By Sharon Bernstein and Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - A committee of NBA owners recommended on Monday that the league reject a proposal by an investor group to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle, a decision seen as a long-shot victory for a group of California investors trying to keep the basketball team from leaving town.
The unanimous decision by the National Basketball Association's 12-member Relocation Committee, announced in a brief statement, came as a surprise as the bid to keep the team in Sacramento, a smaller media market, was widely viewed as the dark horse.
The recommendation, though non-binding, is expected to carry considerable weight for other league owners, who will cast their final votes on the matter within the next two weeks.
"That's what I'm talking about SACRAMENTO!!!!!," the city's mayor, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, said in a tweet. "WE DID IT!!!!!"
The recommendation shocked some fans in Seattle, who had been hoping an NBA franchise would return to their city, and left them crestfallen. Seattle lost its team, the Supersonics, to Oklahoma City in 2008.
"I am disappointed," said Seattle fan Pam Beltz, 49, who had been waiting for the decision on Monday. "(NBA Commissioner) David Stern just dropped even further off my Christmas card list."
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said the city would continue to try to lure a team to the Pacific Northwest. "We're going to stay focused on our job: making sure Seattle remains in a position to get a team when the opportunity presents itself," he said.
The Kings' tenure in Sacramento has been shaky for a few years, as its majority owners, the Maloof family, have considered moving the team to either Anaheim, California, or Virginia Beach, Virginia.
JOHNSON'S HAIL MARY
In January, a group led by Seattle hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made a formal offer for the team, which the Maloofs accepted, and the team appeared to be on its way north.
But Johnson, a Sacramento native who played for the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers and made three NBA All Star teams, fought back, putting together a group of California tech titans to counter Hansen's bid.
A spokesman for Hansen did not have an immediate comment on Monday. The Maloof family also did not comment.
Hansen's bid valued the team at $550 million, which means that the price for the Maloofs' stake would have been about $357.5 million. The Sacramento group did not release details of their bid, but the NBA said it was competitive.
Both cities had reached deals with private developers to build new stadiums for the team. Sacramento plans a $450 million entertainment and sports complex that could spruce up the city's downtown district.
The Maloofs made no secret of their preference for the Hansen bid, sending a letter to the NBA questioning the Sacramento offer.
Before making its recommendation, the committee of NBA owners took part in a two hour conference call to discuss the two offers, the NBA said.
But even as fans in Seattle grieved, basketball lovers in Sacramento took a moment to rejoice.
"That's frickin' brilliant," said Peter Hernandez, 27, who works at a pizza restaurant across the street from a proposed new stadium for the team. "The Kings are my team. I've always loved the Kings since I was a little kid."
Before the decision was announced, Sacramento fans waited anxiously throughout the morning and into the early afternoon on Monday.
"I love my Sacramento Kings more than I'll ever love my future kids," a user identifying himself as Raymon Nijjar posted on Twitter.
Malcolm Butler, a barber in the Natomas neighborhood, said it wouldn't be worth living in Sacramento if the team went to Seattle.
"If the Kings leave," he said before the recommendation was announced, "I might as well move."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in Sacramento; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)