SACRAMENTO, Calif. – And so it has come to this: A fan base that came to dislike the Maloof family in a way few cities have ever disliked the owners of any franchise in any sport now need the Maloofs to be the Maloofs to have any hope of keeping the Kings.
That’s why one organization, two cities and millions of fans waiting to (a) celebrate or (b) officially get stabbed in the heart were anxious Wednesday as Yahoo! Sports reported that the Kings were close to being sold to a group that would move the team to Seattle next season. Because the Kings have been close to leaving once before and on another occasion close to staying, only to have both fall through.
This could still fall through, too. The Maloofs – the three brothers most intimately involved, plus other siblings, plus their mother – were so deep in talks with Anaheim in spring 2011 that they received an extension on the deadline to file for relocation, before ultimately, and, smartly, deciding against becoming the third NBA team, and the only invisible one, in the Los Angeles market. Then, last February, often-contentious negotiations with Sacramento officials gave way to a deal brokered at All-Star weekend for a new downtown arena that would keep the love affair between the city and the team alive, only to have the family walk away from the agreement in principle. One of the brothers showed up at the subsequent City Council meeting to support the vote to approve the deal, a couple of the Maloofs walked to center court with Mayor Kevin Johnson during a timeout at a Kings game and raised hands in triumph, and still the family walked away.
So there remains a fair degree of uncertainty, even with the story from the very credible Adrian Wojnarowski that the Maloofs and the Seattle group are close to a deal, that this really is the end of the NBA in Sacramento.
But if it is?
The bruise will leave a spray of black and blue.
This isn’t just about basketball. It’s not even about the immediacy of the economic impact of a team here vs. no team here, with paychecks for game-night workers and business for hotels and restaurants when teams come to town. This is about everything.
The emotions: The Kings are part of the fabric of the community. That was the case when they were playoff regulars and that remains true as they annually drown in the standings. There is a lot more anger now, but that’s a sign of how much people want their fun back. And most of the anger is for the Maloofs, along with the rising tide of frustration for Geoff Petrie as head of basketball operations.
The economy: The departure of the Kings goes so far beyond losing the NBA. Members of the visitor’s bureau have worried for years about how a potential exit could hit Sacramento in ways that might not be measurable for years. Convention business could suffer as groups take conventions to cities that seem more major league. Service industries will suffer in what is already a time of financial hardships.
The arena: Sacramento still needs one. Sleep Train Arena – the former Arco Arena – has already been losing business, sometimes to smaller facilities in town and sometimes to other locales all together. Johnson has been forceful in saying his hometown must have an entertainment complex whether the Kings are part of it or not. Now, he might have to get the money without being able to promise voters an anchor tenant.
The region: The place that was one the shining example of what the NBA wanted its fan bases to be like is on the verge of having no major-league sports. Oakland is about 75 miles away, San Francisco about 90, but Sacramento itself has a microscopic amount of interest in college sports. It has one of the best minor-league baseball stadiums in the country and a deep baseball tradition, but no real passion for what happens on the field with the Class AAA affiliate of the A’s. That’s what the Kings are/were for.
There will be some local hope that Sacramento could one day get another team, the way the league looked favorably at Charlotte for years of support that was washed away by a distaste for ownership, if an arena is built. And, indeed, Johnson has built major credibility with owners and league executives. But the former All-Star point guard with the Suns has received the message from commissioner David Stern loud and clear: Don’t wait by the phone. While there is no way to know what the world will look like in five years, chances are very, very slim.
If Sacramento wants the NBA, it needs the Seattle deal to fall apart. It needs to work with these owners, get an arena, and hope for a sale later. It needs the Maloofs to be the Maloofs.