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Bidding for Warriors remains competitive

OAKLAND, Calif. — The presumption is that Larry Ellison is such a heavy favorite to win his next competition that he can start popping corks and lighting up stogies.

That the Oracle Corp. chief will get the Warriors because, well, he has the most money, has pursued them for years, has made connections with NBA commissioner David Stern and is too ruthlessly competitive to lose — at anything.

So the other bidders, as they are, have no chance.

If this were true, though, the bidding process that's starting to feel like an auction might already have concluded. Ellison and his partner, Steven Fink, would have offered $450 million, dared somebody to match and, in the unlikely event someone did, they'd have bumped it to $475 mil or $500 mil. They'd yawn each time, reminding everyone Ellison excels at many things, none more than getting what he wants.

The other bidders eventually would have shut up, curled up and left the room. Ellison would own the Warriors, at a league-record price (the previous high is $401 million for the Phoenix Suns in 2004) and the franchise immediately would have become the most intriguing in the NBA.

But as the sale process moves into Phase Three this week, with the potential buyers trimmed to no more than four finalists, with each now having access to the entire operation, it remains very competitive. Partly because the offer from Ellison and Fink, according to two sources, was not among the higher initial bids submitted to current majority owner Chris Cohan and Galatioto Sports Partners, who will facilitate the sale.

"It's my understanding that at least one and maybe more bids were higher," one informed source said.

"I know Mr. Ellison and his people have done a lot of networking with the league, with the commissioner," said the other knowledgeable source. "But in the end, it's in the best interest of the commissioner and the league to get as much as they can for any franchise. Should that bid come from someone other than Ellison, and that person can get approved, then that person will get the team."

One of Stern's proudest moments as commissioner came in March, with the approval of Michael Jordan's $275 million bid for majority interest in the Charlotte Hornets. Stern became commish in February 1984, with Jordan being drafted that June. Despite some contentious moments, their relationship has been mutually beneficial. Each is a giant owing some of his status to the presence of the other. Insofar as Stern fully understands the value of branding, marketing and promotions, he most assuredly would welcome more legends becoming active members of an NBA ownership group.

Like, say, Magic Johnson.

Magic is a member of the finalist group led by Mark Mastrov, an East Bay native who acquired his wealth by founding the 24-Hour Fitness empire, overseeing two decades of national and international expansion before selling it for $1.68 billion in 2005.

Mastrov and Johnson have collaborated on numerous ventures, including fitness clubs, three of which are in the East Bay (Oakland, San Leandro, Richmond). Though the names of Mastrov's other partners have not been revealed, having Magic on board means the group has too much credibility to be dismissed.

Johnson is a Hall of Fame player who has been exceedingly successful in business; Forbes magazine, which specializes in these matters, estimates his net worth at $500 million. Mastrov's net worth is tougher to calculate, but he and partner Jim Rowley wouldn't be finalists if money were an issue.

Then, too, Mastrov has been interested in the Warriors for a number of years, has networked with Stern and made it clear he's more willing to buy the team than to engage in a bidding war with Ellison.

Mastrov knows he can't win, not if Ellison, the sixth-richest man in the world according to Forbes, is bound and determined to buy the team. Ellison can outspend all the other groups combined.

"If Larry wanted to buy the team, he could have done it by now," Mastrov said two months ago, when Ellison had a standing $315 million offer.

The same could be said today. Though that offer has been increased, according to sources, Ellison has shown no sign of crushing the competition. Though his ego surely is involved, he's no less shrewd. That he can afford to overspend doesn't mean he will.

While others are still in the game, everything points to this becoming a showdown: The willingness of Ellison and Co. to spend vs. the resiliency of Mastrov and Co.

Given where the Warriors are today, a slumbering beast badly neglected, either group would seem to be a dramatic upgrade.