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Savvy politicos block the shot

Sacramento's Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA all-star, teamed with a squad of connected political operatives to gain an edge in the fight to keep the Kings in town.

May 01, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • A mural in downtown Sacramento virtually begs the Maloof family, the owners of the Sacramento Kings, to keep the team in town.
A mural in downtown Sacramento virtually begs the Maloof family, the owners… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — There's an emotional risk to falling in love with a local pro sports team, because it can cheat on you. It can walk out and take up with another city.

An owner sees greener pastures — more dollars — and jumps the fence.

Or some out-of-town billionaire buys a team as a toy to bring home—as is being attempted in Seattle with the Sacramento Kings NBA team.

In California's capital, basketball fans have been living in trauma for two years as suitors in Anaheim, Virginia Beach, Va., and now Seattle have made moves on their beloved Kings.

One thing they've learned the hard way: The Kings no more belong to Sacramento than the Dodgers to Brooklyn. Or the Rams to Los Angeles, or the Lakers to Minneapolis.

Owners can pack up their clubs and skip town, as they did with all the above teams.

That's not to say that the Dodgers or Lakers ever will leave the comforts and cash of L.A. But the Rams did. And the Clippers abandoned San Diego.

The Sacramento Kings, over their lifetime, have resided in Rochester, N.Y., Cincinnati and Kansas City. They were carried off from Kansas City by a Sacramento group in 1985.

They were almost out the door to bigger, more prosperous Seattle, a previously jilted city, until Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA all-star, teamed with a squad of Sacramento political players to turn the game around.

It's now the equivalent of a 15-point lead for Sacramento with one minute to go after a special NBA committee of owners voted unanimously, 7-0, Monday to recommend that the league reject the Kings' move to Seattle. All the owners — there are 30 — won't vote until mid-May, but Sacramento's lead looks insurmountable.

The NBA apparently feels that it would send the wrong message to fans everywhere if it yanked a team away from a city that had been extraordinarily loyal — at one 19-year stretch selling out every game — and is planning to build a new downtown arena with a substantial public subsidy.

"There's some benefit that should be given to a city that has supported us for so long and has stepped up to contribute to build a new building," NBA Commissioner David Stern said after the vote.

There's no one who believes, however, that Sacramento would have been in the game without Johnson.

The 47-year-old Sacramento native was clearly the right mayor at the right time — using his leadership skills as a former point guard for the Phoenix Suns, his star power to attract new Kings investors and his relationship with Stern and NBA owners.

But the Sacramento lineup also included some seasoned and connected political operatives.

Democrat Darrell Steinberg was the right state Senate leader at the right time — the first Sacramentan to hold that powerful post in more than a century.

Steinberg's principal role was to convince the NBA that California was not as business-unfriendly as its reputation — and Sacramento wasn't as impossible a place to build a new arena as Seattle was claiming.

A month ago, at the mayor's request, Steinberg flew a red-eye to New York to meet with NBA owners and inform them about recent tweaks to the California Environmental Quality Act, which often stymies development, and to point to reform legislation he is pushing.

The Senate leader's message: The California Legislature would do whatever was needed to smooth the way for a new $448-million downtown arena to replace the old crumbling suburban barn where the Kings have been playing.

Disappointing for the Sacramento contingent, however, is that Gov. Jerry Brown hasn't said a peep about keeping the Kings in California. Here's a governor who traveled to China to lure investment to the state, but hasn't lifted a finger to save an enterprise under his nose that employs more than 800 people and would create 4,000 arena construction jobs.

Other politicos have pitched in.

Start with Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, a Kings fan. When Stutzman learned two years ago that the Kings owners — the locally despised Maloof family — were trying to move the team to Anaheim, he threw some marbles in their path.

He collected signatures of Anaheim voters for a referendum to block their City Council's appropriation of public money to facilitate the move. The consultant never turned in the signatures because the Maloofs, under NBA pressure, ultimately backed down.

"We could have gummed it up for a long time," Stutzman says. "If you are going to screw with a political town, we'll use every political trick to screw with you."

Sacramento lobbyist and Kings fan Darius Anderson recruited Beverly Hills investor Ron Burkle, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, to try to buy the team. The Maloofs angrily refused.

Then they unsuccessfully attempted to ship the team to Virginia Beach, Va., before finally agreeing to sell to a Seattle partnership of hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer.

Burkle intends to finance a major redevelopment around the planned Sacramento arena. The new Kings ownership team recruited by Johnson is led by Silicon Valley software tycoon Vivek Ranadive, who emigrated from India with only $50, and includes the Jacobs family of San Diego, founders of Qualcomm.

The Maloofs are being offered $341 million for their 65% share of the team, placing the franchise's overall value at $525 million, an NBA record sale price. The Seattle group's price is $550 million, but it won't buy unless the team can be moved.

Sacramento isn't yet popping the champagne corks, but the bottles are on ice.

One lesson: Root for college teams. They may misbehave, but they can't skip town.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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