'That's what the NBA is waiting for,' says Lenny Wilkens of tentative agreement

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If you build it, will they come?

That’s the $490 million question after the Seattle City Council hammered out a tentative agreement with investor Chris Hansen to finance a new downtown sports arena for NBA and NHL teams.

The short answer: maybe.

If everything goes smoothly — and that’s a big assumption — Sonics great Lenny Wilkens believes the NBA will return to Seattle next year.

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“That’s a real possibility,” he said. “With this season being so close to starting, I would say that probably next year is the closest time Chris could get a team here.

“More than likely, the team would play at KeyArena until the (new) building is finished. But we can’t forget, a few things still need to happen.”

The recent agreement between Hansen, the San Francisco hedge fund manager who pledged $290 million, and the city council amends the Memorandum of Understanding he had with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine that was announced in February.

The new deal needs approval from the City Council and the King County Council before Hansen can pursue purchasing a team.

“That’s what the NBA is waiting for,” Wilkens said. “Once that’s approved and they know that they’re going to have a break-ground date, then I’m sure that Chris will make a formal petition to the NBA to see what teams — if any — are available.”

It’s impossible to know which NBA team — if any — would replace the Sonics, the franchise that resided in Seattle for 41 years before moving to Oklahoma City in 2008. An NBA spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.

What is certain is Hansen would need to acquire a team and move it to Seattle because there are no plans to expand the NBA, which has 30 teams.

The list of franchises that could relocate has also decreased after the recent sales of the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets.

Several teams including Milwaukee, Charlotte and Minnesota are viable candidates to move, but the Sacramento Kings remain at the top of the list due to the unstable relationship between team owners and city officials and the team’s reluctance to commit long-term to the city.

After a decade-plus battle to find a new home in Sacramento, co-owners Joe and Gavin Maloof agreed to a deal with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson on a new arena in March. But weeks later the Maloof family pulled out of the deal, which seemingly rankled NBA commissioner David Stern, who had endorsed the plan.

The Maloofs then contemplated relocating to Anaheim, Calif. The Kings have been also linked to exploring a move to Virginia Beach, although the team denied the claims that were made by Norfolk, Va., officials.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the franchise, Sacramento begins training camp Oct. 3 and Kings fans are preparing for a season at Power Balance Pavilion.

“Folks here in Sacramento fear Seattle more than they fear Virginia Beach, but I don’t think that they completely fear anyone at that this point,” said James Ham, co-producer of the documentary “Small Market, Big Heart,” an award-winning documentary released in January detailing Sacramento’s 26-year struggle to get and keep the Kings.

“There’s a general malaise that’s going on right now. There’s so much uncertainty that you can’t really read too much into anything. The people in Sacramento are in a wait-and-see approach.”

The major obstacle for Hansen to acquire the Kings is the Maloofs’ reluctance to sell. Reportedly, they declined a $400 million offer last year and have vowed to keep control of the team.

“Maybe the Maloofs change their mind, but I think David Stern and the NBA is going to give Kevin Johnson and Sacramento the opportunity to find a local buyer that will match the amount that Chris Hansen or someone else would be willing to pay,” Ham said. “I’m not sure if Kevin Johnson has that buyer available, but they say that they do.”

Recently the Maloofs have taken a hit financially and were forced to sell most of their share holdings in The Palms in Las Vegas. They retained 2 percent of the hotel and casino, which makes operating the Kings the centerpiece of the family business.

They owe at least $70 million to the city of Sacramento and between $100 million and $150 million to the NBA. The Maloofs will likely make another attempt to move to Anaheim and if the league rebuffs, the family could file an antitrust lawsuit.

Meanwhile Sonics fans clamoring for a return to the glory days can only watch with nervous anticipation.

“To be at this point in the process and talking about which teams could come here is exciting,” Wilkens said. “The people I talk to in the NBA love coming here. This is a natural fit for the league.

“In my mind, it’s something that’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when and what team is it going to be.”

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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