SEATTLE — Just a year ago, Chris Hansen tiptoed into the limelight, choosing his words with the greatest care and smiling nervously behind a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. He looked more like the reluctant public figure than the Sonics’ savior.
Since then, Hansen has consummated a tentative $490 million arena deal in a city hesitant to help build sports arenas, energized and mobilized a grieving Sonics fan base and reached an agreement, subject to NBA approval, to buy Seattle’s potential new NBA team. Other than that, he had a quiet year.
From Pampers to prominence — that’s how far Hansen has come. Hansen has become one of the most recognizable and respected people in the eyes of Seattle sports fans by maneuvering through two difficult processes in an astonishingly swift and proficient manner.
What hasn’t Hansen done the past 12 months? Well, he didn’t make a confession to Oprah Winfrey, or have his girlfriend turn out to be an Internet hoax. But his plans to rescue this city from NBA purgatory have held up to skepticism and scrutiny. Now he’s on the verge of completing an impossible task after years of mischief and miscommunication and misfortune. It leaves us to wonder why the knuckleheads from the previous decade couldn’t spare everyone five years of pain by figuring this out sooner.
What a difference competency makes. Hansen and his investment group, which includes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Erik and Peter Nordstrom, are the right team at the right time with the right plan.
Hansen had been quietly putting together this plan several months before he emerged. Without question, the preparation helped him move quickly. While the vetting process was significant and his original plan was altered substantially, he managed to reach an agreement, pending environmental review and economic analysis, in about seven months.
As difficult as it was to put together a public-private arena deal that involved the city and county, the process to acquire an NBA team could have taken years. The only hope for an early resolution was if the owners of the Sacramento Kings, the NBA team on shakiest ground, would give up and sell their team. And the financially strapped Maloofs have done just that, announcing earlier this week that they have a deal with Hansen to sell controlling interest of the Kings.
While this process will get trickier (maybe even uglier) as it progresses and Sacramento fights to keep its team, Hansen is going about this the right way. Currently, the only route to reacquire an NBA team is to do to another city what Oklahoma City did to Seattle. You have to take someone else’s franchise. You have to leave another city’s fans feeling as miserable as Sonics fans have been the past five years.
But that’s a problem with NBA business, where franchises are treated more like fast-food restaurants than civic treasures. The way the game is played now, loyalty is only one-sided — unless you have an owner who looks at it otherwise. And even if you have such an owner, the unfortunate reality is that person can’t live forever. So, no franchise will be safe in perpetuity, and that’s the sobering truth in every professional sport.
So, why buy into this often-evil game? Well, if you have good local ownership and the team carries your city’s name on terms that are actually favorable to the city, why not enjoy the benefits of entertainment, international branding and the potential for economic impact?
Hansen still has plenty of proving to do, but he’s one of the most promising professional sports owners to emerge in quite some time. After his fast start, he’ll have a lot to live up to, though. And he has to complete this deal and bring the Sonics back with the integrity he has shown thus far.
Last fall, after Hansen reached an arena agreement with both the city and county councils, he looked forward in an interview. Then, he said of acquiring an NBA team: “There are not a lot of opportunities out there. We want to be sensitive about the ones that are.”
Asked to clarify, he said: “If there are owners that would like to move their teams out of certain markets, then we would like to talk to them. But it’s also not our job to be out there, aggressively and in a predatory fashion, trying to lift a team out of a market that does not want to move.
“That’s why we’ve chosen our words very carefully. The excitement of fans in Seattle, the optimism that people have here, should be tempered by the disappointment that happened (when the Sonics left) when we think about the situation we’re about to go into. If the only way for us to get a team, or the opportunity in front of us involves a team moving from another market, it’s going to be really tough. It’s definitely not the ideal situation.”
Because the NBA apparently doesn’t want to expand at this time, this is the only situation. If not Sacramento, it will be another city. But there’s a difference between the way Clay Bennett did it and how Hansen wants to do it.
Considering what he has accomplished over the past year, you have to like Hansen’s chances of handling a difficult situation as respectfully as he can.