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Originally published June 13, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified June 14, 2012 at 10:09 PM

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As arena supporters rally, Kings remain Seattle's best NBA option

The Kings' future in Sacramento remains murky, and other NBA teams appear ready to stay put.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Fans supporting a new arena in the Sodo District designed to lure the NBA back to Seattle plan to make their wishes heard loud and clear at a rally at Occidental Park at 4 p.m. Thursday.

That effort included Wednesday's announcement that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and two members of the Nordstrom family are joining the investment group led by Chris Hansen.

Still, one of the key questions remains: Where will Seattle get a team?

The NBA has no plans for expansion, and the pool of teams has shrunk since Hansen's plans first leaked in February.

The New Orleans Hornets, who had been owned by the NBA, were sold to local owner Tom Benson, who owns the NFL's Saints and plans to keep the Hornets there as well. The Memphis Grizzlies, who have a lease that makes moving the team difficult, are being sold to an owner who plans to keep the team in Tennessee.

That leaves the Sacramento Kings as the franchise with the most tenuous future, one that has only grown murkier in recent weeks. While a few other teams, notably Milwaukee, also have questions about their long-term future, only the Kings appear to be a possibility for relocation.

As NBA commissioner David Stern said Tuesday, "We don't have a lot of teams available, to say the least."

Yet it only takes one, and the Kings seem to be the best immediate hope. The franchise appeared poised to stay in Northern California when a tentative deal to build a new arena was agreed on by the owners, the NBA and the city in March.

But the owners of the team, the Maloof brothers, pulled out of the deal in April, saying they didn't think it was financially viable.

Now all plans are on hold. The Kings have said they will stay in Sacramento for next season, but after that, no one really knows.

"The fan base is utterly confused," said James Ham, the editor of a website devoted to the Kings and producer of a film about the battle to keep the team there. "Nobody really knows what to do at this point."

Ham said the conventional wisdom in Sacramento has been that the Kings would apply for relocation in March, presumably to take the team to Anaheim, long considered their preferred destination if they move the team.

But Stern said Tuesday at a news conference before the NBA Finals in Oklahoma City that, as of now, the league would not approve a relocation request. And even if approved, the Maloofs might not be able to afford it. ProBasketballTalk.com reported Wednesday that a relocation fee could be $300 million.

Stern also praised the fans in Sacramento for being "great partners" of the NBA, which Ham said was the first bit of good news for Kings fans in a few weeks.

"It energized the people in Sacramento," Ham said Wednesday. "This lull has made people feel like maybe we've been forgotten and that we're not quite sure what is going to happen. But David Stern definitely threw down the gauntlet to the Maloofs last night, and I think most people are excited to see that."

Still, that doesn't guarantee the Kings staying in Sacramento.

One scenario for Seattle to replace the NBA team it lost in 2008, when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, is for Hansen's group to buy the Kings from Joe and Gavin Maloof. Some believe the Maloofs have long wanted to move the team to Anaheim but don't want to keep it in Sacramento or move it elsewhere. Being denied the chance to go to Anaheim could cause the Maloofs to sell.

Neil deMause, editor of the website "Field of Schemes," which tracks sports arena and stadium issues, says he doesn't understand the Maloofs' strategy of killing the deal in Sacramento at the last minute "unless they really want to scorch the earth and then sell the team."

"They could call Hansen tomorrow and say, 'Fine, let's make a deal,' or they could sit around for another 10 years and keep playing games," deMause said.

DeMause cautions Seattle supporters, though, that Stern seems more set than ever on trying to keep teams where they are.

And Ham says that resolve — as well as the efforts of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA point guard who was re-elected earlier this month — gives Sacramento fans hope.

"It could all come down to whether David Stern is willing to go to bat for the people of Sacramento," Ham said.

DeMause also sounded another cautionary note that one of the best hammers the NBA has to wield over its teams to solve arena issues is the specter of Seattle's willingness to build an arena of its own.

"Presumably, Seattle isn't going away, and Hansen isn't going away," he said, "so they (the NBA) can still use it as a threat."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @bcondotta

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