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'Cow Town' Cool

Brothers Joe and Gavin Maloof Turned the Sleepy Sacramento Kings Into the NBA's Hippest Franchise--in a Beer Commercial Kind of Way

March 07, 2004|David Davis | David Davis last wrote for the magazine about the Mad Pride movement led by former mental illness patients.

It's an hour before game time at Sacramento's Arco Arena, and the faithful have gathered for battle. Cowbells dangling around their necks, their hair dyed purple and black, they carry hand-painted signs with a simple message: "Beat L.A."

No matter that the Los Angeles Lakers have arrived for this mid-January game without three of their best players--Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone, all sidelined because of injuries. To the 17,317 spectators sardined into one of the nation's most intimate pro basketball arenas, the short-handed Lakers are still the hated--the dreaded--team that has eliminated Sacramento from the playoffs three of the last four years.

On this night the Kings roll to an easy win. To the locals, the victory is meant to be savored--like strawberries in winter, to paraphrase sportswriter Red Smith. Many fans refuse to go into the chilly Northern California night. Instead, they flock courtside and surround Gavin Maloof, a stubby, boyish-looking man who co-owns the team with his brother Joe. Women who are Saran-wrapped into extra-small T-shirts and powder-blue Von Dutch baseball caps brazenly proffer their cellphone numbers. Teens in oversized Chris Webber jerseys line up to get Maloof's autograph. Others drape themselves around him and pose for photos. Maloof's companions urge him to hustle to the post-game party he is hosting, but he is in no hurry.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Sacramento Kings -- The March 7 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on Gavin and Joe Maloof incorrectly stated that the Sacramento Kings professional basketball team was formerly known as the Kansas City Royals. The team was the Royals while based in Rochester, N.Y., and Cincinnati. In the move to Kansas City, the name was changed to the Kansas City Kings.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 04, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on Gavin and Joe Maloof (" 'Cow Town' Cool," March 7) incorrectly stated that the Sacramento Kings professional basketball team was formerly known as the Kansas City Royals. The team was the Royals while based in Rochester, N.Y., and Cincinnati. In the move to Kansas City, the name was changed to the Kansas City Kings.

"It's always good to beat 'em and get the win," he yells above the din. "Now our fans go home happy, and that's what Kings basketball is all about."

The brothers Maloof--they've become so ubiquitous that their names might as well be "JoeandGavin"--are among the most prominent faces in the state capital, even more popular than a bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-governor named Arnold. Since 1999, when they paid $247 million for majority ownership of the Kings and Arco Arena, they have transformed a moribund franchise that was once the laughingstock of the league into its most exciting team. Couple that with their ownership of the Palms Casino, perhaps the hippest hot spot in Las Vegas, and Sin City sizzle has come Sacramento--and perhaps, next, to Southern California. The Maloofs are in negotiations to buy the Anaheim Mighty Ducks of the National Hockey League.

They did so with two ingredients. First, they peddled something most fans believe sank beneath the waves in the era of sports franchises owned by faceless conglomerates--customer service. They give out their mobile-phone numbers not only to cute women but to every fan who approaches them. They created a new department to field complaints from season ticket-holders. Oh, and those long waits in beer lines? Gone, thanks to new beer stands throughout the arena. The Kings were ranked No. 1 in overall fan experience by a survey conducted for the NBA by J.D. Power and Associates.

Also, they managed to transplant their perpetual adolescent, "boys gone wild" personalities to the marketing image of their team. Joe is 48, Gavin is 47, and both are resolute bachelors. Their jet-set lifestyle includes dating models, driving Ferraris, and high-stakes gambling. While Lakers owner Jerry Buss represents Hugh Hefner and the Playboy generation, the brothers have crafted a public image that personifies the party animal bravado of Maxim magazine and Coors Light commercials.

With appearances on Howard Stern and Oprah and profiles in Cigar Aficionado and elsewhere, the Maloofs have emerged as sports-entertainment's trendiest taste-makers. Fans who go to Kings games feel like they're part of the Maloofs' hip scene--and as far as the Maloofs are concerned, they are.

"The Maloofs very much understand not just marketing and customer service, but the current culture as well," NBA commissioner David Stern says. "They're unique in that approach."

"Business is their game," says Greg Brown, who runs an Albuquerque, N.M., beer distributorship owned by the Maloof family, which includes three other siblings and their mother, Colleen. "If it helps business to have a playboy image, so be it."

It's Saturday afternoon at the family's casino in Las Vegas, and the effects of a late night are apparent. Gavin had dined with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban at the Palms' ultra-chic restaurant, N9ne, watched New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey play blackjack in the high-rollers room, then partied with Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson, Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, 'N Sync's Lance Bass and a bevy of Oakland Raider cheerleaders. Joe had planned an early night, but he eventually joined in.

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