied, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

With the NBA expected to eventually stand behind the Sacramento group, the larger issue being discussed in league circles is whether or not Ballmer and Seattle will follow the Maloofs off the NBA’s ledge. Their sneak attack attempt to procure Sacramento’s team was never well-received by the league, who would have rather seen the Maloofs conduct a good faith effort to sell the team locally. Even with Seattle holding Sacramento’s feet to the fire at every turn, sources say that there was never a point in time in which insiders thought Seattle had gone too far. After all, taking a team from a market that has done everything it needed to in order to keep the Kings is messy business.

Despite an all-out assault by Seattle to create an air of inevitability surrounding the relocation of the team, including reports that the NBA would quickly and overwhelmingly approve the move, and near daily leaks from Seattle-Maloof sources about make-believe problems with the Sacramento bid – the feeling around the league was that though the situation has been undesirable, once the ball was thrown in the air, all was fair in a basketball war.

As for Seattle, the strength of their ownership group, their oversold but actionable arena plan, and strong No. 12 TV market made them a shoo-in if the Sacramento group faltered. As we know now, Sacramento did not falter, but Seattle was certainly well-positioned for the future.

“(Seattle) was in the driver’s seat when it came to potential opportunities with the Bucks or whatever team might face arena or market troubles down the road,” said one league source. “If the league was going to consider expansion, you could have written Seattle’s name in ink to get a team.”

Now that Ballmer is leading Seattle down the path of conflict with the NBA, sources aren’t so sure.

“You don’t get into a knife fight with the NBA and then ask if you can come hang out in the clubhouse,” said one high-level source. “Ballmer is playing a game of Russian Roulette with SEA’s NBA future. He can’t throw money at the problem like this is Microsoft.”

Perhaps this is an unsolvable problem for the Seattle group – a zero-sum game and all participants have nothing to lose by going all-in. Perhaps they know that expansion is off the table.

With the way the local media has demonized David Stern and the NBA the average fan in Seattle is being told that they’re being screwed if Stern doesn’t rob Peter to pay Paul. Perhaps the Hansen-Ballmer group believes that the only thing that can satisfy the masses is the Sacramento Kings, or an iron-clad promise of expansion down the road. If you listen to the most strident voices in Seattle, they believe it’s time to spill blood in one gigantic last stand.

Sources say these realities are understood by the league, as is playing hard through the final whistle. “The league is more than willing to support Seattle in its bid for NBA basketball, but when they choose to trash an existing, supportive market in Sacramento and then set their sights on the logo, all bets are off.”

The NBA’s Board of Governors conducted a conference call on Monday and no changes were made to the relocation committee’s recommendation. The owners will see presentations by both groups on Wednesday with Jon Humbert of KOMO in Seattle reporting that a full vote will indeed take place.

  1. bnwpnw - May 15, 2013 at 1:29 AM

    Finally someone stood up and punched the Stern-Bennett-NBA bully back in the mouth. Bravo. Must have worked too because the NBA’s lap-dog “journalist” spinmeisters are working overtime, and word from other better-informed sources is that expansion may be back on the table.

    BTW, the only “contempt” shown here has been the NBA’s flagrant contempt for the nation’s #12 media market for the last five or so years. And the relationship that needs repair isn’t between Ballmer and a bunch of butthurt NBA basketball boys who wrote “no fighting back” into their own bylaws, but between the NBA and every single ex-fan in the Seattle market, which is probably going to be wary of the NBA for decades no matter how this turns out. (Remember to account for that in the media deal, folks.)

    Also, it merits note that the previous feeble Seattle ownership + government group that let the team get abducted by Bennett while Stern cackled with glee *did* decide to roll over and play nice at the 11th hour, and got nothing for it. Zero. Zilch. Zippo. Unless you count all the aforementioned contempt. If you’re gonna end up with nothing anyway, you might as well go down fighting.

  2. dbara43 - May 15, 2013 at 2:28 AM

    In other words, the league is trying to tell Hansen and Ballmer not to act like Bennett, Stern, and the rest of the NBA did 5 years ago when they stole our team and our championship trophy.

    Well I got news for ya buckos, these guys are not f-ing around. If the NBA doesn’t want to spend the next decade in court fighting off billion dollar lawsuits, anti-trust charges, and racketeering (which is a felony) then they better cough up an expansion team by Wednesday evening. Remember, we already have one major league team born out of a lawsuit, they’re called the Seattle Mariners, so we know our way around this wagon train.

    And one last thing, every time I hear about the loyal Sacramento fans I want to laugh. Where did they finish in attendance? DEAD LAST. No wonder the Maloof’s want out.

    • skaarjeff - May 15, 2013 at 5:33 AM

      THERE WAS NO LAWSUIT FOR THE MARINERS!!! Why is it everybody thinks the city sued to keep the Mariners in town? The Mariners stayed in town because Gary Locke successfully negotiated a deal between that guy who will not be named and Nintendo where Nintendo basically paid that guy to get lost if Locke and the city would build a new stadium to replace the kingdome. Paul Allen did the exact same thing with the Hawks and while we are at it because this is relevant to this article Ballmer tried to do the same thing with the NBA and the NBA just laughed at him so why the hell do you think Ballmer is doing this? Mr. Bruski do you really think Ballmer got to be the CEO of what is arguably the most powerful company in the world by taking no for an answer? HELL NO!!!! You see unlike the politicians the NBA was able to con back in 2008 Ballmer is a BUSINESSMAN, He knows what it takes to close the deal.

  3. cartecritique - May 15, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    Much like many here have said, these “sources” act like the Seattle group is just supposed to roll over after the league suggested against relocation. I don’t get it. The league wants to act like it’s perturbed that Seattle is still fighting for the team, yet the league, as always, fails to see its own culpability in creating this mess. If Stern had fought this hard to rightfully keep a team in Seattle 5 years ago instead of being dead set on helping his boy Bennett, he and the league wouldn’t have to worry about the potential embarrassment of turning down a much higher offer. This whole thing smacks of Stern and the league trying atone for sins of the past of wrongly moving a team that had a devout fan base (Seattle) by keeping the Kings in place. Of course, it can be argued that two wrongs of moving teams doesn’t make a right, but it’s all business at the end of the day. The Maloofs, as horrible as they’ve been in recent years as owners, should have the right o accept whatever offer they want. A bidding war for the franchise shouldn’t be seen as a negative and I’m surprised a bunch of greedy owners are viewing it that way. I also love how the “sources” throw in the whole “best interest of the league” BS. The Maloofs weren’t a detriment to the league when they were killing their own franchise, but now that the league has a vested interest in the outcome of the situation, it reserves the right to ditch the Maloofs if it sees fit (ala if they don’t do exactly as the league now wants). Ah, the hypocrisy. And if the league wants to be all pissy about the Seattle group leaking information, maybe they should stop trying to combat that by doing the same thing and giving birth to articles like this one. It’s pretty pathetic to see a bunch of middle aged billionaires act like children.

  4. yeti49 - May 15, 2013 at 2:08 PM

    Some people have complained about Hansen and Ballmer trying to influence the voting by making offers that are effectively bribes to the NBA. However, that is exactly what Sacramento did first by agreeing to forego any future revenue sharing. That was a direct bribe … and it was accepted by the committee. So now that Hansen is talking about paying a relocation fee, it is now suddenly “dishonest”. Hansen and Ballmer are only upping the ante in a game that Sacramento started (and kept secret until after they had bought the vote.)

    Stern and Bennett are the key individuals in this since Stern is the Commissioner and Bennett heads the committee. These are the same two people who worked to move the Sonics to start with. And did it underhandedly. Bennett bought the team stating that he had no intentions of moving it. (All though emails between him and his co-owners show that was a lie.) So Bennett brought in a poor coach, got rid of any experienced player with any talent (for draft picks that later helped in OKC) and the team tanked. He deliberately torn it apart and the team had the worst two years in franchise history. So the attendance dropped for a team that was obviously trying not to win and for an owner who clearly wanted to move it. Then he and Stern went to the NBA owners and said the city was not supporting them and got permission to move. They “took a dive” and it worked. Oh, and by the way, Bennett is far from objective since if Seattle does not get a team THIS YEAR he receives sole possession of the history, memorabilia, etc of the franchise. Yet he was allowed to remain in a position of influence in the Sacramento/Seattle decision.

    Hansen and Ballmer ARE playing hardball now. The NBA forced it. That’s how the NBA works and that is how they took the Sonics. They have said Seattle “deserves” a team. Right. But they say expansion is not possible. So the only course left is to get a team from somewhere else.

    I thought at the beginning that it would be crazy to move this mess to the courts if the NBA thwarted the deal because it would result in Seattle never getting a team. As the article stated, you’ll never get invited to join the club. But if they aren’t getting a team anyway, who cares? Hansen and Ballmer should sue to get there expenses back and perhaps raise some antitrust issues. Maybe it is time that professional sports gets taken down a notch. And a little revenge would be nice.

  5. yeti49 - May 15, 2013 at 2:12 PM

    “playing Russian Roulette with Seattle’s NBA future”? What future? They have already ruled out expansion. If this doesn’t work we are SOL for probably 15-20 years. It is either now or never.

  6. jeffpatneaude - May 15, 2013 at 2:31 PM

    This is nothing more than cheap propaganda aimed at undermining the Seattle group before the vote. This has ZERO corroboration and no direct quotes from someone reputable. “Sources say” “One league source said” “Said one high level source” Are you kidding me? This is an article we’re supposed to believe even though it reads like a press release from the CIA? I can write a hell of an article if every source I quote is anonymous. All of a sudden I’m full of facts and inside information. By the time we realize the league has exaggerated and lied to try to undermine the Seattle group it will be after the vote and Aaron Bruski will be forgotten as he blogs for UC Davis. Obviously the league is going to be mad at Ballmer because he isn’t rolling over when they tell him to. Seattle has waited patiently due to this same threat from the NBA for the past 5 years. Do you honestly believe if Ballmer/Hansen stop, the league will just say, “Okay now that you’re giving up nicely we can give you an expansion team.” No way. And what reason would we have to think that the Bucks or any other team would be different than Sacramento? Seattle has waited long enough after having their team ripped from them amid shady backdoor deals from the head of the relocation committee, Clay Bennett(conflict of interest anyone?). Everyone conspired against them(see Sonicsgate!) but Seattle stayed quiet like a battered dog hoping to get a bone thrown their way by the almighty Association. Then the Seattle group went through the process the league provided on how to get a team back and here we are, getting screwed by Stern once again. This is nothing more than a baseless threat by the all powerful NBA who has bullied people around during the entire Stern regime. And Stern talks about how Sacramento deserves a team due to their 28 years of loyalty? I’m sorry but if we’re rewarding teams for loyalty how about the 41 years that Seattle gave to the NBA? Oh and it was their team the whole time, unlike Sacramento who stole their team from Kansas City after trying to take the Pacers out of Indiana. I hope people realize this is just a pathetic last ditch effort by Stern and Bennett to keep their ego intact. Sorry Sacramento but it’s your turn.

    • Kurt Helin - May 16, 2013 at 2:18 AM

      If you think a media article would impact what the owners think, you don’t get them.

  7. Paul H. Curtis - May 16, 2013 at 8:42 AM

    It’s almost as if Bruski is acting as a stenographer for league “sources” who want to continue manipulating and using Seattle. This is a sorry excuse for journalism.

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