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Kings fiasco another look into the ugly art of NBA deal-making

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The Maloofs backed out of a deal with the city of Sacramento, leaving its mayor befuddled. (Getty Images)  
The Maloofs backed out of a deal with the city of Sacramento, leaving its mayor befuddled. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- After another post-lockout Board of Governors' meeting Friday, David Stern's NBA was both a shining city on a hill and a steaming, burned out carcass of a broken-down car abandoned on the side of a two-lane country road. It all depended on your perspective.

New Orleans rejoiced over the news that the NBA has relinquished ownership of the Hornets and transferred the franchise to Saints owner Tom Benson, whose problem the team just became for the low, low price of $338 million. It was the kind of yuck-fest you'd expect, and credit certainly was due to those who worked so hard to keep the team in New Orleans, where the NBA so far has twice failed to conduct basketball business.

"Tom, welcome to the NBA," Stern said to Benson in a conference room at the St. Regis Hotel on 55th Street. "You're one player away!"

Badump-tish! Aren't we all.

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But whereas hope is for sale once again in New Orleans -- not to mention Brooklyn, whose adoption of the Nets was formally approved -- despair shifted to the city of Sacramento, whose mayor, Kevin Johnson, was incredulous after the Maloofs backed out of the financing deal for a new downtown arena for the Kings. The tone and dumbfounded expression that Johnson brought with him to a press conference hall at the St. Regis Friday -- I've heard and seen both before. Mayor Johnson and Derek Fisher, the president of the NBA Players Association, hereby became kindred spirits. Over 149 days of the lockout last summer and fall, I saw and heard Fisher in similar condition.

"It doesn't add up for me," Johnson said.

Welcome to the wild, nonsensical world of negotiation in the NBA, where nothing ever seems to add up.

I was hardly involved in the negotiations and didn't follow them as closely as the labor talks that dragged on and on in similar settings. There was some back and forth about certain concerns the Maloofs had not being relayed properly from the NBA negotiators to the city. I wasn't copied on those emails.

But I'm comfortable presuming that Johnson was well founded in hinting that the Maloofs backing out of the deal Friday was part of the plan all along -- and meant, essentially, Johnson said, "They don't want to be in Sacramento." Why they agreed to a deal during All-Star weekend in Orlando, and subsequently celebrated it on the court at Power Balance Pavilion -- arms raised and elbows linked with the mayor -- is beyond me.

And beyond the mayor.

"How in the world and why would we all be doing that if there was not an agreement?" Johnson said.

There was a deal -- non-binding, the Maloofs and commissioner David Stern reminded everyone -- and the city was presented with a laundry list of concerns from the Maloofs at the 11th hour. The city had done the impossible, coming up with $255 million in public investments and future revenue streams, and there was no more from whence that came.

"Maybe that was part of it," Johnson said. "Maybe the Maloofs didn't even think we'd be able to pull it off, and we did, and they were like, 'Holy Moly.'"

Maybe that was it. Or maybe the Maloofs don't have the financial wherewithal to go through with the deal, as Johnson also hinted Friday. Or maybe, despite their continued assertions that they want to stay in Sacramento, this was their wiggle room to get out -- to find greener, richer pastures as part of the NBA's tried-and-true pastime of franchise relocation.

"Is a deal dead, as we know it? Absolutely," Johnson said. "Are there next steps that are clear in terms of a downtown arena with the Maloofs as the owners of the Sacramento Kings? I don't see it happening. I don't see how it can happen."

What a juxtaposition for the NBA, for Benson's purchase of a league-owned, debt-saddled franchise that itself had been relocated from Charlotte to be announced on the day when the clock started ticking on the Kings' exit from Sacramento.

"It just feels like they were coming up with reasons why not to do the deal," Johnson said. "That's what it felt like."

Sure was.

So the gears of the NBA's musical franchise machine grind into action again. On the sidewalk out on 55th Street, Thunder owner Clay Bennett had politely declined comment before climbing into a black Escalade after the conclusion of two days of owners' meetings. Bennett, who's familiar with this very dance having moved the SuperSonics from Seattle to Oklahoma City, would appear to have his work cut out for him again. Bennett is the chairman of the owners' relocation committee.

"Can't discuss it," Bennett said, before stepping off the curb.

Johnson said he wanted the same team with the same owners, but would take the same team with new owners or a new team with new owners if given the choice. In truth, he should tell them all to get lost.

The old point guard-turned-skilled politician had been in New York a year ago this month to ask NBA owners to give him a year to put together an arena plan -- and funding -- for Sacramento. He staked his political capital and his fiduciary duty to the taxpayers on it, and he pulled it off. A lot of people in Sacramento, not least of all fans of the Kings, should be proud.

If there's a silver lining, it's simply this: If and when the Maloofs pack up the Kings and move them somewhere else, there will be no shortage of woebegone franchises ready to fill the void. Amid another presentation from Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver about the ever-skyrocketing metrics for their sport, there are teams still suffering -- some of them, like the Bucks, in dilapidated buildings in parts of the country with no appetite for providing any more free rides to sports owners. Finally, cities and states are prioritizing garbage pickup over subsidies for sports owners who want to pay little or none of the cost but reap all the revenues.

In Johnson, the Maloofs and the NBA ran into a man with both the gift for public speaking and the substance to back it up. They ran into a politically gifted, right-thinking hombre who got stuck in another NBA-style negotiating holdup and didn't cave.

"We can't do more than we've done," Johnson said. "It's impossible. ... If $255 million of a public investment is not enough, there's not anything else that we can do."

The NBA, for its part, washed its hands of the Sacramento problem Friday when Stern proclaimed it a problem for the city and for the Maloofs to resolve.

"This is a situation that the Maloofs will have to make judgments on and the city will have to make judgments on," Stern said. "I think we've done as much as we can do."

At least until the next one of these fiascos. If nothing can be done to save the Kings in Sacramento, who will save the Bobcats? The Grizzlies? The Bucks? And perhaps one day again, the Hornets?

This was how it went Friday for the NBA, another glimpse behind the curtain at how the sausage is made. It was a shining city on a hill vs. the burning abandoned carcass kind of day. The Hornets are saved, Brooklyn will be great, business is booming -- and just wait until we put ad logos on the jerseys in a couple of years and get an even better labor deal with the players in 2017.

If it makes the folks in Sacramento feel any better, Silver revealed Friday that the NBA -- which was losing, you will remember, $300 million a year during the previous labor deal -- will lose a little less this season and is projected to be profitable next year.

The Kings? Sacramento?

That's where all the smoke was coming from Friday, blotting out the NBA's bright, sunny day.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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