Sacramento mayor directs offense in fight to retain NBA’s Kings

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson celebrates last week after the City Council approved an arena deal.
(Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Associated Press)
Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — The most effective politician in Sacramento? There’s no question. It’s the mayor.

Kevin Johnson — K.J. as he became known during his pro basketball playing days — is indisputably the right mayor at the right time.

It’s impossible to imagine any other mayor anywhere — let alone from Sacramento — who would have such entree into the National Basketball Assn. as the city struggles to keep Seattle from pilfering its beloved Kings.

Johnson recently concluded a successful whale-hunting expedition — whale being the synonym for billionaires willing to buy the team and invest in a new downtown arena.


“Whales are not indigenous to Sacramento,” says Chris Lehane, a political consultant who has worked with the mayor on the arena project.

Yes, that has been a huge Sacramento dilemma in its efforts to keep the Kings from bolting — the scarcity of very rich people and lack of a strong corporate base.

But Johnson, 47, a former all-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns, has used his star power and competitive tenacity to keep the Kings alive in the city where he grew up.

“I’m a Sacramentan,” he says. “You don’t ever like to see a team leave a city where you’re from. As a player, I traveled around to 29 other cities and saw how much basketball meant. It was about civic pride and economic development. I saw public-private partnerships work. This can be a game-changer.”

Johnson has recruited an impressive pod of whales:

Beverly Hills investor Ron Burkle, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team; 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, who once tried to buy the NBA’s Golden State Warriors; Silicon Valley software tycoon Vivek Ranadive, a part owner of the Warriors; and the Jacobs family of San Diego, founders of Qualcomm.

“We have a dream team of investors,” Johnson says.

Ranadive, who emigrated from India with $50 in his pocket, apparently would write the biggest check and be the lead owner. The bidding price hasn’t been announced. But presumably it’s close to Seattle’s offer: $341 million for 65% of the team, placing the franchise’s overall value at $525 million, an NBA record sale price.

Burkle would focus on developing the $448-million, 18,500-seat arena and surrounding office space, housing units, stores and a hotel. The city would contribute $258 million, mostly from parking fees.

At the mayor’s urging, the City Council voted 7 to 2 for the arena deal last week, culminating a decade-long effort to replace the crumbling old barn where the Kings have played for most of their 28 seasons in Sacramento.

The Seattle poachers are led by multibillionaire hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer. Seattle has been without an NBA team since the SuperSonics fled to Oklahoma City in 2008 and became the Thunder.

The Seattle group already has a signed agreement with the Kings owners — the locally despised Maloof family — to buy the team and ship it. But it’s subject to NBA approval.

“We want the folks of Seattle to get a team,” Johnson told the City Council. “We wish them well. But we want to keep what’s ours.”

Crucial meetings are scheduled in New York on Wednesday between a committee of NBA owners and the two sides. Then all the owners will vote April 18.

Johnson will lead the Sacramento delegation, as he did two years ago when the Maloofs tried to move the Kings to Anaheim. Johnson then was able to persuade the NBA to back down the Maloofs — helped by the fact that the Lakers and Clippers didn’t want more competition for L.A. fans.

“I’ve never seen a more organized, articulate and compassionate speech” than Johnson’s to the NBA owners, says lobbyist, investor and sports junkie Darius Anderson. “He played on every owner’s heartstrings.”

Anderson, a longtime Democratic fundraiser, originally solicited Burkle to buy the Kings two years ago. But the Maloofs angrily insisted the team wasn’t for sale.

The Maloofs then negotiated an arena agreement with the city, aided by NBA Commissioner David Stern. One Maloof brother, Gavin, even wept as the family made a long-term commitment to Sacramento. But later, the Maloofs backed out.

Soon afterward, they began negotiating with Virginia Beach, Va., to move the team there. But Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell rejected the town’s request for a $150-million subsidy.

Enter Seattle.

Those weren’t the only times the Maloofs back-stabbed Sacramento. In 2006, they negotiated a sales tax increase to pay for a new arena. But they reneged on the deal just as the ballot measure campaign kicked off.

In fact, they were suspected of sabotaging the measure. The Maloof brothers appeared in a Carl’s Jr. TV ad, washing down burgers with a $6,000 bottle of wine — a display of extravagance that infuriated voters.

In the early years of the Maloof ownership, starting in 1999, the Kings were very competitive and played some thrilling playoff games with the Lakers. The Kings sold out every game for 19 seasons.

But in recent years, the team has become crummy. It now ranks at the bottom of NBA attendance. And there’s little effort to maintain an arena that’s falling apart.

In fact, the last time I attended a game a few years ago my $115 seat collapsed. Ushers couldn’t find me another. They provided a couple of cushions to sit on. That’s when I decided not to renew my partial season ticket plan.

It’s the kind of neglect that makes a sports franchise vulnerable — and a city and mayor crying out for new owners.

If Johnson can pull this off, it will be the biggest come-from-behind win of his career.