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Could mayor KJ's fight for Kings set him up as Hunter's replacement?

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Ex-Sun Kevin Johnson's name has come up as a replacement for Billy Hunter as the head of the NBPA. (Getty Images)
Ex-Sun Kevin Johnson's name has come up as a replacement for Billy Hunter as the head of the NBPA. (Getty Images)

Kevin Johnson has done the impossible, something he and Charles Barkley couldn't do in the 1993 NBA Finals, which I was watching on NBA TV the other day.

Beating Michael Jordan and the Bulls as a member of that Phoenix Suns team? The one that saved its season and put a scare into His Airness with a dramatic, triple-overtime victory in Game 3? That was not happening. And so it would be with Johnson's inevitable failure in his relentless quest to keep the Kings from leaving Sacramento.

Or so it seemed.

Johnson is in triple-OT once again, this time as the two-term mayor from Sacramento -- the mayor of a city that won't give up, won't go quietly in the face of the latest franchise relocation threat on David Stern's watch. However this turns out, Johnson already has done more than anyone could have expected. He's stared the Kings' inevitable departure dead in the eyes three times now, and nobody should have any doubts about his propensity to blink.

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Kevin Johnson, it should be noted, will not blink.

Many important people have taken note of Johnson's political skill and gravitas during this endless saga. The owners who were hoping to be spared the villain role if a vote for Seattle came in the face of no reasonable Sacramento alternative now have a mess on their hands. It's the worst possible mess, to choose between Seattle, which is still scarred from the Sonics' departure for Oklahoma City in 2008, and Sacramento, which deserves better -- deserves to be rewarded for Johnson's herculean efforts to keep the Kings.

From Johnson's vantage point, it's a perfect storm -- a mess so appealing to the eye that he should be forgiven if he wanted to step back and admire his handiwork. Go ahead, owners: Pull the rug out from under Seattle with one hand or stab Sacramento in the back with the other. Your choice. Nice cufflinks, by the way!

The uncomfortable corner into which Johnson has backed the owners on the combined advisory finance and relocation committees -- and eventually, every last one of them on the full Board of Governors in April -- represents the kind of political will and preparedness for the big moment that the players could've used during the most recent round of collective bargaining. Billy Hunter, removed last month in disgrace as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, always faced an uphill battle because the owners had all the leverage. But throughout the lockout, the players were always in capitulation mode, always one move behind. Johnson's leadership on Sacramento has shown the league and the owners a different kind of adversary.

In fact, Johnson's name has come up in the tight circle of those contemplating who would be a viable replacement for Hunter as the next head of the NBPA, two league sources with knowledge of the discussions told CBSSports.com. People active in the union have been inquiring privately as to whether Johnson would be interested in being considered once his second mayoral term is up in 2016 -- one year before the owners or players can opt out of the current CBA.

Johnson declined to comment recently when asked about whether such a job would appeal to him and has told associates he wouldn't even contemplate such a thing until he sees the struggle for the Kings to the finish line.

If you ask me -- and nobody did or ever does -- the idea of Johnson bringing his political agility and resourceful leadership to the players' fight in the next round of bargaining has merit.

As the union prepares for an executive search firm to compile the list of candidates to replace Hunter, those with labor law experience should be at the top of the list. Another name that has surfaced is that of sports attorney David Cornwell, who was a finalist for the NFLPA executive director job that ultimately went to DeMaurice Smith. Cornwell has now become a dissident force when it comes to the NFLPA, rabble-rousing NFL agents in a revolt against Smith.

But in some respects, the lawyering should be left to the union's internal and outside legal staffs -- the bookish bulldogs who are neither seen nor heard -- with someone of Johnson's persuasive powers serving as the front man and staying one step ahead of the owners in the public arena. There would be a couple of strikes against a possible Johnson candidacy, however.

First, it's one thing to form a coalition of willing participants with the same goal to deliver on a proposal in which they'd all benefit -- such as Johnson has done in presenting Mark Mastrov, Ron Burkle and fellow investors as a viable alternative to the Hansen-Ballmer group that would move the Kings to Seattle. Representing the players' interests in a labor dispute, when those interests vary widely depending on income and standing within the league, would be another challenge entirely. Also, Johnson is not remembered by those who sat on both sides of past labor fights as having been particularly involved in the union during his career.

Second -- and this one's a doozy -- what if Mayor KJ ultimately loses the fight to keep the Kings? On one hand, it would be through no fault of his own. As he said Thursday night in his state of the city address, "Every time the NBA put a challenge in front of us, not only did we step up, we over-delivered." But what if, in this case, Johnson simply stepped in front of a sucker punch? What if the owners are simply going to do to him what they did to Hunter during the lockout -- use him to get a better deal for themselves?

By my estimates, an offer from Mastrov and Burkle to buy the team for something north of $425 million would put more money in the Maloofs' pockets than the Seattle deal because the city of Sacramento's $70 million loan wouldn't have to be repaid and there would be no relocation fee. That fee was $30 million when the Sonics moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City.

But the owners are not bound to a $30 million relocation fee; they get to name their price. And according to a person who has participated in some of those discussions, a fee of as much as $75 million has been mentioned internally. That would change the game, and not necessarily in Sacramento's favor.

The bigger the relocation fee, the better the Sacramento deal would look to the Maloofs. Also, the better the Seattle deal would look to the other 29 owners, who would share the relocation fee. The Maloofs' lint-lined pockets aren't the only ones that matter here. And it's quite possible that the owners will simply use Johnson's eagerness to step up with a reasonable Sacramento alternative as a way to jack up the relocation fee they demand from Hansen and Ballmer. It's the same kind of shell game that left Hunter and union president Derek Fisher dumbfounded at every turn during the lockout.

Ah, it's great to be an owner.

"Financially, there's no economic benefit to the owners staying in Sacramento, especially if they think the Seattle market is more viable," said the person involved in ownership discussions. "This is a way [for owners] to pick up some money without having to do anything. And your fellow owner gets taken care of because he gets his price."

If that's how this baby ultimately will be split, the result will be heartache for Sacramento and another crushing, triple-overtime loss for Johnson. And if so, Johnson will learn what Hunter always knew about dealing with owners: They have all the leverage and always get the last word.


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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