Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson fights to keep Kings from moving to Seattle
Kevin Johnson vows to keep the Kings in his hometown, but deadlines loom and Seattle has its sights on his team.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Kevin Johnson knows what it was like in Seattle.
The former NBA point guard remembers the stream of sellout crowds and electric days and nights at the Seattle Center Coliseum and KeyArena.
Last week, when he was in Seattle for meetings at the Gates Foundation on Education, Johnson forgot for a moment that the Sonics no longer exist.
"I honestly was looking through the newspaper trying to figure out if I was going to go to a Seattle SuperSonics game and it just hit me that they don't have a team anymore," said Johnson, who played in the NBA from 1987 to 2000. "I was out talking to people, and the community hasn't recovered from that. I don't wish that on anybody."
Johnson hopes Seattle someday gets an NBA team, but he's adamant it won't be the Sacramento Kings.
As mayor of Sacramento since 2009, Johnson has made a priority of keeping the Kings in town. He is one of the central characters in a strange drama playing out in Northern California that includes a multimillionaire from the Bay Area and two brothers who lost millions in Vegas. The drama is playing out in an outdated arena on the outskirts of a city hit hard by the recession.
Put in basketball terms, the 6-foot-1 point guard known as K.J. during his playing days, wants the ball in his hands as the final seconds tick down. Can he hit the last-second game-winner or pull off the biggest assist of his career?
"This is his signature issue," said Marcos Breton, a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. "The only reason the Kings are still in Sacramento is Kevin Johnson. I'm convinced if the previous mayor were in place now, they'd be in Anaheim already, or going up (to Seattle). He has a personal relationship with (NBA commissioner) David Stern that he is able to trade on."
If Johnson can't secure a financing plan to keep the Kings in Sacramento, the franchise would be the prime candidate to move to Seattle. Adding another twist, the hopes of the city that lost the Sonics in 2008 are pinned on whether Chris Hansen, a Bay Area hedge-fund manager, can finalize a plan to build a new arena south of Safeco Field.
Sacramento's NBA future figures to be determined in the next few weeks as the city approaches a series of key deadlines for constructing a $400 million arena in the downtown rail yards.
The city hopes to raise roughly $200 million by leasing the rights to parking fees downtown for 50 years.
On Tuesday, the city is expected to ask the City Council for the OK to begin negotiating with 10 companies that have submitted proposals to lease parking.
That money will be the centerpiece of a financing proposal the Kings must submit to the NBA by March 1 (the City Council is expected to be asked to approve the plan on Feb. 28). If the financing proposal is not accepted, the NBA could give the Kings the right to relocate.
The rest of the financing is expected to be made up of money from the proposed builder of the arena ($50 million) and from team owners and the NBA ($80 million) as an upfront 30-year lease payment.
"I'm very confident," Johnson told The Seattle Times.
He made those remarks while the Kings rallied to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night, a pairing of the once and perhaps future Sonics. While Johnson has his detractors (though he may run unopposed for re-election this fall), few were found in a sellout crowd at Power Balance Pavilion. He received a loud ovation when he was introduced early in the game. Homemade signs praising Johnson were evident, including one that read: "Mayor K.J. Leads the Way, our MVP for Kings to stay."
Less clear is how the owners of the Kings — brothers Gavin and Joe Maloof — feel about the proposal.
The brothers aren't talking about the arena situation. The team issued a statement to The Times that said, "The organization will await the city of Sacramento's financing plan due out in early March, at which time the team, along with the NBA, will review the information."
Johnson acknowledges that once the city makes its proposal, it's up to the Maloofs, the NBA and the developer (AEG, which built Los Angeles' Staples Center) to finalize matters.
The Maloofs have repeatedly said they don't want to sell the team. Those working on the deal say they are confident that if the NBA approves the arena deal, the Maloofs will keep the team in Sacramento.
"The NBA has been heavily involved in the negotiations and they keep the Maloof family up to date," said Jeremiah Jackson, a project manager for Think Big Sacramento, a task force put together by Johnson to focus on the arena deal. "People have always speculated that they are going to sell the team, but they have always said they don't have an interest in selling. So they have been good partners in this, but they have been kind of waiting for the NBA to really negotiate the best deal on their behalf."
Yet the owners' situation is far from clear. The Maloofs ran into well-documented financial problems due in part to their investment in the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, and their popularity in Sacramento has plummeted.
The brothers, who have had controlling ownership of the team since 1999, once were fan favorites who sat courtside cheering on one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA. In 2001, the Kings fell a game short of the NBA Finals — the high-water mark for a franchise since it moved from Kansas City in 1985.
But since 2006 the Maloofs have pushed for a new arena to replace Power Balance Pavilion, which opened in 1988 as Arco Arena and was built outside of town for just $40 million.
At 17,317 capacity, it is the smallest arena in the NBA and one of the oldest. It also lacks many of the revenue-generating amenities such as suites and club seating of new NBA arenas.
The Maloofs tried to help push through a ballot measure in 2006 that would have added a one-quarter cent sales tax in Sacramento County to provide $470 million in taxpayer dollars for a new arena. That measure failed decisively, and some say the Maloofs haven't seemed as invested in the team since. The Kings haven't bid for big-time free agents in recent years and have had one of the lowest payrolls in the league the past two seasons.
Last year, the Maloofs announced at the NBA All-Star Game that they were considering moving the Kings to Anaheim, closer to the family's home base of Las Vegas and also in a more financially advantageous arena.
The team appeared gone when it finished last season, creating a scene eerily reminiscent of the Sonics' final game in Seattle on April 13, 2008. Most fans expected it to be the last time they'd be able to cheer for the Kings. But a Johnson meeting with the NBA Board of Governors last April is generally credited for Stern deciding to halt the move to Anaheim and give Sacramento one more year to get a deal done.
Supporters of a new arena say last year's close call has helped to align forces for getting it done.
"Previously, I don't think we ever had a plan," Jackson said. "I think it's different when you come really to the brink and thought the team was gone and come back from that to have another shot at it. I do think that changed things quite a bit."
A proposal Tuesday from a council member to put the arena deal up for a public vote in June — tantamount to saying goodbye to the team — was voted down but only by a 5-4 margin.
That was portrayed ominously in some media reports. Johnson and Jackson, though, say all that matters is that it didn't pass.
"Ultimately, a win is a win," Jackson said.
Breton agrees last year's near-miss only reinforced what the team means to Sacramento. The Kings are the only major-league sports franchise in California's capital city, and even in down years provided a shot of civic pride to a city that has been hard hit by the economic downturn. The city, dependent on government jobs, has an unemployment rate of 11 percent.
"A lot of people have lost a lot of things," Breton said. "That makes people realize we don't want to lose this team."
Johnson insists that won't happen on his watch.
"I certainly wish Seattle well," said the mayor who played 14 years in the NBA. "With that said, we can control our own destiny in Sacramento. We are going to do our part. And I think we are going to figure out a way to pull it off."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta.