In 1997, as they negotiated to buy the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, Newport Beach-based real estate developer Tony Guanci introduced them to John Thomas, majority owner of the Sacramento Kings and partner in the L.A. real estate firm Maguire Thomas. In 1998, the Maloofs agreed to purchase a minority interest in the Kings, then bought out Thomas in 1999. Most observers hooted—and not just because they paid top dollar. The Kings had been perennial NBA doormats since the team, formerly the Kansas City Kings, moved to Sacramento before the 1985-86 season. Worse, with Sacramento seen as a provincial hick town, the team was shunned by NBA players, the majority of whom are African American.

This time around the Maloofs' timing was sublime. They inherited Geoff Petrie as general manager, and the former Portland Trail Blazers star has an eye for talent. In 1996, Petrie drafted a scrawny 19-year-old named Peja Stojakovic, now the NBA's best pure shooter. In 1998, he traded for Chris Webber, an NBA star player. In 2001, Petrie acquired steely Mike Bibby, son of USC basketball coach and former UCLA star Henry Bibby.

"When I played with Denver, we'd come in here and blow 'em out," Kings guard Bobby Jackson says. "The Maloofs changed the image real fast."

Without meddling in the day-to-day operations, the Maloofs have backed up Petrie with big bucks. They built a $9-million training facility adjacent to Arco Arena, a major upgrade for a team that practiced at the local Y. They signed Webber and Bibby to $123 million and $80 million seven-year contracts, respectively, demonstrating their commitment to winning.

"They've brought a lot of resources to bear, not just economic," Petrie says. They did it "with energy and enthusiasm and a strong belief that we can create a winner here."

By 2002, the Kings had joined the NBA's elite, good enough to challenge the Lakers. L.A. coach Phil Jackson decried Sacramento as a "cow town." Fans responded by shaking their cowbells at him. Shaquille O'Neal, ever the wordsmith, dubbed them the "Sacramento Queens."

Then came the playoff series that cemented the rivalry: a best-of-seven face-off in 2002, with the winner going to the NBA finals. Each team won three games before the Lakers finally prevailed in overtime of Game 7. But the most dramatic moment occurred in the fourth game, as Laker forward Robert Horry threw in a three-point shot at the buzzer, giving the Lakers a come-from-behind win.

"I felt like I was shot in the stomach," Gavin says.

"I asked [former UNLV coach] Jerry Tarkanian, 'When do you think we'll get over this?' " Joe says. "He said, 'You'll never get over it. Not until you win your first title, and then you still won't get over it.' "

Last season, many sportswriters picked the Kings to win the NBA title. But Webber suffered a knee injury during the playoffs, and the team never recovered. This season, despite Webber's being sidelined until late in the season, the Kings have one of the best records in the NBA.

For the family, owning the Kings has become "the ultimate labor of love because it's become part of their sense of self and identity," says the Kings' Thomas. That spirit has trumped the efforts of major corporations such as Disney, Time Warner, and News Corp., all of whom trumpeted "synergy" as the reason behind their ownership of professional sports teams. But those efforts largely failed—with their fans and shareholders alike harshly critical.

The Maloofs, on the other hand, have used the Kings and the Palms to build their own brand, customer by customer. "They have helped change the perspective of owners as sit-in-the-luxury-box hidden faces to out-in-front faces of the organization," says Cuban, who has cultivated an image similar to the Maloofs' in Dallas. "Their fans and customers know exactly where the buck stops, and that is critical to the success of any business."

Already, the Maloofs are looking ahead to next season, when the Kings will play two preseason games in China against the Houston Rockets, whose star center is Yao Ming. "The Maloofs approached us with an idea about staging a concert in Tiananmen Square, and we're busy at work with that concept," says NBA Entertainment president Adam Silver. "They are among the most creative and passionate owners in the league."

Despite their incessant bonhomie, this has been a difficult winter for the brothers. In January, their Uncle Phil—one of the family's last links to their father—suffered a heart attack. Joe quit smoking cigarettes, and he and Gavin curtailed their nonstop travel to stand vigil. Phil's eventual recovery notwithstanding, the episode was a not-so-subtle reminder that heart disease (and premature death) are part of the family legacy.

The Maloofs also have made some moves that are distinctly not fan-friendly. Claiming that their cable television carrier, Fox Sports Net Bay Area, was low-balling them, the brothers refused to sign a new contract, leaving the Kings without a cable deal. Not only did they forfeit millions in revenue, but their fans now see fewer games on television.

Absent a cable contract, the Maloofs have threatened to start their own 24-hour regional sports network, which would feature the Kings and the Sacramento Monarchs, the Women's National Basketball Assn. team they own, as well as minor-league baseball and college sports.

In addition, the Maloofs are beginning to campaign for a new arena. But in this they are on the defensive. Arco, privately built in 1988 for about $40 million, is already the third-oldest facility in the NBA and lacks many of the amenities—fancy eateries, plentiful club seats, plush luxury suites—that are de rigueur in NBA arenas and, not so incidentally, boost club revenue. To counter this disadvantage, the Maloofs have raised average ticket prices "from the bottom third of the NBA right into the top five overall," according to the Sacramento Bee.

In 2002, Mayor Heather Fargo proposed the creation of a sports and entertainment district in downtown Sacramento, anchored by a $300-million arena. To pay for it, the state Legislature passed and former Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill to enable bars and restaurants in the newly formed district to levy a surcharge for food and beverages. The Maloofs were to contribute about 20% of the arena costs.

But businesses balked, and an embarrassed Fargo was forced to withdraw the proposal. By then the Maloofs were taking heat for having made a $100,000 contribution to Davis' campaign in the recall election. Critics said they had bought the governor's support. The brothers deny it. "We did it because he's a Democrat and it was just a donation," Joe says. "It had nothing to do with the timing."

The Maloofs also supported former presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, who had campaigned for their brother Phil during his unsuccessful run for the U.S. Congress in New Mexico. Gephardt campaigned as staunchly pro-union, an embarrassing twist given that the Maloofs have fought off unionization efforts among culinary workers at the Palms.

As for their future outside the Kings, the Maloofs are trying to buy the Anaheim Mighty Ducks from Disney, which last year sold major league baseball's Anaheim Angels, its other major sports team. The Maloofs are also about to launch their own record label with Interscope Records, and they have a television production deal with MGM in the works. The two deals are high risk, however. NHL franchises are losing money these days, and the record industry is in dire straits.

On the other hand, "if they were to get involved with the Mighty Ducks at a bargain-basement price, they could use their presence in Orange County to promote their Las Vegas property," says USC sport-business professor David Carter. "It's a natural fit."

A confidentiality agreement signed with Disney prevents the Maloofs from talking about specifics. But whatever they do, they say they will rely on their father's business tenets to guide them. Outside of their third-floor offices at Arco Arena, a photograph shows a near-empty stadium the year after the Florida Marlins won the 1997 World Series. It serves as a daily reminder, Joe says, that a team's popularity can wither overnight if an organization ignores its fans.

"We stay awake at night worrying about that," he says. "We feel that that's why we were put on this earth, to cater to people. The customer's happiness—it's life or death for us."