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Larry Stone: Seattle’s NBA dream wavers as Steve Ballmer strays to L.A.

Sixteen months ago. That’s all it was. Word broke in January 2013 of a pending agreement by the Maloof family to sell the Sacramento Kings to some Seattle white knights.

Chris Hansen was the mastermind who seemingly had an answer for every obstacle. The Nordstrom brothers, Peter and Erik, bolstered the local bona fides. And then there was Steve Ballmer, the billionaire with a burning jones to get into the hoops world.

It was a dream team that made the prospect of getting an NBA franchise back seem more real than ever. So real that even the most jaded of the jilted began to buy in. Against their more cautious instincts.

“It’s first and goal at the 1,” a source told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and the ripple of excitement that swept through still-mourning Sonics’ fans was palpable.

Now the idea of getting basketball back seems, once again, more pipe dream than pending reality. And not just because Ballmer has taken his fat wallet to Los Angeles to execute what is widely reported to be a $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers. (Take that, Donald Sterling. Those vile racist comments are about to turn your initial $12.5 million investment into the windfall of the ages.)

No, what should turn those ripples of excitement into shivers of trepidation is the motivation for Ballmer to shake loose of the Hansen group and head to LaLa Land.

There’s plenty of rich folk here in the Puget Sound. It’s quite conceivable that Hansen can round up a consortium to replace Ballmer’s financial contribution. And intuitively, it’s still hard to fathom why the NBA would bypass such a lucrative market with such a passionate fan base, not to mention a viable arena plan.

But as the clock ticks away on the Memo of Understanding (it expires November 2017), the signs are ominous. It’s hard not to conclude that Ballmer surveyed the NBA landscape and didn’t much like the prospects for Seattle. As long and hard as he’s pushed to acquire a team to fill our NBA void – efforts that date back at least to Ballmer’s 2008 offer to pay $150 million toward a $300 million KeyArena expansion, aimed at circumventing Clay Bennett’s move to Oklahoma City – you’ve got to think that any positive whispers from new NBA commissioner Adam Silver would have kept him in the fight.

But now Ballmer is bailing – assuming that he can get the Clippers deal past all the NBA machinations, and assuming Sterling doesn’t muddy things up with a fierce legal fight.

More likely, Ballmer will finally get his coveted team – a thousand miles south of where he spent most of his adult life and made his vast fortune. And forget about the thought of Ballmer pulling a Clay Bennett and moving the team to Seattle – the NBA will certainly make him pledge to stay in Los Angeles as a precursor to approval.

Hansen, meanwhile, will no doubt continue to fight and scrap for a team for Seattle through the same parallel channels, relocation or expansion – neither of which seems imminent. Ballmer must not have thought so, anyway.

Certainly, Ballmer’s entry into the NBA inner circle as an owner would give the Seattle efforts a strong advocate on the inside. That could be quite useful.

It was virtually a year ago – May 15, 2013 – that the NBA voted down the Seattle relocation bid by a 22-8 vote, effectively keeping the Kings in Sacramento. At the time, Hansen wrote on the website: “Our day will come. And when it does it will be that much sweeter for the struggle.”

Ballmer’s departure – almost certainly driving up the cost of doing business with the NBA – makes the struggle even more daunting for Seattle. The goal line, and the sweet celebration, is still off in the distance.

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