Real estate kingpin appeared close to deal

He prefers jeans to suits, likes to ride Ducati motorcycles and has a wicked sense of humor when it comes to holiday gifts. And he long ago dubbed himself “the grave dancer” for his skill at reviving distressed real estate properties.

But does he have the moves to survive a fight over a distressed media property? Sam Zell, the Chicago-based real estate kingpin, was likely practicing his dance steps late last week when he appeared to be cruising toward an $8 billion deal to take over the beleaguered Tribune Co., owner of newspapers including the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, and 23 major-market TV stations.

But as word spread that Tribune was leaning toward accepting Zell’s bid of $33 a share, L.A. billionaires Ron Burkle and Eli Broad conjured a revised offer valuing the company at about $34 a share.

The eleventh-hour jousting begs the question, what do Zell, Burkle and Broad see in Tribune that other bigtime investors don’t?

Tribune has drawn mostly low-ball bids and stares from the usual suspects in big media deals since it was forced to put itself on the block last summer.

Zell entered the fray in February, just as he closed escrow on a deal to sell his Equity Office Properties Trust to Blackstone Group for $39 billion. Burkle and Broad have been circling Tribune for some time and previously submitted an offer that was deemed insufficient by Tribune’s board.

Zell, 65, is known as an unconventional, born entrepreneur. He’s renowned for sending out unusual holiday gifts to friends and business associates. In the late 1990s, at the height of the dot-com bubble, Zell reportedly designed a statuette of a naked computer geek with the pointed inscription: “The emperor has no clothes.”

If Zell gets his Tribune quarry, one can only wonder what the grave dancer’s 2007 holiday tschotske might be.

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