By Marice Richter and Suzanne Hurt
DALLAS (Reuters) - The National Basketball Association denied a proposal on Wednesday to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle following months of bitter wrangling among potential suitors, and strongly urged the team's owners to negotiate with a group fighting to keep the team in Sacramento.
The decision, announced by NBA Commissioner David Stern, appears to put an end to a deal to sell the team to the Seattle group that would have valued the Kings at $625 million, a huge amount for an NBA team.
"It's nice to see two great cities so interested in an NBA franchise, but the winner here is Sacramento," Stern told a news conference in Dallas, where team owners who make up the league's board of governors met to decide the team's fate.
In Sacramento, jubilant fans celebrated after watching Stern on TV at a pub in the city's hip mid-town district.
"It's the best thing that's happened to Sacramento since the Gold Rush," said Paul Maltby, a season ticket holder who was at the pub with his wife, Terry Bowman.
Blocks away at the state capitol building, state Senator Darrell Steinberg, who represents Sacramento, praised Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star guard, for quickly pulling together a group of investors to counter the Seattle bid and keep the team in town.
"Good things come to those who wait and never give up - and that's Sacramento," Steinberg said. "This is about so much more than basketball."
The mood was gloomier in Seattle, which lost its own basketball team, the SuperSonics, to Oklahoma City in 2008.
"It was just sad to hear that final verdict," said Tyler Olsen, 28, a Seattle teacher who attended his first SuperSonics game at age 8. "We were told in 2008 that the NBA would love to return."
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said he shared the disappointment of fans, but promised to keep trying to attract a team to the Northwest city.
The Kings' future in Sacramento has long been uncertain. The family of George Maloof, which owns a majority interest in the team, has struggled to persuade the city to build a new arena, and flirted with the idea of moving them.
In January, the Maloofs reached a deal to sell the team to Seattle hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and others who had formed a local investment group.
Hansen has long vowed to bring a team back to Seattle, which he would name the SuperSonics after the city's lost franchise. He already has a deal with the city to build a new arena.
But in an increasingly public tug-of-war, Sacramento began to fight back - hard.
Johnson put together a team of technology titans lead by Vivek Ranadive, founder of data giant TIBCO Software Inc, who vowed to match Hansen's bid to keep the team in California's capital. The group also persuaded the city council to back a proposal for a new $450 million arena.
Last month, a committee of NBA owners voted that the team should stay in Sacramento, but Hansen vowed to fight on, raising his bid for controlling interest in the Kings to $406 million, which valued the team at an unprecedented $625 million.
The Maloofs backed Hansen and his group, writing a letter to the league saying that "there is no acceptable deal possible" with the Sacramento group.
After Wednesday's vote, Hansen wrote on his blog, SonicsArena.com, "I love you, Seattle. Our day will come ... and when it does it will just be that much sweeter for the struggle."
Speaking for the NBA on Wednesday, Stern urged the Maloof family to quickly reach a deal to sell the team to Johnson's group.
"It is my expectation that we will be able to reach a deal with the Maloofs," Stern said.
After the meeting, George Maloof told reporters he was not opposed to working with the Sacramento group, and Johnson said he hoped a deal to buy the team would be reached "within 24 to 48 hours."
Johnson said that retaining the Kings will be transformative for Sacramento and its downtown with the construction of a new arena that will create jobs and provide more economic development opportunities.
Seattle, Johnson added, still deserves a team of its own.
"They know what it feels like to lose a team," Johnson said. "We just don't want that to happen to us."
(Reporting by Marice Richter in Dallas, Suzanne Hurt in Sacramento, Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)