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The Sacramento Kings …. a soon to be distant memory? [Updated]

When esteemed Yahoo! NBA Reporter Adrian Wojnarowski clicked send on the fateful tweet heard round the world at 12:19pm on 1/9/13, it caused an explosive exuberance in Seattle, levied massive devastation on Sacramento and briefly destroyed the Internet. You see, Wojnarowski broke the news that the Maloofs are finalizing a deal to sell the Sacramento Kings to a Seattle group. A Seattle group with precisely zero intention of keeping the Kings in the city they’ve called home since 1985.

The news should come as little to no surprise to anyone who’s followed the tribulations of the Maloofs in recent years. In February 2011, during All-Star weekend, NBA Commissioner David Stern gave credence to reports that the Maloofs were indeed involved in serious and ongoing negotiations with Anaheim to relocate the franchise. That caught the collective attention of Sacramento like a burglar breaking into a home, and the relationship between the Maloofs and the Sacramento has been strained and dubious since.

With the cat out of the proverbial bag, the Maloofs made their best attempt at damage control by giving vague, generic responses to queries about when and if they are going to move the Kings. Since the Maloofs were caught with their pants down flirting with Anaheim, they have largely remained tight-lipped or off the grid entirely. Joe and Gavin Maloof, the two brothers who primarily own and operate the Kings and have been the faces of the franchise since their purchase in 1999, curiously have disappeared. Interviews are scarce, appearances have been as frequent as a 100 degree day in December.

Needless to say, the Anaheim proposal fell through for a multitude of reasons; namely that the southern California market is already oversaturated with the NBA, neither the Lakers nor the Clippers were thrilled about a third franchise attempting to swipe attention, viewership, and split into their revenue stream. Another mitigating factor that the Maloofs drastically underestimated was the passion of the Sacramento fan base. It was made clear early on that Sacramento wasn’t going to sit idly by while their beloved basketball team migrated south.

Upon discovering this interest in keeping the Kings a Sacramento property, the Maloofs wisely opted to not file for relocation in the spring of 2011 and gave Mayor Kevin Johnson and the City of Sacramento one year’s time to craft a suitable and realistic arena financing plan. Mayor Johnson partnered with the absolute best at what they do in terms of both financing and constructing sports and entertainment facilities like the one Sacramento so critically needed. He moved mountains by coming up with a financing plan that essentially cost the tax payers nothing, a creative and unique financing mechanism that would largely be funded by unused parking in Downtown Sacramento and the sale of several unused city owned buildings. It was put to a vote by Sacramento City Council, and won by a resounding 7-2 vote.

In February 2012, Kevin Johnson, accompanied by AEG, renowned for their sterling reputation as arena builders and operators, then met with the Maloofs, David Stern and the NBA to close the deal on the new arena and cement the Kings in Sacramento for the next several decades. After hours of tense negotiations behind closed doors, they emerged with an agreement. Gavin Maloof cried tears of joy in relief. Days later, Kevin Johnson and the Maloofs met at half court at a Kings game, arms raised to emphatically declare that the Kings aren’t leaving, Sacramento is getting their arena, and all the other cities who were circling the Kings like vultures could put it to rest.

Then something funny happened on the way to the altar. The Maloofs mysteriously backed out of the deal just days later, leaving Mayor Kevin Johnson, the city of Sacramento and it’s legions of Kings fans mystified and furious at the Maloofs. Details emerged that there was a minor squabble about who should pay for certain research tasks in preparation for construction, and that illogically and effectively terminated the arena deal as we knew it. Finger pointing has ruled the day since, with both sides unwilling and frankly uninterested in meeting after the last negotiation left such a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth.

If there is one thing the Maloofs have been consistent on, other than the importance of a new sports and entertainment complex, is that the Kings are not for sale. Kevin Johnson presented several viable buyers, but the notion was quickly dismissed as the Maloofs repeatedly said that the Kings aren’t for sale. The age old adage that everything has a price obviously rings true in this instance, as the reported $500 million offer made to the Maloofs for a franchise valued at less than $300 million would attest.

The Seattle group, led by Chris Hansen and Microsoft co-founder Steve Ballmer, has been observing the Kings situation from afar for some time. They’ve secured an arena deal with it’s framework largely built through corporate funding and their own personal wealth, and common sense would suggest that they are ready, willing and able to overpay for the Kings to transform them back into their precious Supersonics. In their defense, Seattle maintained a reputation as one of the loudest and most passionate fan bases in the league just like Sacramento. Similarly, their ownership group bolted for perceived greener pastures in Oklahoma City in 2008, effectively erasing 41 years of history and nostalgia. The Emerald City has been relentless in retrieving an NBA franchise and restoring their proud Sonics tradition, and purchasing and relocating the Kings could be their last hope for the foreseeable future.

The City of Sacramento will no doubt fight for their Kings, but what could the city and Kevin Johnson possibly have left under their sleeves? The arena deal is dead, the fan base is exhausted and dejected, local corporate sponsors are beyond irritated with the Maloofs. This is an issue that comes down to dollars and cents. Even if Mayor Kevin Johnson was able to present a viable buyer who could match Seattle’s nonsensical $500 million offer, there are still a few underlying issues: the Maloofs could care less about how their name is perceived in Sacramento, and there is bad blood between the family and the city after all the name calling and vitriol thrown their way these last several years. Obviously the Maloofs have the right to sell to whomever they desire, their strained relationship with Sacramento coupled with the exponentially deep pockets of the Seattle group suggest that this is all but a done deal.

Mayor Kevin Johnson was clearly blindsided by the Seattle news when it broke, but he wasn’t caught flatfooted. In his press conference Wednesday he reiterated the importance of keeping the Kings in Sacramento and outlined his plan of action. Johnson divulged that there are a multitude of potential buyers who could make offers at least in the same ballpark as the Seattle group, and it would come from individuals that would keep the team in Sacramento. When media that cover this story and fans alike initially read about the reported sale of the team, it was widely assumed that it was essentially a done deal. The negotiations were even described as first and goal at the one, an apt analogy given the grave and considerable threat that Seattle posed.
But what media and fans alike did was underestimate Mayor Kevin Johnson, again. Lest not forget, two years ago this team was all but packed for southern California. History might not remember that without Johnson’s role these last few years with respect to the Kings’ relocation, they absolutely would be the Anaheim Royals today. That is a certainty. What he did in crafting the arena plan’s financing mechanism virtually by himself in 12 months and doing the Maloofs work for them by securing $10 million in corporate sponsorships for the 2011-12 season suggest that Sacramento might just have a fighter’s chance at keeping their beloved Kings. An important element that shouldn’t be underscored is Mayor Johnson’s outstanding working relationship with Commissioner Stern. Stern, long a proponent of Sacramento and an advocate for keeping the team here, granted Johnson a meeting with the NBA Board of Governors two years ago and that is when he bought the city more time. It stands to reason that he will be given the same opportunity again.

We won’t know what the future holds until March, as that is when the Maloofs will have the option to file for relocation. Another noteworthy piece of information is the sale of a franchise isn’t official until the NBA signs off on it. This gives Kevin Johnson ample time to organize his potential owners and outline another impressive presentation championing Sacramento as a sustainable market for the NBA’s Board of Governors and relocation committee. Godspeed, KJ.

About the author

David Spohn

David Spohn was born and raised in Northern California and is proud to call the Sacramento area home to this day. Primary related work experience includes a lengthy tenure at Bleacher Report as the Sacramento Kings Featured Columnist. Since attending his first Sacramento Kings game nearly twenty years ago, he fell in love with the NBA game, cultivating a perfect marriage of his two biggest passions: writing and sports. David is married to his high school sweetheart Whitney and is the proud father of two boys, Landon and Devon.

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