Sunday Musings: Arena opposition, windmills and the Sacramento Kings

Mayor Kevin Johnson celebrating news of committee's recommendation.  (Photo: Ben Sosenko/City of Sacramento)

The arena opposition hit a major snag on Friday and may not recover. It’s a long-shot at best anyway, but it led me ponder the question of what exactly are these folks fighting for?

I understand fighting against change and even a major reduction in government spending, but to what end? In no way do I wish to make this a political debate. I don’t attempt to delve into those types of arguments in conversation, let alone my writing.

And since it is not me fighting against the arena, it wouldn’t be fair for me to take their side of the argument and possibly skew their point of view. So instead and since it is Sunday Musings, I will look at this fight through the lens that is my own.

When you think about Sacramento, what is it that jumps out at you? What is it that defines this community?

Voted the most diverse city in America by TIME Magazine in 2002, Sacramento is a melting pot of people and cultures, so much so that it lacks a true identity.

Sure, Sacramento is the capital of California, but how many would get that correct on a geography test? It has a beautiful river running through its core. But without a true river-walk, Sacramento is known more for Tower Bridge, which spans the river than the water below. There are two thriving universities within 10 minutes of its borders, but neither will be featured on Sportscenter anytime soon.

The Crocker Art Museum is top notch, but it’s a hidden gem. And when you hear “When the Saints go Marching in,” do you really think about the Sacramento Music Festival in May?

None of these places or events define Sacramento. In fact, it is a city void of any specific personality.

It is not wine country or gold country. It is not a small town or a raging metropolis. It is political, but with that comes the harsh reality that at 5 pm, the city goes to sleep.

It is urban sprawl, it is a commuter city and yes, it is a rest stop between Lake Tahoe and San Francisco.

I’m not sure everyone cares if their community has an identity, but that would be a mistake. In order to grow, you need a reason for people to come. And if you hope to prosper, you need a reason for them to stay.

Mayor Kevin Johnson has talked plenty of times about making Sacramento a destination city. And due to a “Herculean effort” as David Stern has put it, he now has the clay to work with. Molding Sacramento into somewhere that people will hop on a plane and venture to will take a lot longer than Johnson’s remaining years in office. But making it a more appealing place to live and do business is becoming more obtainable.

The mayor didn’t enact law or sign a decree. He fought with the masses for a professional sports franchise and helped Sacramento become the little engine could. Sacramento is not just known for having one of the loudest fanbases in professional sports, but for having a fanbase that fought tooth and nail to defy the odds and came out victorious.

Like it or not, the fight to keep the Kings has defined a city on a national stage. It made Sacramento more than the home of the Sacramento Kings or the state capital of California. Accurate or not, Sacramento is the poster child for small markets everywhere.

Grit and passion can’t even capture what this community has shown. And trust me, people from everywhere now know where Sacramento is and what it represents. Sacramento is no longer the just California’s capital city; it is the slayer of relocation. It is where unscrupulous owners tried to disembowel a fanbase and were sent packing with hats in hand. It is the place where fans stood so tall that they could not be ignored. And it is the home of Kevin Johnson.

While there are plenty of folks who questioned the mayor’s Don Quixote-like mission to save the Kings, they should realize that he did more than just keep their city on the professional sports map.

Millionaires and billionaires are lining up to infuse the city with much needed jobs, development and capital. Wealthy people that would not be here if not for Johnson or the passion of Kings fans. Johnson, with a sea of Sancho Panza’s at his back, chased windmills and found them.

You don’t need to be a sports fan to appreciate that the Sacramento tax base is about to grow substantially. And you don’t need a degree in economics to know that if one of the region’s biggest employers uprooted and left for Seattle, there would have been an impact.

Beyond development and jobs, the city of Sacramento is finally coming out of its cocoon. It is no longer a sleepy town that would rather lose an opportunity in debate than make a bold decision. This is a city ready to spread its wings and find an identity.

Vivek Ranadivé and his NBA 3.0 vision want to make the Kings a global brand. And with the Kings, so comes the globalization of its city. It’s about more than basketball – it’s about the rebranding of an entire region on a worldwide stage.

The centerpiece to the major revitalization of Sacramento is on its way. The landscape of the city is about to get a billion-dollar influx to its urban core and that will only be the start. Shovels should be in the ground by this time next year and it won’t take long from then to see the transformation begin.

What looked like a fool’s errand, is now looking like the lynchpin for establishing Sacramento’s path as a community. A new arena will be the centerpiece, but only the first step. In order to truly capitalize on the new building, hotels, restaurants and shops will fill up an area of Sacramento that is currently the blight of the community.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where this is heading. The city of Sacramento has an opportunity to carve its own path. To create something where there is only a blank canvas.

Like it or not, Johnson, backed by the will of thousands of people, fought to keep a basketball team from leaving and won. But that is not the end result.

The true result is that the landscape of a city has changed forever.

Sacramento will never have the picturesque views of Lake Tahoe or the international allure of San Francisco. But it will forever be known as a city with a fighting spirit like no other and a city that stood up in the face of adversity and made a monumental stand that invigorated a city to its core.

“Bigger than basketball” is a catchy phrase. But if you stop and think about it, Johnson and countless others did a lot more than just save the Kings. They helped a community find a voice and an identity and at the same time, opened the flood gates to an economic revitalization that could not have come any other way.

I’m not sure that I would want to oppose something like that.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also provides game day coverage for NBA.com and is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart".