Frank Hughes
Tuesday March 23rd, 2010

OAKLAND, Calif. --- Larry Ellison, your bluff's been called.

It is no coincidence, it seems, that two months after Ellison told Oracle shareholders he was trying to purchase the Golden State Warriors, owner Chris Cohan announced he was officially putting the team up for sale. Yes, Cohan is in trouble with the IRS. Yes, he has been harshly maligned as an inept owner whose team has made it to the postseason only once in the last 15 seasons. But this, it seems, is a shrewd business maneuver, timed perfectly to take advantage of Ellison's gum-flapping and financial largesse.

After all, what does Cohan have to lose? He announces the team is for sale, which is an open invitation for Ellison's attachés to make contact and extend an offer.

At the same time, Cohan allows anybody and everybody to compete against Ellison for control of the franchise. Some may just want to get their names in the news, publicity for getting into a bidding war against the sixth-wealthiest man in the world.

But some may actually be serious, and the more genuine suitors there are, the more Cohan's ultimate take increases.

You can hardly walk down a boulevard in Silicon Valley without tripping over somebody worth several hundred million. A real estate agent recently told me of a story about a 25-year-old Google employee who was shopping for a $20 million home -- and he was pre-approved for the loan.

Now think internationally. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is about to purchase the New Jersey Nets. There are more than a few billionaires in Europe and China who fancy owning a piece of the NBA and all that comes with being a part of an exclusive club. For each one that picks up the phone to make an inquiry, it adds another zero to what Ellison ultimately has to offer. Not that it makes much difference. Ellison has spent more on the construction of his America's Cup tri-maran and the ensuing legal issues he undertook to race it than he is likely to pay Cohan for the Warriors. And if you think Ellison is going to be outbid, then you don't know the reputation of Ellison. He made his bold proclamation in January that he wants to purchase the Warriors, but "unfortunately you can't have a hostile takeover of a basketball team."

Then he trounced arch-nemesis Alinghi in the America's Cup. Then he purchased the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament and the Indian Wells complex in which it's played for $100 million. He has recently contracted, it seems, an unquenchable thirst for the sports high. And Cohan has positioned himself to take advantage.

Sources have told SI.com that Cohan previously was seeking at least $400 million. Here's his thinking: The Charlotte Bobcats were just sold to Michael Jordan for $275 million, and they play in a small market with an arena that sits 75 percent empty on game nights. The Phoenix Suns were purchased in 2004 for $401 million by Robert Sarver.

The economy has changed since that time, "but not as much as you might think," Sarver said on Monday night from the Suns' locker room before Phoenix played Golden State. "Obviously, it is a great market here. They have great fans here. I think they have one of the best fans bases in the league. It is a big market. There is a lot of wealth in this market. If [Cohan] chooses to sell the team, that is his business. But I'm sure there will be plenty of demand for it. I think this will trade at a hefty number."

And if Cohan does not get the number he desires, all he has to do is take the franchise off the market. He has lost nothing but the money used to hire the consulting firm conducting the sale. What David Stern is going to try to convince Ellison and those looking to outbid him is that the Warriors have maintained a large season-ticket base despite ineptitude on the basketball side for such a protracted period.

Even with only 19 victories this season, the Warriors still maintain nearly 10,000 season tickets, a figure many organizations in the league desperately covet. Imagine the marketing and sponsorship opportunities if the team actually gets an ownership group that makes wise personnel decisions and achieves postseason success. "To me, their fans are as good as any in this league," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "Even when they have the struggles like they are having right now, you feel the crowd and they are totally behind these guys. When they had the playoff run [in 2007], it was mass hysteria here. I have never seen anything quite like that in this league."

What the latest development means for the organization, as a whole, remains to be seen. There is trepidation, to be sure, but until there is a tangible buyer, it does no good to worry.

Least of all for coach Don Nelson, who was, ironically, fired the first time by the Warriors after Cohan purchased the team from Jim Fitzgerald.

Nelson has one year at $6 million left on his latest contract. It appears the team is poised to bring Nelson back despite the difficult season, reasoning that they'd be far better if everybody was healthy and that he's done a good job keeping the Warriors competitive in most games despite a roster full of developmental league players. Nelson knows an ownership change likely means the end of his career, but he showed little concern in a pre-game news conference.

"I am 70 years old," Nelson said. "My future is clear. I have one more year left and I am going to retire. It's going to be business as usual as far as I'm concerned."

Nelson has said publicly he would coach one more year for free. But, he said, he does not hold that promise for a new owner.

"That was for Chris Cohan," Nelson said.

Without any immediate clarity, the Warriors trudge along conducting everyday activities, general manager Larry Riley approaching the draft as if this was just another season, doing due diligence for a man who is not likely to keep him around regardless of how hard he works.

It is the nature of a franchise in transition.

But at the very least, after 15 long and arduous years, there seems to be a way around the firewall.

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