SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Before the mudslinging became a routine public affair here, the harsh words between city officials and the Maloof family that owns the Kings were typically kept behind closed doors.
And so it was in the late morning of March 29 inside a conference room at Old City Hall, where Mayor and former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson dished his dirt while speaking to about 25 members of the Kings' A-list team sponsors. Despite all the excitement surrounding the handshake deal for a new downtown arena made more than a month before, Johnson -- who raised some $10 million from these same business leaders the year before as a way of showing the league how badly the Maloofs had mismanaged this market -- had a warning for the group.
He told them that a bit of bad arena news "might be coming out of L.A.," as one source who was in the room remembered, a clear foreshadowing of the Los Angeles Times report published just hours later that detailed the Maloofs' concerns about the deal and raised the possibility yet again that they might be on the move. Johnson -- who had seen Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof cry tears of joy when they had the "framework" agreed to at All-Star weekend in Orlando; who had celebrated with the team's owners on the Power Balance Pavilion court as if this game was over; and who had spent so much of his time in office pushing this revitalization project only to see it fall apart at the end -- was fuming about this failed partnership again. He said the Maloofs "should be ashamed to show their faces in Sacramento," the source said, then offered an unsolicited reminder that his Plan B was still very much in play: Ron Burkle.
A year after Johnson partnered with the L.A.-based billionaire to put pressure on the Maloofs to sell the Kings, sources say he remains in constant contact with Burkle and is still hopeful that he will eventually take over the team and keep it in Sacramento. Burkle, the Pittsburgh Penguins' owner who was ranked 107th on Forbes' list of richest people in America last year (net worth of $3.2 billion), was a major part of Johnson's pitch to stop the Maloofs from moving to Anaheim.
His known associate, lobbyist Darius Anderson, accompanied Johnson to the Board of Governors meeting last April in which Johnson made his successful pitch that led to at least one more season in Sacramento. And while it's not known if Burkle is alone on the list of prospective owners (there is a nameless mystery man who is a prospective owner as well), Johnson ceased negotiations with the Maloofs on Friday and appears determined to pursue the strategy he seemed to prefer all along.
This push to force the Maloofs out was already underway on Thursday, when 26 Sacramento business owners sent a letter to NBA commissioner David Stern urging him to "strongly encourage" the family to sell. That message came directly from Johnson's camp for the first time on Sunday, by way of a 1,853-word letter sent to members of Johnson's regional initiative, "Think Big Sacramento."
The scathing account of the recent events took aim at the Maloofs for the way they backed out of the $391 million deal, and concluded by raising the idea of "an alternative ownership group."
It was penned by a man named Chris Lehane, the Think Big executive director whose career has suddenly become a case of life imitating art. Lehane, who is widely known as a cutthroat political consultant who worked for the Clinton White House, is the co-writer of the independent film Knife Fight, which premieres in New York later this month.
The title of the movie was born out of Lehane's commentary on the 2008 presidential election, when he worked with the Al Gore/John Kerry Democratic team and famously said, "In the last five days, it always comes down to a knife fight in a telephone booth." The sneak preview took place at the Board of Governors meeting last week in New York and continued in Sacramento over the weekend.
After Kings co-owner George Maloof and a family-hired economist attempted to defend the decision to decline the deal during an emotional, non-NBA sponsored, 90-minute press conference in New York, Lehane released a statement that took the public bashing to a whole new level.
"As their bizarre press conference laid bare for all to see, dealing with the Maloofs is like dealing with the North Koreans -- except they are less competent," Lehane wrote. "In Maloof world, facts are fiction, truths are half-truths and promises are broken promises. The city of Sacramento deserves better."
In an interview with SI.com, George Maloof said he's miffed at the outrage.
"I don't understand why you'd just pile on somebody who has done nothing wrong," he said. "We've done nothing wrong, but work in good faith."
But Johnson's premise -- that the Maloofs will sell or be forced to sell -- is the part where it gets puzzling. No matter how badly he and perhaps the NBA want the Maloofs to hand the team over, the family continues to say it won't give in to the pressure and that relocation isn't an option this time around even with the latest setback.
Given Stern's history as the kind of commissioner who can't be crossed, the notion that there would be no recourse for the egg on his face seems unfathomable. The Maloofs, who say they voiced their concerns for seven weeks without response from the city, declined a deal that was essentially drafted by Stern himself and funded, for their part, by the Bank of the NBA.
Stern's team of officials handled all negotiations with the city, and he revealed on Friday that $67 million of the $73 million to be contributed by the Maloofs would be on loan from the league (with an additional $7 million in NBA contributions to the project as well). The city's contribution was expected to be worth up to $255 million, while arena operator and builder AEG had agreed to pay $59 million. Nonetheless, the Maloofs now contend that revenue projections were overly optimistic and that both they and the city would be far too exposed financially over the 30-year life of the deal.
But just because former Lakers coach Phil Jackson once compared the Maloofs to the McCourts doesn't mean there will be a hostile takeover anytime soon, even if the Kings are about to conclude their sixth straight losing season and have spent recent years with minimum payroll rosters and questionable management. Major League Baseball rules that allowed commissioner Bud Selig to assume control of the Dodgers don't exist in the NBA, and the threat of a possible antitrust lawsuit from the Maloofs could be forcing Stern to support their decision.
Meanwhile, the Maloofs, who initially claimed that a $3.25 million redevelopment fee was the main holdup of the deal, have likely lost more than that in team sponsorships and future attendance by way of this public relations disaster. Because so many businesses agreed to one-year deals last season as a result of the one-year reprieve, sources close to the team say there are more than 50 partners up for renewal for next season and there's simply not much incentive to invest in the future. And while the Power Balance Pavilion crowd at Sunday night's game against the Trail Blazers was surprising in its size (16,012) and serenity -- not to mention the appearance of Joe and Gavin Maloof, who watched the game from their suite but scrapped a plan to sit courtside and perhaps even address the crowd -- it's hard to imagine the support continuing without the return of hope here.
What it all means going forward remains unclear. Those who see the Maloofs as cash-strapped, debt-ridden owners with no business owning a team hope the likely downturn forces them to sell, while others predict they'll survive next season and have all the evidence they need to tell the NBA to get out of their way thereafter en route to Anaheim or elsewhere.
George Maloof insisted that the family wants to remain and reiterated his stance that Johnson is killing the downtown deal by refusing to negotiate further. He has also reversed his family's long-held stance on the possibility of renovating the current facility, but Johnson said he has no interest in that option.
"Are we open to further negotiating [on the downtown arena deal]? Of course," Maloof said. "We want to keep trying, because we feel it's important for the team and important for the city. But we are not plotting to move. That is not an option."
As Johnson sees it, though, Ron Burkle is.