Kings, Royals and the Mayor

by Paul Knepper


Kevin Johnson was one of the elite point guards in the NBA during the early to mid 1990’s, a natural leader known for his quickness, precision passing and efficient shooting. He made three All-Star games as a member of the Phoenix Suns and joined Oscar Roberston and Isiah Thomas as the only players in NBA history to average over 20 points and 10 assists per game for three consecutive seasons.

K.J. has reached even greater heights since his retirement; he was elected mayor of his hometown, Sacramento in 2008. In the midst of a national recession, he inherited a city facing rising unemployment and difficult budget cuts, though ironically, Johnson’s biggest challenge as mayor may come from the world he knows best, professional basketball.

A decade ago the Sacramento Kings were the model “small market” NBA team. After purchasing majority ownership of the team in 1999, Joe and Gavin Maloof built the Kings into a title contender without breaking the bank, through shrewd trades and draft picks. The team played an exciting brand of up-tempo basketball and the city rallied behind them. The Kings sold out every game and Arco Arena turned into one of the biggest home court advantages in the league.

In the mid 2000’s, the team took a downturn. Management was unsuccessful in replacing the team’s top players who had departed via trade or free agency and the team soon fell into financial trouble. During the 2005-2006 season several of the King’s sponsors terminated their affiliation with the team. As the product on the court continued to diminish the attendance followed. On November 6, 2007, the Kings’ 354-game home sellout streak came to an end.

The Kings’ decline coincided with the Maloof brothers’ own financial troubles. They owe a significant amount of money on their Palms Casino in Las Vegas and possibly other investments as well. Their financial issues have been compounded by the team’s struggles have. The Kings have lost money in each of the past few seasons.

Since the Maloofs purchased the team they’ve been lobbying the city for a new arena. Arco Arena (now called Power Balance Pavalion as of a few weeks ago) is decrepit and ancient by NBA standards. The NCAA won’t even schedule tournament games their anymore. The team’s difficulties, as well as the Maloof’s personal troubles, have added urgency to their pleas.

For many years, the brothers stated that it was their intention to keep the team in Sacramento. They negotiated with the city to build a new publicly funded arena, but in 2006 a proposition to do so was severely  defeated on the ballot. The negotiations were highly public and damaging to the Maloofs’ reputation, so they asked the NBA for assistance and stepped into the background.

The league funded research for a possible solution and in March 2009, announced a plan to build a new arena. The deal called for Cal Expo – an independent state agency – to sell a huge block of land where the state fair is currently held to an undisclosed third-party developer, who would use the proceeds from the development of a conference center, shops and housing on the land to fund a new stadium on the property. The Maloofs were on board, but this past September the Cal Expo Board decided that the plan wasn’t in the organizations best interest.

That was the last straw for the Maloof brothers and the NBA. Soon after Cal Expo backed out of the deal the NBA stated that it would no longer actively seek to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Desperate for a new arena to rejuvenate the franchise and out of options in Sacramento, the Maloofs began to look elsewhere.

During All-Star weekend, Commissioner David Stern confirmed that the Maloofs were in negotiations to relocate the team to Anaheim. Last week the plan took a big step forward when the Anaheim City Council voted unanimously to approve up to $75 million in lease-revenue bonds to enable the Kings move to Anaheim in time for next season.

The team would play in the Honda Center, currently the home of  the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and it appears that if the move goes through the franchise will not retain the name Kings. On March 3, attorneys for the Maloofs filed for federal patent trademarks for the names “Anaheim Royals, “Anaheim Royals of Southern California,” “Orange County Royals” and “Los Angeles Royals.”

Mayor Johnson and Sacramento city officials aren’t ready to concede defeat. Last week, John Dangberg, Sacramento’s Assistant City Manager, sent a letter to Anaheim City Manager Thomas Wood urging the Anaheim City Council to cease negotiations with the Kings. He said the move could cause “irreparable harm to the City of Sacramento,” citing concern that the Maloof’s wouldn’t pay off a $73.8 million loan from the city if the team relocates. The letter prompted Joe Maloof to lash out at the mayor and city officials, saying, “We would appreciate that they not interfere with our business.”

Johnson comprehends what losing the only professional sports team in Sacramento would do to the psyche of a city hit particularly hard by the recession and continues to fight to keep professional basketball in Sacramento. He’s set to plead Sac-Town’s case before the NBA Board of Governors on April 14th, just four days before the league-imposed deadline for the Maloofs to request permission to relocate the team. Johnson has made it clear that he’s still seeking a plan to build a new arena in Sacramento so that even if the Kings leave, another NBA franchise can play there in the future.
K.J. thought he’d left the battles of the hardwood behind when he occupied the mayor’s office. Little did he know, his greatest political challenge would be much like his rookie season, fighting to secure a spot in the NBA. He’s facing an uphill battle, though if his business acumen is anywhere near as sharp as his court sense, Sacramento has the right man for the job.
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