Small victory for Sacramento, but another big hurdle is in sight
When word finally came down that the full-court shot had found net, the man who had let it fly so many weeks ago revealed a little-known fact about himself.
Sacramento Mayor and former NBA player, Kevin Johnson, who learned on Monday that he had saved his city's Kings for at least one more season, is a teetotaler.
"We're just going to talk about how good a moment this is in Sacramento, like this is a playoff game and we won round one," he said to a throng of approximately 100 reporters and fans in front of Sacramento's city hall. "Let's just celebrate -- what do they do, pop the corks? How do they do it? Champagne, pop the corks, whatever they do when they celebrate. This is our moment."
It's probably best that Johnson can't find his way around a corkscrew, though. He can't start celebrating just yet.
This was both a victory and a stay of execution for Sacramento. That much was clear in the announcement from the Maloof family that decided against filing for relocation to Anaheim. Beneath the words of praise for Sacramento fans, business owners, coaches and players alike, the relocation reality was there for all to see.
"Mayor Johnson has strongly indicated to both the community and the NBA that he is capable of getting the support to build a state-of-the-art entertainment and sports facility that the Sacramento region and the tremendous Kings fans so rightly deserve," the statement read. "We look forward to seeing Mayor Johnson bring his vision to reality. However, if an arena plan cannot be finalized in a timely fashion, the NBA's relocation committee has assured Maloof Sports and Entertainment that it will support an application to move the franchise to another market starting in 2012-13."
No time for a fuzzy mind for this Mayor. Unless he doesn't want to feel his feet being held to the fire.
In an interview with SI.com not long before the announcement was official, Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof reiterated the cut-and-dried nature of this situation.
"Yes, if we get an arena built that meets our specifications, yes we will stay [long-term]," he said. "Absolutely. We have to have an NBA, state-of-the-art arena. It doesn't have to have marble everywhere, but it has to be an NBA type of arena. It has to be approved by the NBA and also by us, but obviously it doesn't have to be a Taj Mahal. We know the [economic] market that we're in, but it'd have to be an NBA-approved arena and approved by us and our specifications."
Maloof said he would expect to see progress on the financing portion of the plan sooner rather than later.
"The financing part should be within a few months, I would think," he said. "Normally if you're going to have something done before the end of the year, the financing has to be in place fairly soon. We're on a fast track here."
For all the understandable and necessary P.R. work going on in the hours following the announcement, the truth is that the Kings are still in Sacramento because the NBA wanted them there. Or, more to the point, the NBA didn't want them in Anaheim.
Not now, anyway. Not with collective bargaining negotiations going on, with commissioner David Stern looking to push a number of small-market/large-market issues that would be aided by the support of Lakers owner and Kings relocation opponent, Jerry Buss. Not with the way the Maloofs' plan was put together, with the Anaheim presentation given at Board of Governors meetings in New York in mid-April only raising more questions while Johnson answered the call on Sacramento's side.
Sources close to the Maloofs say an intense weekend of family meetings in Las Vegas included discussions of all the well-chronicled scenarios. They strongly considered filing in the face of league opposition, then claiming they would monitor arena developments in Sacramento and keep open the possibility of rescinding the relocation request before it went to a vote of the league's owners (who would have had up to 120 days to vote). If there were no developments in Sacramento, the Maloofs would then have had to decide whether to fight the league in court -- by way of an eventual antitrust case -- after the majority "no" vote that was expected, or simply give in to the will of the NBA at a later date.
The Maloofs -- whose Las Vegas casino and hotel was hit hard by the recession and who raised red flags about their financial situation when they sold their beer distributorship in New Mexico in Dec. 2009 -- have privately expressed serious concern about the economic challenges that will come with remaining in Sacramento. The Kings had the leagues lowest payroll last season, with team officials admitting that those savings had everything to do with the mild profit they claim was made in the latest campaign.
Gavin insisted, however, that returning to Sacramento did not mean the low-spending trend of recent years would continue.
"First of all, we're not afraid to spend money," Maloof said. "No. 2, we have money. People don't believe we have money, but we're very financially sound. No. 3, we're going to spend money. We're very excited about the coming year. We have cap space that we're going to spend -- I don't know if we'll spend all of it, but we're going to spend a good portion of it."
Nor will they be selling the team, Maloof said, to Los Angeles-based billionaire Ron Burkle or anyone else.
"First of all, Mr. Burkle should really mind his own business," he said of the man with a reputation for buying distressed properties and who was teaming with Johnson on a Plan B if the Maloofs had agreed to sell. "He has nothing to do with our business. We're not selling the team. I've said it a million times ... We're not in distress where we have to sell it. We love this team. We have the financial wherewithal to keep going, and that's all I can say."
Stern reiterated that stance in his teleconference call with media.
"They're owners in good standing," Stern said. "They always have been, and I'm quite certain they will continue to be."
Stern, who had made clear to the Maloofs on Wednesday his strong preference that the Kings give Sacramento one last shot, said Johnson's efforts and the fighting spirit of the team's fans that was heard through a variety of grassroots efforts played a part.
"Given what the mayor did in such short a time with the sponsorship dollars ($10 million raised recently), given [Oklahoma City owner and relocation committee chairman] Clay Bennett's visit to the Sacramento area and his meetings with both the business community and certain leaders there, we came away with a strong sense that this was worth the additional year," Stern said. "It seemed to us to be so important to the leaders of Sacramento that they would not allow the opportunity to pass without getting it done.
If it's proven that we're wrong, we're wrong ... [But] we're feeling pretty good about the prospects here."
Especially, as Stern noted, if the owners get the sort of small market-friendly collective bargaining agreement they are pushing for.
"One of the things we're doing with the collective bargaining agreement and the revenue-sharing arrangements that we're working on so intently is to ensure a league where every market has the opportunity to compete, whatever its size," said Stern, who clearly wasn't eager to see another team relocate after losing the Vancouver (now Memphis) and Seattle (now Oklahoma City) markets in the last decade. "For us, Sacramento would be a grave failure given its size and history ... I think that this one has all the ingredients for success."
Johnson has been working with venue group ICON to answer the question of whether a viable plan can be put in place, with the company's feasibility study expected to be revealed on May 26. Meanwhile, Stern announced that nine NBA staff members will be descending on Sacramento on Friday to assist in all facets of the operation and that the league will be heavily involved in the situation going forward.
"We are going to provide whatever support we can where they may feel there are shortages in certain departments," Stern said. "We will provide any additional support by way of boots on the ground, consultancy, [and] other expertise. We are thoroughly committed to this year in Sacramento."
And should the team remain thereafter, Johnson can bust out the bubbly -- even if he won't be drinking it.