By Tony Bizjak, Dale Kasler and Ryan Lillis
After weeks of private negotiations, the owners of the Sacramento Kings are on the verge of announcing that they're selling the team to a group that would move the Kings to Seattle.
The announcement could come as early as tomorrow morning. It follows two weeks of intense speculation and sets the stage for a climactic tug-of-war between Sacramento and Seattle over the team's future over the next few weeks.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is planning to propose a counter-offer in which a rival group would buy the Kings and keep them in Sacramento.
A source close to the situation said Sunday evening that the Maloof family has reached agreement with a Seattle group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer. The Maloof family declined comment tonight through a spokesman.
The sale price wasn't immediately known. Earlier, it was reported that the Hansen group was offering a deal that would value the team at as much as $525 million, a record for an NBA franchise.
The Hansen group would move the team to Seattle in time for the next NBA season.
But any sale and relocation requires the approval of the NBA's Board of Governors, consisting of league owners, and Johnson believes he can convince the league to reject the Seattle proposal and keep the team in town.
Political strategist Chris Lehane, who is advising Johnson, said Saturday night that the deal with the Seattle group "was fairly expected.
"I don't think it changes anything," Lehane said. "We have our game plan."
Lehane said the mayor has been approached by at least three investor groups that "would qualify under the definition of a whale" and are interested in buying the team.
An announcement by the Maloofs won't prompt Sacramento officials to cut any corners, he said. "You be quick but you don't rush," he said.
The Maloofs have until March 1 to petition the NBA for relocation. It's expected that the Maloofs and the Seattle group will make their pitch to league owners at the NBA Board of Governors' meeting in New York in mid-April. Johnson has already been granted permission to bring a counter offer to the board meeting.
Stern personally negotiated the downtown arena plan that was abandoned by the Maloofs, and has been encouraging Johnson to bring a rival proposal to the league. The commissioner also got entertainment conglomerate AEG - which would have operated the downtown arena - to re-engage on the issue. AEG President Tim Leiweke said last week the company is firmly committed to the arena proposal.
Despite Johnson's efforts, Yahoo Sports, quoting an anonymous source, reported Sunday that the NBA's influential relocation committee would recommend that the larger Board of Governors approve the Seattle deal. Separately, ESPN.com, also quoting anonymous sources, said Hansen's group has agreed to give the Maloofs a non-refundable $30 million deposit. The Maloofs, who control 65 percent of the Kings, would keep the deposit whether the deal goes through or not.
A sale would end the Maloof family's often rocky 13-year stewardship of the team. The Maloofs bought controlling interest in 1999 from Jim Thomas and rode the team's winning ways for several years.
But the family has been hit with enormous economic setbacks in recent years and seriously considered moving the Kings to Anaheim in 2011. More recently, the team negotiated with a group to move the Kings to Virginia Beach, Va.
At least one deep-pocketed bidder has surfaced to keep the team in Sacramento: Mark Mastrov, the founder of the 24 Hour Fitness chain. Other possible suitors mentioned by Johnson and NBA Commissioner David Stern include supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle.
City officials have said they would offer a Kings buyer the same arena deal rejected by the Maloofs last spring, including $255 million in public subsidies.