By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A Seattle-based investment group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen has signed a binding agreement to buy a controlling interest in the Sacramento Kings basketball team, paving the way for a return of professional basketball to a city still pining for the loss of its SuperSonics in 2008.
Terms of the deal, announced by Hansen's group and confirmed on Monday by the National Basketball Association, were not disclosed. The NBA must approve the deal and that could take several months.
Hansen's group, which includes Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, has city council approval to build a new $490 million arena near the waterfront south of downtown Seattle, although that plan still faces opposition from the city's port authority.
Several reports put the value of the deal at about $340 million, but neither of the negotiating parties nor the NBA would comment on details.
Seattle sports fans can still be spotted wearing the green and yellow of the SuperSonics - founded in 1967 and champions of the NBA in 1979 - even after the team was moved to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder in 2008. The move followed rancorous disagreements between team owner Clayton Bennett and the city over public investment in Seattle's dilapidated KeyArena.
Hansen said on Monday he cannot discuss his group's plans for the franchise, but it is widely expected that he will give the Kings the SuperSonics name and install the team at KeyArena while a new stadium is built.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has given political support to efforts to bring basketball back to Seattle, sent a congratulatory message to the investment group on Monday.
Although the Kings are a different franchise from the Sonics that left Seattle in 2008, he welcomed the return of a team that will likely bear the same name.
"This is an exciting day for our city and for Sonics fans everywhere," said McGinn. "While there is more work ahead, this is a major step toward bringing the Sonics home."
Owners of the Kings, the Maloof family, confirmed the deal on Monday.
"Chris (Hansen) will be a great steward for the franchise," said Gavin Maloof, Kings co-owner who was speaking on behalf of the family.
The basketball franchise is set to join a resurgent Seattle sports scene. The Seattle Seahawks football team reached the NFL playoffs this year with a late-season surge, while the Seattle Sounders are the best-attended soccer team in North America by a wide margin.
The Seattle Mariners baseball team have not performed well recently, but pitcher Felix Hernandez brought some excitement to the city last season with the 23rd perfect game in Major League history.
(Additional reporting by Frank Pingue, editing by Philip Barbara)