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Art Thiel: Seattle’s NBA bid now a jump ball

Who       does  the NBA tell to drop dead: Steve Ballmer or Ron Burkle?

In a sentence, that difficult question is why NBA bosses went temporarily into a fetal position Wednesday regarding the fate of the Kings, a once-plain franchise that is suddenly Angelina Jolie, Heidi Klum and Kate Upton all rolled into one purple pile of pulchritude.

In a remarkable display of public haplessness, a tired-sounding NBA Commissioner David Stern said he didn’t quite know what to do with the bids of Seattle and Sacramento in the unprecedented pursuit for a free-agent franchise.

“There is a lot at stake here for two communities and the NBA,” he said. “It is a weighty issue.”

So he all but postponed the vote on the relocation to sometime past the original plan of April 19 at the Board of Governors’ regularly scheduled meeting. The delay is significant on at least two levels: Sacramento, led by California supermarket magnate Burkle, is officially credible as a bidder, and owners already may be divided in ways unseen.

A remark easily overlooked from Stern says a lot about the impressions left after the cities made two-hour presentations back-to-back at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.

“Every owner seems to have different questions,” he said. That says in the power politics of the NBA boardroom, each bidder has friends and enemies regarding the same goal: Increasing as fast as possible the post-lockout value of each franchise.

Stern and the owners always say their plans are driven by fans’ desires. But by now, the presumption is that the hunt to find the last person to believe that will take longer than getting bin Laden. The owners are driven by franchise appreciation, and want to know whether a team in Seattle or Sacramento will get them more money faster.

That’s why the post-presentation media chat by the Sactown crew was more intriguing than Seattle’s. Chris Hansen was confident and careful with his words, as were Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine. All well and good.

But beyond the ebullient Sactown mayor, Kevin Johnson – the guy former Sonics coach George Karl called “Princess” during his NBA playing days – the bid’s lead investor, Vivek Ranadive, a Silicon Valley billionaire originally from India, offered the most intriguing sales pitch of the day: NBA 3.0.

The original NBA was the pro version of the game that began in New England’s high school gyms, he said. The 2.0 version was the David Stern era (blatant suck-up there). The future of pro basketball, Ranadive said, was about three things: Technology, globalization and an agency for change.

It’s easily possible to dismiss the storyline as the airy dreams of a tech geek, and that may be true. But Ranadive is already a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors. He knows what plays well to his audience, nearly all of whom made their fortunes to some degree by looking ahead and capitalizing.

“It’s about NBA 3.0, which is really making basketball the sport of the 21st century – what soccer was to the 20th century,” he said. “At one point (in history) China and India were two-thirds of the world’s economy, and at some point in the next couple of decades, that probably will happen again.

“This opportunity (in Sacramento) is to bring together all of the stakeholders – fans, city and state governments, ownership and the NBA (to) create the 21st century coliseum and have the needle move on the city.”

Now, for all we know, Ballmer, the Microsoft CEO who is one of the Seattle investment partners, may have made a similar pitch to the owners – nothing Ranadive said is beyond the reach of the Seattle bidders – but he didn’t submit himself to media scrutiny, which was a missed opportunity.

I don’t think anyone can forecast the outcome right now because, for once, I will take Stern at his word that this decision is “far more complicated” than simple economics between the cities. It is also hard to deny that things seem to be close to a dead heat.

I did notice another thing in Stern’s remarks. Asked about the increasingly plausible notion of a solution via expansion, Stern again shot it down, saying it would be “imprudent” to add another team.

But Stern’s remarks about the expansion question began with the phrase, “right now,” and ended with the phrase, “right now.” By the end of the month, it will no longer be “right now.”

Stern is right about expansion being “imprudent,” just as he is right that this situation is unprecedented in NBA history. And if anyone were to offer the word “imprudent” to any of the owners during their previous business successes, said person would be shown the window – not the door.

So expansion still has to be in play in the boardroom. Either that, or the guy who draws the short straw gets to tell Ballmer/Burkle to drop dead. Neither of them is prone to even opening a window before putting someone through it.

Art Thiel is columnist for sportspressnw