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Ailene Voisin: Kings' fate in Sacramento's hands

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:09 am

Lenny Wilkens is about as close to Seattle SuperSonics royalty as there is. (Or was.) He played for the Sonics, coached the Sonics, operated the Sonics, and when it became apparent the new ownership group was relocating the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, he quit the Sonics, saying he wasn't interested in helping someone steal away with his team.

But he isn't interested in stealing someone else's team, either.

Build an arena, says the Hall of Famer, and they will come. Maybe the NBA. Maybe the NHL. Maybe expansion teams from both leagues.

"I'm on the committee that is trying to get this (new arena) done," Wilkens said from his home in Seattle, "but we're not going after anybody's team. The key is to do the building. Once you get a shovel date, then you start thinking about getting a team, seeing who is available. All this talk about getting an NBA team here is premature."

True, but this has been an eventful week for suffering NBA fans in Seattle. While Sacramento inches forward in its best and latest attempts to produce a workable financing plan for a $387 million sports and entertainment complex in the downtown railyard, groups in Seattle and Anaheim are monitoring the developments here. They are trying to wrest an invitation to the dance, and many undoubtedly are hoping the deal fails and the Kings become players on the NBA's Monopoly board.

For a variety of reasons – including the fact the Honda Center is adequate and can accommodate a second anchor tenant, and that the Maloofs have no intention of selling – Anaheim represents the most serious and immediate threat to the Kings. That hasn't changed, though the recently announced $20 million planned upgrade sweetens like a piece of candy.

In Seattle, neither the price tag nor the reality of the situation (Kings not for sale, arena not yet built) seems to be hampering the city's renewed enthusiasm for a franchise. On Thursday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn unveiled a proposal for an arena that would be financed with $290 million from private investors and another $200 million in construction bonds. The public investment would be recouped through rent and existing tax revenue streams, including sales, property and business-and-occupation fees generated by the arena.

But there is no escaping the chicken/egg debate or, for that matter, dissenting opinions. While Wilkens believes a facility should be constructed before NBA or NHL tenants are pursued, investor Christopher Hansen wants to first buy an NBA team and secure an NHL franchise as an anchor tenant, and won't proceed without assurances that his goals are attainable.

"And we're not going to put our money in until he's put his money in," King County Executive Dow Constantine told the Seattle Times.

In other words, the status quo remains the status quo. Sacramento controls its destiny. If the City Council on Feb. 28 votes to approve the selected parking bids that are expected to generate approximately $200 million toward arena construction, the plan will move toward the next step (gap financing), and Seattle and Anaheim and Kansas City will start chirping about some other city's team, or perhaps even an expansion team.

Particularly in Seattle, passion for the NBA remains high. The pain of 2008 has been dulled, but it hasn't disappeared. History has a way of sticking around. The Sonics were one of the league's elite franchises for 41 years. They won six Pacific Division titles, appeared in 22 playoffs and, with Wilkens as head coach, captured the 1979 NBA championship.

"You win a title," Wilkens continued from his home, "and the team leaves. That was tough. When the new ownership (Clay Bennett) group came in (2006) and I saw the writing on the wall, I got uninvolved because I wanted no part of the Sonics moving."

A Hall of Famer who also coached in Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto and New York, Wilkens has closely followed the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant. He is less familiar with the Kings' personnel and asked for an update on arena negotiations.

"I already feel bad for what people are going through down there," he said. "I hope they get it done. I know Kevin (Johnson) is trying real hard. Here, we'll get an arena and get another team, whether it's the NBA or NHL. It will just take time. And the thing about Seattle is that while everybody misses basketball, we've still got baseball (Mariners), football (Seahawks), soccer (Sounders), outdoor sports and the University of Washington."

Sacramento has … the Kings.

"Yeah," added Wilkens, "that would be hard."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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