The epic fight over the Sacramento Kings ended quietly Tuesday.
The NBA board of governors unanimously approved the franchise's sale to the group led by Vivek Ranadive, essentially ending the Maloof family's turbulent tenure as Kings owners. The league announced the vote in a simple, one-paragraph news release.
Experts said the peaceful conclusion to a battle that has lasted since January was a tribute to the NBA's skillful navigation through the process a result of lessons learned during previous, bloodier disputes over franchise control.
The NBA was able to snuff out the possibility of legal challenges, despite speculation that the Maloofs or their prospective business partners in Seattle were going to sue the league if they didn't get their way.
"Thirty years ago, this wouldn't have ended so calmly," said Mike McCann, a sports law expert and contributor to NBA TV.
The vote by the board of governors came 13 days after the same group rejected the Maloofs' plan to sell the Kings to Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer, who would have moved the team to Seattle. With that deal vetoed, the Maloofs cut a deal a day later with the Ranadive group. Tuesday's vote ratified the Maloofs' decision.
"Done!" Ranadive said in a post on Twitter. "Thanks to entire NBA for approving sale of Kings to our organization." The Silicon Valley executive will have to relinquish his minority stake in the Golden State Warriors.
A spokesman for the Maloofs, Eric Rose, said the family will withhold comment until Friday, when the sale process is expected to be completed.
Experts said the Kings saga while long and painstaking was much more civil than previous relocation fights.
The Seattle SuperSonics had to settle a nasty lawsuit with the city of Seattle over their arena lease before the team could move to Oklahoma City in 2008. In 1994, when the league blocked the proposed relocation of the Minnesota Timberwolves to New Orleans, the NBA felt compelled to sue the New Orleans investors as a pre-emptive strike.
Perhaps the craziest case of all came in 1984, when the San Diego Clippers moved to Los Angeles without even asking for the NBA's permission. Caught unprepared, the NBA was able to squeeze a multimillion-dollar court settlement out of Clippers owner Donald Sterling but couldn't reverse the relocation.
"Holy cow, was that a mess," said Irwin Raij, a sports attorney in New York, referring to the Clippers' situation. "Look at that, and look at the process today completely different."
Decades ago, sports leagues had few rules governing relocation, and the result was chaos. The Clippers' move came two years after Al Davis' Oakland Raiders openly defied the NFL in order to move to Los Angeles. What's more, Davis successfully sued the league on antitrust grounds, with a jury concluding that the NFL was guilty of anti-competitive behavior by trying to block him.
Since then, leagues have moved to inoculate themselves against such legal challenges by setting up strict methodologies for determining whether a team should be moved or sold. The NBA has pages of guidelines on how relocation proposals must be evaluated, including attendance, population size and owners' stewardship of the franchise.
When it came to the Kings, Raij said NBA Commissioner David Stern set out criteria Sacramento had to meet to keep the team from going to Seattle.
Once the city met those standards a competitive counteroffer for the team, and a credible financing plan for a new, NBA-worthy arena Raij said the pieces fell into place for the Kings to remain in Sacramento. The vote two weeks ago to block the Seattle deal was 22-8.
"They established a very clear-cut process and they followed it," said Raij, a one-time member of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's arena task force. "The league knew what it was doing."
While that might have seemed unfair to basketball fans in Seattle, the parameters made sense for the league. In particular, Raij said, it would have posed a "business risk" for the NBA to reject Sacramento after the city offered a substantial public subsidy for an arena.
The $448 million arena deal includes a $258 million subsidy, although critics of the project say the true subsidy is higher.
McCann said the Seattle investors had very little legal leverage against the league. The NBA has made it clear that anyone trying to buy a team needs league approval both to complete the purchase and move the franchise. In effect, McCann said the Hansen-Ballmer group waived its legal rights when it made the deal in January with the Maloofs.
"When you bid for a team, you consent that the league has final say," McCann said.
Hansen, speaking to Seattle radio station KJR on Tuesday, said he never seriously considered suing the league.
"Do you really think suing the NBA would be the best route to get a team back here? I don't think getting in a protracted legal bout is going to solve anything."
For their part, the Maloofs raised the specter of litigation against the NBA a year ago, when they brought an antitrust lawyer to represent them at a crucial board of governors meeting in New York. That meeting ended with the Maloofs abandoning a tentative arena deal in Sacramento a move that angered Stern.
This time around, co-owner George Maloof was quick to rule out litigation. After the board of governors voted to kill the Seattle deal, he said he thought the NBA had treated the family fairly.
The Maloofs and their business partner Bob Hernreich will pocket around $236 million after selling the team to the Ranadive group. Hansen and Ballmer would have paid them $241 million.
The gap would have been considerably higher except that the $236 million payout includes a $30 million nonrefundable deposit from Hansen and Ballmer. A source said the Maloofs are keeping that deposit even though the Seattle deal has died.
Hansen, asked about the deposit on Seattle radio, said, "We'd be very happy to get our 30 million bucks back. It's just not decided. It's just a negotiation. How hard do you press for it without suing somebody? I'm just not interested in litigation."
Call The Bee's Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.