NEW YORK – The two competing bids for the Sacramento Kings "are in the same ballpark," NBA Commissioner David Stern said Friday, pushing aside complaints from the Maloofs that the deal they've struck with investors from Seattle is markedly superior to the counteroffer from Sacramento.
Bombarded with questions about the Kings' future at the conclusion of the NBA board of governors' annual spring meeting, Stern offered few clues about the outcome to the richest tug of war the league has ever seen. He said a decision probably won't come until early May on whether the Kings will move to Seattle or be sold to Sacramento's investor team.
"This will be by far our most extensive review of anything like this in the league's history," he said.
Stern spoke moments after The Bee and the Associated Press began publishing the contents of a 2-day-old letter from the Maloofs to the NBA, cataloging the alleged shortcomings in the bid from the Sacramento investors.
In the letter, the family said Sacramento's bid is "deficient economically" when compared with the sweetened offer they've accepted from Seattle investor Chris Hansen.
The letter confirms earlier reports that Hansen is offering more money. His recently improved offer would value the whole team at $550 million, the most ever paid for an NBA team, with the Maloofs receiving $357 million for their share.
Sacramento so far has only matched Hansen's original offer, which would give the Maloofs a $341 million payout.
The Maloofs added that Sacramento's investors are asking them to abandon their binding agreement with Hansen in favor of Sacramento's "non-binding expression of interest" that's subject to further negotiation.
They questioned whether the Sacramento group, led by Silicon Valley software tycoon Vivek Ranadive, even has "sufficient cash" to buy the Kings and told the league they see no reason to keep talking to Ranadive's group.
But Stern, who has tangled with the Maloofs in the recent past, gave the bid far more credence than they did.
In terms of offering price, the two bids "are in the same ballpark with respect to the net result to the selling family," Stern said.
As far as the structure of the bids is concerned, Sacramento's offer "is not as complete as it probably is going to be" by late Friday or today, he said. But he added: "There is a down payment. It is binding. We have had assurances of funding support."
The board of governors can reject Hansen's bid from Seattle – but can't force the Maloofs to sell the team to Ranadive. As a result, the Maloofs' public dissatisfaction with Ranadive's offer looms large.
In the letter, the family said Ranadive offered it only a $15 million deposit – half as much as Hansen's.
The letter doesn't make clear whether the Sacramento deposit is nonrefundable, as Hansen's is. Stern didn't offer any details about the Sacramento deposit.
The Ranadive group declined to respond to the Maloofs' letter. A source close to the group said the bidders "remain focused on continuing to work closely with the NBA."
The Sacramento group has gone to great lengths to tout its financial credentials.
Ranadive leads a group of eight California investors, including the founders of wireless telecom giant Qualcomm Inc. and the 24 Hour Fitness chain, and the owner of Sacramento's Arden Fair mall. Ranadive is already part owner of the Golden State Warriors and runs a $1 billion-a-year company, Tibco Software Inc. of Palo Alto.
Stern's news conference concluded three days of owners' meetings largely dominated by the Kings' saga, including a day in which a special committee tried to hash out the competing offers.
Friday afternoon, owners filed out of the luxurious St. Regis hotel, site of the meetings, with little to say.
Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, a member of the committee, said a "bunch of little things" stand in the way of a decision.
CBSSports.com quoted an unidentified owner as saying, "I think it's 50-50. I think it could go either way."
Stern was openly angry when the Maloofs abandoned an arena deal in Sacramento last spring, and he has encouraged Sacramento to pursue its counteroffer for the team.
But the commissioner bristled Friday at a Seattle TV reporter's suggestion that he's taking sides.
"There's no lobbying or campaigning going on by the league office," added Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, who will succeed Stern as commissioner next winter.
Stern said he expects the committee to make a recommendation next Thursday or Friday.
But he also said it could come as late as April 29.
The board of governors then has to wait seven business days before it can take up the matter, which means a final vote won't occur until at least the first or second week of May.
Two days earlier, Stern said the NBA might invite owners and officials from both cities to make encore presentations to owners in New York, like they did April 3. There was no mention of that Friday, although Stern said NBA officials will follow up with both cities by telephone in the coming days.
Mayor Kevin Johnson and one of the Sacramento investors, developer Mark Friedman, were in New York for this week's NBA meetings but didn't address the owners. Hansen was reportedly in New York as well.
Stern said the NBA's team owners are torn between the two bids. Seattle offers a strong market, but Sacramento has stepped up in its quest to keep the Kings, he said.
Owners are also wrestling with "the degree to which the Sacramento incumbency deserves consideration," he said, referring to the team's 28 years in Sacramento.
Among the issues the NBA is considering, "we're most concerned about the critical path of arenas to getting built," Stern said.
Each city has put together financing plans for new arenas to replace their worn-out facilities, but Stern has said there are lingering questions about red tape and litigation that could slow down construction.
Four months after Hansen and the Maloofs announced their original agreement, the NBA's lengthy deliberations have tried the patience of basketball fans in each city. For Kings fans, their team's future has been up in the air for three years. Seattle fans have been waiting to return to the NBA since 2008, when their SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City.
Kings co-owner George Maloof said his family would like an answer soon.
"We respect the process, but we want it to be over," he told The Bee on Friday. "Everyone does."
Still, the NBA ruled out a quick decision.
"While we would have liked to have seen it move faster, we can't short-cut this process," Silver told reporters.
Stern, meanwhile, threw cold water on the prospect of resolving the dilemma by granting Seattle an expansion team – an idea raised two days earlier by San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, chairman of the board of governors.
"I don't want to say (expansion is) a complete non-starter," Stern said. "If the question is 'Was there any discussion of expansion?' the answer is no."
Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat.