When Paul Westphal was campaigning for the Kings head coaching position in the summer of 2009, his former point guard-turned Sacramento mayor, Kevin Johnson, was among his most vocal supporters. "I'm rooting for him," Johnson told me back then.
Funny how these tables have turned. Westphal is the one rooting for Johnson now.
The team that Westphal has watched over for two seasons looked destined for departure just five months ago. The Maloof family, which owns the team, had eyes for Anaheim, and Johnson, a Sacramento native who took office in 2008, was seemingly helpless to stop them from skipping town.
But "Mr. Clutch," as his colleagues have started calling him, has led the most furious of comebacks. The rally started one day after the team's emotional season finale at home, where the tears of so many fans flowed and even Westphal was at a loss for words to describe the perceived end of this era. His postgame press conference following that overtime loss to the Lakers included a 17-second stretch of silence, 14 of those seconds passing with Westphal staring at the ground below while the cameras rolled.
Johnson, however, knew exactly what to say.
Much to the delight of the fans who have so staunchly supported this team in Sacramento for 26 years, Johnson wowed the league's owners at the Board of Governors meeting in New York on April 14 and earned his city this overtime period that is still being played. Sacramento officials were given a March 1 deadline to come up with a secured arena plan or risk relocation once again.
Johnson's stellar performance continued on Wednesday in the state capitol, where viable financing options for the $387-million downtown venue were presented publicly in the form of "The Nexus Report" and the momentum continued to surge in Sacramento's direction.
"There [are] a lot of things that are different from past [arena] efforts," Johnson said afterward. "I think there are a lot of lessons learned. I think we're going to create a win-win. I think the public is going to win. I think the NBA and the Kings are going to feel good about it, and I think those who benefit from the use of the entertainment and sports complex are going to feel good about it. ... We can make this happen."
The Kings owners, who have agreed to be a tenant in the building as opposed to owning it, then issued a statement of support that made it clear all parties are continuing to collaborate.
"The Kings organization views The Nexus Report as a very positive step toward the goal of a new entertainment and sports complex that will bring substantial economic benefits to the entire region and we hope will enable the team to continue playing in Sacramento," the statement read. "We were pleased with the report's conclusion that funding for the project can be achieved using various revenue sources, none of which involve any broad-based tax. We look forward to continuing to work with all interested parties to bring the project to completion."
Meanwhile, Westphal, who had a combined record of 191-88 during his three-plus seasons with Johnson in Phoenix (1992-95), is hardly surprised to see Johnson leading with such poise and potency.
The two men aren't teaming up like they did back when deep playoff runs were the norm and only Michael Jordan got between them and an NBA championship in 1993, but they are certainly on the same team. In an interview with SI.com, Westphal discussed the Sacramento saga and the role one of his favorite players has played so well.
SI.com: Kevin has impressed a lot of folks -- myself included -- for a while now, but what has this been like from your perspective?
Westphal: I'm not sure of all the inner workings of the political world that he's involved in, but I just know that he's an idealistic person who cares very deeply about making positive efforts in the world. He's highly intelligent and willing to set a goal and working toward it. He's real systematic in accomplishing the goals he sets. He's an impressive person, and I've always known that he was an idealistic warrior.
SI.com: Has he surprised you in this process, considering everybody seemed to think it was a foregone conclusion the team was leaving back in April and he led this comeback of sorts?
Westphal: It doesn't surprise me that Kevin would identify a mountain that needs to be climbed and start climbing it. Look, I don't know what the obstacles are and what he's overcome so far and remains to be overcome, but it doesn't surprise me at all that he would tackle something he feels so strongly about. And I don't think he commits himself to anything he doesn't feel strong about, either. Kevin is tenacious, so it doesn't surprise me whenever he achieves something.
SI.com: Do the two of you talk much these days or do you try and stay away from that side of it?
Westphal: Occasionally we talk on the phone and occasionally our paths cross because of the business aspect of what's going on. Every few weeks one way or the other it seems like we catch up. It's a little bit of everything. We might reminisce about the Suns. We might talk about the situation now. We might talk politics. It's just whatever happens to be the subject that comes up, usually. A few personal things, as well. We go back a long ways.
SI.com: You've always had a reputation for having defined views and being engaged and opinionated on the political side. What's your read on him as a politician?
Westphal: Well, I don't know that that's even true. I can't say what my reputation is, but I don't know that that's true. I think of myself as somebody who's a problem solver who deals with reality rather than getting too political about anything. But in private conversations, it's interesting with any politician to know [how] the realities of politics dictate your statements, and then you talk to somebody and really find out an unvarnished way to look at it. It's very interesting. ...In a one-on-one setting, it's real interesting talking to Kevin and I always enjoy it. When you're in the public eye sometimes, you can identify with other people in the public eye.
SI.com: As this process has unfolded and now that it seems like the team could stay in Sacramento, what kind of sense and vibe do you get from the locals when you're doing events and around town?
Westphal: The overwhelming sense that I get is how important the Kings are to a great many people in the Sacramento area. There's a real void that would be created if things aren't worked out and there are a lot of people who want to do everything they can to be able to say that, whatever happens, they won't look back with regret. They want this team. They want to support it. They enjoy basketball, and they want to do their part. That's the No. 1 thing I get out of the interaction I've had with fans.
SI.com: What about for you? Are you glad to see there's progress in Sacramento now, or how do you approach that aspect?
Westphal: Oh, I absolutely look at it through the eyes of the people who have supported the team in Sacramento and want to see it remain there. I think that when people care that much about something like basketball -- we all know it's not life and death -- but the Kings have done a lot to unite this community, and there are a lot of hopes that can continue [if they're there]. How can you not root for that?