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Seattle’s Basketball Hopes Sit with Chris Hansen

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credit: Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

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SEATTLE (AP) — Chris Hansen has plenty of things he could be doing instead of standing before politicians to explain his plan for a half-billion dollar arena that could someday see the NBA return to Seattle.

He would rather be watching basketball or listening to hip-hop or chauffeuring his two kids to a never-ending stream of practices and games.

And simplicity and anonymity would be Hansen’s preference over seeing his face plastered in newspapers or showing up on television anytime he makes the trip from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to his native Seattle.

But those are among the concessions Hansen made when he decided to use his financial wherewithal and begin the process of trying to resurrect the green and gold of the SuperSonics he was so fond of growing up in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.

“People have asked me how this fits into my life. … My family will always come first, my professional job will always come second and this will come third,” Hansen said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not important, it’s just that’s where the priorities are.”

Hansen has quickly become the face of Seattle’s push to build a new arena that could return the NBA to the city that lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, and might attract an NHL franchise as well. The sting of the Sonics moving and morphing into the Thunder waned in the first couple of years after the team left, but for the die-hard fans those twinges of pain returned this spring when the Thunder made their run to the NBA Finals.

Their hopes of seeing a team someday make a finals run in Seattle are resting with a 44-year-old investor and his arena proposal that’s unlike anything Seattle has seen before. Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field — the homes of the Seattle Mariners and Seahawks respectively — were built with significant public contribution through a series of taxes that soured Seattleites when it was the Sonics’ turn to ask for financial help in the mid-2000s.

So Hansen took a different route. He started from scratch and developed a proposal that will include nearly $300 million in private investment toward an arena, with the remaining $200 million bonded by the City of Seattle and King County and paid off over 30 years through rent and tax revenues that won’t exist if the arena isn’t built.

Right now, Hansen’s efforts have resulted in the purchase of land in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood that he hopes will one day be the location of the arena and a small entertainment district. With that acquisition has come plenty of debate among local politicians and interest groups.

“We really started from scratch. We looked at what are the unique dynamics of the Seattle market and what is it going to take to get a deal done here, particularly understanding the sensitivities with the state and the people of Seattle and the political climate up here,” Hansen said. “We were pretty careful to craft something we thought people would accept and would work. That’s why it’s a lot different than most of the other transactions that you’ve seen.”

Hansen’s desire to see the NBA return to Seattle stems from his childhood connection with the SuperSonics. He was entering his teen years when the Sonics won their only title back in 1979. Even when he went away to college at San Diego State and eventually settled in San Francisco, his passion for hoops was always centered on what was happening with his hometown team.

When Hansen got word that Howard Schultz was selling the club to an Oklahoma City -based group led by Clay Bennett back in 2006, he instantly got concerned about the Sonics’ future.

“I was worried,” Hansen said. “There is no ill will toward Clay Bennett or the NBA on my part, but my initial reaction was we had such a hard time getting this stadium built here, new arena built here, and Howard Schultz had given up and most Seattle fans were like ‘Oh no, what does this mean?'”

From a national perspective, Hansen’s name doesn’t stir much interest unless it revolves around the investment community and his Valiant Capital investment group. But the NBA is well aware of what he’s trying to accomplish. Hansen nearly got involved in 2008 when a group of Seattle businessmen including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made a last-ditch push for an upgraded arena that would keep Bennett from moving the team to Oklahoma. Hansen reached out to express his financial support, but was not in the same monetary position as now where he is the financial foundation of the project.

In hindsight, Hansen is glad his name never surfaced when the scrambling efforts in 2008 were taking place. It helped keep his discussions with the city of Seattle that started more than a year ago under wraps until earlier this past winter.

“I would have preferred to do it in a private way particularly because of what happened,” Hansen said. “It didn’t work out and there was no need to make my name public unless I had to, which is the same situation that I’m in now.”

If Hansen’s push needed additional backbone, it came recently when Ballmer and Peter and Erik Nordstrom — of the high-end department store chain — joined Hansen’s investment group. Peter Nordstrom didn’t know anything about Hansen when former NBA player and Sonics executive Wally Walker arranged a meeting. Nordstrom was naturally a bit skeptical when Hansen presented such lofty plans.

But Nordstrom came away impressed.

“I’m not talking about a slick guy who can talk off the top of his head. What really impressed me was the degree to which he invested a lot of time and energy to know his subject,” Nordstrom said. “It’s not just about the arena, not just about the team, he knows all of it. He seems like a guy who gets the information he needs before he acts.”

While he doesn’t have an arena approved or a team in hand, Hansen already has a vision for what he wants a future franchise to look like and how it would re-establish a connection with the community that was severed after four decades.

“He’s just so sincere and honest and having dealt with people in this arena before, political and sports, I am just consistently stunned by the lack of gamesmanship,” said Brian Robinson, former head of Save Our Sonics and current head of Arena Solution. “He tells you what he means and he means what he says and he’s very consistent and very honest and people will always respond to that.”

– Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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