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Originally published January 23, 2013 at 7:31 PM | Page modified January 26, 2013 at 5:00 PM

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Seattle vs. Sacramento's fight for the Kings: What happens next?

If Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is successful in finding a potential buyer to match a Seattle group's offer to buy the Kings, it sets up an unprecedented showdown — and a big mess.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Bottom line= no one knows what is going on. The only thing is the NBA/ Stern Gang is... MORE
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — If Sacramento's last-ditch attempt to counter a Seattle group's offer to buy the Kings is successful, it could mean an unprecedented one-on-one smackdown.

Two deserving cities, two viable ownership groups, two viable arena plans — and one big mess.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, is trying to rally his city's forces in a longshot bid to save its only professional team. That would leave two groups fighting over the same team and approaching the NBA Board of Governors with legitimate offers, something that has never happened before.

"There is no precedent," he said Wednesday.

Several experts agree and say no one knows what could happen.

"I think we are in a gray area here and I don't think it's easy to say this clause or that clause is going to mean they can move or they can't move," said Neil deMause, who runs the website FieldofSchemes.com, devoted to examining sports stadium and arena issues. "There are no real hard-and-fast rules here."

Sacramento is in fast-break mode to counter an offer accepted by the current Kings owners, the Maloof family, from a Seattle group headed by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer. The Seattle group offered $340 million to buy 65 percent of a team valued at $525 million and also has a tentative deal in place to build an NBA/NHL arena in the Sodo District. Johnson must also come up with a way to finance a new arena in Sacramento.

Johnson held another news conference Wednesday, but refused to say if he has two deep-pocketed investors lined up. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Ron Burkle, owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Mark Mastrov, founder of 24 Hour Fitness, are discussing joining forces to buy the Kings.

Johnson did not confirm the reports, saying only that he hoped to announce something definitive as early as Monday.

"I will say this — we have had serious discussions and are making considerable progress," Johnson said. "But I do want to respect the nature of those discussions and not really get into that at this particular time."

Johnson said he planned to speak with NBA commissioner David Stern on Thursday to update him on Sacramento's efforts.

By NBA rules, the sale has to be approved by the NBA Board of Governors, scheduled to meet in mid-April. Relocation also needs approval.

As Seattle found out in 2008, when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, the NBA has generally approved relocations and sales of teams to viable owners.

"The NBA can't force the Maloofs to take this deal, but they can reject the Hansen deal," said Michael McCann, a sports law expert at the University of New Hampshire and a legal analyst for NBA TV. "You can't force someone to take an offer, but you can reject all other alternatives."

DeMause notes that "all things being equal, the NBA has said it would prefer teams not to move. Is that just lip service? I don't know. We may find out."

McCann and deMause noted that Sacramento still has significant work to do to match what Seattle has — an arena project that has tentative approval and an offer to buy the team that has been accepted.

"Their arena deal is still a mess," deMause said of the Sacramento plan that had received NBA approval last winter.

Johnson, though, said Wednesday he expected to again get city council approval for an arena plan in time.

If the sale is denied, many figure Hansen's group might take legal action. Some have pointed to statements Monday that Hansen has a "binding agreement" with the Maloofs for the team and has made a $30 million deposit that is nonrefundable after Feb. 1.

"Everybody is looking for leverage," deMause said. "Clearly, the better the offer Johnson has from Burkle and everybody else, the stronger his position is, and the more legal threats Hansen and his group can raise, the better. ...

"This could get back into the extremely murky world of what rights do sports leagues have to govern franchises, and it never usually gets that far in court, so we don't have any idea what would happen if push came to shove."

The NBA denied a potential sale of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1994 to a group that wanted to move the team to New Orleans after deciding the purchasers did not have adequate financing. That's the only time the NBA has denied a potential relocation in the past 35 years (a suit was filed, and a court ruled quickly in favor of the NBA).

McCann says the $30 million deposit "could create an opportunity for Hansen and Ballmer to say 'you are interfering with a business relationship' " and create an avenue for legal action.

DeMause said one of the few things that can be said definitively is that the NBA won't want it to get that far.

"They are going to want to come down with a ruling that gets this resolved and doesn't end up with years of litigation," he said.

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

On Twitter @bcondotta

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