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Originally published Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 4:36 PM

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If the NBA wants to return to Seattle, it has to be now

While commissioner David Stern and his owners are vetting two potential ownership groups and their arena plans, they should consider another thing that will complicate this weighty decision. This isn't just a good chance for the NBA to return to Seattle. It's quite possibly the league's last chance, too.

Times staff columnist

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Yeah, Seattle *was* a great NBA city until @ssclowns stern and shultz (may they suffer... MORE
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David Stern appeared haggard, humbled and, yes, even human. As the NBA commissioner spoke last week, he was too conflicted to be the villain we expect him to be.

He didn't come across as arrogant, condescending and secretive this time. After the NBA's joint finance and relocation committee heard proposals from Seattle and Sacramento in the custody fight over the Kings franchise, the baffled look on Stern's face reflected the difficulty of this decision.

"This one is so weighty, and each of the owners understands that," Stern said.

It's so weighty that Stern didn't pile on with his usual snarky remarks. He's listening, searching for the right answer. Or maybe it should be characterized as trying to avoid the wrong answer. And every time anyone attempts to simulate the decision, the loser's legitimate gripe always seems as big a story as the winner's joy.

What to do? Well, your homework, for one. And while Stern and his owners are vetting two potential ownership groups and their arena plans, they should consider another thing that will complicate this weighty decision.

This isn't just a good chance for the NBA to return to Seattle.

It's quite possibly the league's last chance, too.

The NBA shouldn't undervalue that Seattle is back in the game this quickly. Five years ago, the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City amid a perfect storm of corruption, deception, poor civic leadership and local disinterest in publicly funding a sports palace. It was one of the ugliest relocations in professional sports history, complete with a trial over the KeyArena lease that was soap-opera crazy.

And now, we are witnessing a miracle. Chris Hansen and his group have energized a significant portion of a rundown Sonics fan base with their genuine passion and, of course, their money. The past 16 months have been extraordinary, with Hansen agreeing to terms on a $490 million arena deal with the city and county, with fans suppressing anger and unifying in impressive fashion, and with Hansen entering into a binding agreement with the Maloof family to buy the Sacramento Kings (and move them to Seattle), pending league approval.

It's a stretch to say that Seattle has forgiven the NBA completely, but the healing process has been rapid and stunning. The mending must continue, but without question, there's enough fan support to make this a viable NBA city once again. With his earnest and pragmatic approach, Hansen has mobilized an abandoned fan base, and he has 44,000 names on a season-ticket waitlist to prove it.

In oversimplified terms, the Seattle-NBA relationship is akin to a divorced couple that, five years later, is headed back to the altar. It's not a perfect comparison because Sacramento doesn't fit neatly into that analogy. But many Sonics fans are on the verge of recommitting to the NBA, and if they're denied later this month, if they are left at the altar, the pain will be worse than losing the Sonics five years ago.

The fans seem united in this belief: If the NBA messes with their emotions again, it's over. For good. And without public passion, it would be difficult for Hansen or anyone else to maintain the momentum to chase future NBA possibilities and get this long-pursued arena built. Seattle needs a firm answer now. No city, especially a spurned one, can afford to be patient in perpetuity.

If Seattle does not get the Kings, then it needs the NBA to provide a clear path to another franchise, with a clear timetable.

That's why I think that, contrary to Stern's strong words that expansion isn't an option "right now," the owners must exhaust all possibilities before making a final decision on the Kings' sale and potential relocation.

It's a complex decision because siding with either city requires unprecedented NBA logic. The owners always approve sales when they make financial sense, and if they go against the Maloofs' desire to sell to Hansen, they're opening the door for future meddling in their own affairs. On the other hand, the NBA has never abandoned a city as adamant as Sacramento is about doing whatever it takes to keep the Kings. These relocations are always about arenas, and Sacramento has a plan, no matter how cobbled together, to build an arena. If the NBA decides that Sacramento's arena plan is solid and moves to Seattle anyway, it would be unlike any relocation in the Stern era.

"We've never had a situation like this, and my role, I view it here, is to make sure that (the owners) focus on the issues," Stern said. "And the seriousness of purpose, to me, is really incredible because they know that there's a lot at stake here for two communities and the NBA. And I don't think they need to be influenced or want to be influenced at this point."

Does that mean that Oklahoma City Thunder owner and relocation committee chairman Clay Bennett, of Sonics-napping infamy, won't be sending any emails saying that he's a man possessed about bringing a team back to Seattle?

Bennett owes us. Then again, don't we think everyone in the NBA owes us?

The league should keep that in mind. Sacramento has done everything to retain a team. Seattle, against all odds, has done everything to reclaim a team.

Does one impress more than the other? Not really. But does one back the NBA into more of a corner? Oh, yeah.

If the NBA wants to return to Seattle, this isn't just the right time. It may be the only time.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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