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The High Road

Being gracious has not gotten Seattle an NBA team, we must fight for one.

Kevin Johnson wants Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen to "be gracious" and go about their business. As "poachers" he believes that the group has less of a right to defend their contractual agreement than he had to fight for his cities incumbent position.

Johnson's comments are disrespectful and rude. I cannot imagine the outrage that would have resulted if a Seattle official had uttered similar comments urging Johnson and his entourage to just give up two months ago when Hansen clearly had control of the situation with a binding contract to purchase the team and a procedural window of time separating him from the final vote. The comments make me wish that our ownership team had been more aggressive in their commentary. When Darrell Steinberg made the ludicrous suggestion that California should boycott Microsoft products was that gracious?

Ballmer should have issued a statement reading simply, "I dare you."

The NBA's poor handling of this situation dating all the way back to 2006 has created this mess. Hansen's group has worked in good faith to establish a transaction that they felt satisfied all of the NBA requirements. With the cooperation and implied consent of the league they made an offer that raised the value of NBA franchises, rescuing the Kings from a bad situation that had no hopes of timely resolution until Hansen's arrival only to have David Stern insert himself into the situation, sabotaging the transaction in a manner which just happens to extort a particularly excessive government subsidy from his accomplice Kevin Johnson.

There is nothing gracious about the way Stern led Hansen on in the transaction, only to leverage his resulting offer into a pillage of Sacramento. It was decidedly less than gracious for the owners to accept Johnson's bribe, selling their votes in exchange for a return of revenue sharing funds that were intended to maintain the competitive balance of the league. Least gracious of all are their not-so-subtle efforts to bully Ballmer into backing out of this fray. The NBA is exerting enormous pressure in the hope that he and Hansen will cave, rescinding their offer to purchase the team in order to avoid a vote on the separate matter of team ownership.

Voting to deny a group of qualified buyers who are willing to pay the highest price in NBA history for the franchise is a really unpleasant option for the league's owners. In addition to being a tremendous personal and professional insult to the "prototypical team owner," this action risks exposing the league to antitrust litigation which has the potential to reveal the details of decades of questionable business practices to both the public and the municipalities with which they frequently partner.

Antitrust has historically played a key role in franchise relocation attempts. In Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum v. NFL, 726 F.2d 1381 (9th Cir. 1984) ("Raiders I"), the Ninth Circuit upheld a jury finding that the NFL had committed an antitrust violation by prohibiting the Oakland Raiders from relocating to LA. The Raiders I case was followed by NBA v. San Diego Clipper Basketball Club, 815 F.2d 562 (9th Cir. 1987) which the NBA had demanded an injunction to prevent the Clippers from unauthorized relocation to LA but settled the case when it became clear that the Clippers were committed to their course of action and willing to go the distance. The league avoided the public showdown and the Clippers were allowed to relocate after paying league assessed fines and agreeing to drop their $25M lawsuit against the league.

Like Charles Oakley complaining about hard fouls, David Stern is attempting to divert attention away from his own actions, spanning nearly 8 years by shifting accusations of unacceptable behavior over to the Steve Ballmer group. Just as they did in 2008 the league is letting it be known far and wide that forcing the NBA into a vote on ownership is in poor taste and any thought of litigation is so radically aggressive that it will end any future hopes of team ownership.

Ballmer should not concern himself with the situation's potential ugliness. NBA owners are businessmen who possess the ability to recover from professional conflict. Additionally Stern's retirement scheduled just 8 months from now offers them a convenient opportunity for a fresh start. Regardless of the outcome of this transaction Ballmer will remain a massively influential business associate and league sponsor, while Stern's influence will drop substantially. As a dislikable former employee with a large enough personality and public presence he offers the perfect scapegoat for any of the leagues previous failings.

I am confident that disclosure of the league's general business practices including team ownership, collective bargaining, and regional arena negotiations will be unpleasant for the NBA board of governors but in particular will reflect poorly on the actions of their commissioner. They will choose not to take ownership or responsibility for actions that occurred under Stern's leadership and instead come to the realization that when this story is finally told Stern, not Ballmer will be the consistent figure who connects all the pieces. Stern is the man whose vindictive behavior will stand out from the crowd. By exposing his heavy-handed handling of government officials litigation will strain relationships and potentially expose valuable political allies of the league to significant repercussions. When that happens Stern's inconsistent handling of the Oklahoma City move will rise up to haunt the league. His legacy of cronyism and bullying will be all the incentive owners need to throw him under the bus the moment he loses his absolute power, disavowing his actions and preserving valuable Seattle relationships.

If Ballmer and Hansen were to step aside quietly it would be implied that their behavior was out of line. They are being offered the opportunity to "be gracious" instead of quitting. They have made it clear that they will not take that offer, choosing instead to fight for the contract they have in place and daring league owners to choose a short timer like Stern over the long term relationships they represent.

I am looking forward to seeing the league be gracious when explaining their behavior during the combined Oklahoma City/Seattle/Sacramento saga. I welcome Kevin Johnson and Darrell Steinberg's opportunity to explain the levels to which they had to stoop to appease Stern's demands and look forward to hearing what kind of sweetheart political incentives they had to offer to attract buyers to a transaction that makes no business sense.

Being gracious has not gotten us anywhere. Instead of grace I am hoping for honesty, candor and full disclosure. If that happens we will see whose reputations are forever tarnished as a result. I'm betting it will be the former employee who has nothing further to offer except baggage.