OAKLAND Last week, a triumphant Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson announced a potential Kings purchase group had submitted a fair and competitive offer to keep the team in town. Friday night, NBA Commissioner David Stern said no, not quite.
Speaking to the news media before a Golden State Warriors game in Oakland, the commissioner delivered a bombshell, saying a Sacramento group's counteroffer to buy the team does not measure up in dollars to a tentative deal the Kings recently signed with a group that hopes to move the team to Seattle.
"The counter bid has got very strong financial people behind it, but it is not quite there in comparison to the Seattle bid," Stern said. "There is a substantial variance."
The commissioner declined to say how far short the Sacramento bid fell of the reported $341 million Seattle offer for a 65 percent share of the team.
Stern suggested the bid falls short enough that it likely won't be considered by the NBA unless the Sacramento group increases its offer.
But he quickly added that he has been in contact with the Sacramento group, led by 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and Southern California billionaire Ron Burkle, and said he believes the Sacramento group will increase its bid in the coming weeks.
Mastrov, a Bay Area resident, also attended the Warriors-Houston Rockets game Friday night, sitting courtside. Appearing unruffled, he told The Bee he is talking with league officials, but declined to discuss details of his bid, or whether he would increase it.
"I didn't hear what the commissioner had to say, but we're excited about the Kings, we are going to be aggressive," he said. "We are aiming to win the bid, but it is a long process. We have a long way to go. We are going to continue to work with the NBA."
Sacramento Mayor Johnson, attending the Kings game Friday night in Sleep Train Arena, took the commissioner's comments in stride.
"I said at the State of the City (speech last week) that we have a strong bid and a competitive bid and I still stand by that," he said. "We know how to grind wins out, and this is no different."
Johnson said Stern knows Sacramento is serious and will put together a solid bid, including an arena financing plan. Stern made a point at his news conference to laud the "herculean effort" Johnson and his group are making.
"He knows we're in the game, and I believe we're in the fourth quarter," the mayor said. "A lot of things are going to happen between now and then."
Stern said he has set up an April 3 meeting in New York to bring some league owners in to review where the bids stand. Stern described that meeting as "very important for both cities."
He said he wanted to use that meeting to sort through the two bids to avoid the "chaos" that has accompanied the Kings' situation in each of the last two years at the annual postseason board meetings in New York.
Those meetings are set this year for April 18 and 19. The league's board of governors is scheduled to vote on whether to accept the Seattle deal, made between the Maloof family, managing owners of the team, and a Seattle group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft head Steve Ballmer.
Stern said he will invite the mayors of the two cities and the two potential purchase groups to the April 3 meeting "if they have something to talk to us about."
Stern made his comments in a packed media press room in the bowels of Oracle Arena on one of his regular visits to league cities.
Although the setting was the Warriors' home court, the media discussion focused mostly on what Stern called the "unprecedented" situation in which two cities are going head to head to win an NBA team.
"We've never had anything like this, at least in the last 36 years that I'm aware of," he said.
The situation has prompted NBA attorneys to scour league bylaws to determine what steps to take, Stern said. Stern made it clear Friday night that he believes the NBA, not the outgoing team owners, retains the right to decide which city the team will play in.
"At the end of the day, it is for the board of governors to make the ultimate decision as to who the team will be sold to and where it will be located," he said. "I've spent a fair of number of years to establish that power and prerogative within the board of governors. If an ownership group has decided to exit our league, it doesn't retain the ultimate right to tell us where the team will be located. It is for the board of governors to decide."
Chris Lehane, the mayor's adviser, said he wasn't troubled by Stern's comments. "This is very typical of the process of acquiring a team," Lehane said.
Citing Mastrov and Burkle's financial credentials, and the city's commitment to build a new arena, he said, "I feel very confident about our chances of success as this process moves forward."
Stern hinted there may be more than one bid from people interested in keeping the team in Sacramento, but he did not mention names. He said he did tell current Kings minority owner John Kehriotis to "go for it," if Kehriotis feels he can mount a competitive bid. Kehriotis, who owns 12 percent of the team, told The Bee on Friday night he has the money he needs to bid for the team, but is still waiting to complete financing for a new arena. "Everything seems to be positive, I'm just waiting on the phone call" from investors, he said.
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.