The NBA shouldn’t buy the Maloofs’ version of the Sacramento Kings narrative

The Maloofs and Kevin Johnson on the court of Sleep Train Arena following an agreement to build new home for the Kings in 2012. (Photo: Tobin Halsey)

How could one story have so many narratives?

If you are in Sacramento, this is the last chapter of a fight to save your only professional team from leaving town.  Led by Mayor Kevin Johnson and a never-say-die fanbase, a-little-engine-that-could is trying to reverse its fortunes not once, but twice in a three-year period.

In Seattle, this is Chris Hansen’s white knight journey to return basketball to the Emerald City.  After five years in exile, a once-proud Sonics fanbase finally has an ownership group and political will to get them back in the game.

But there is one more narrative that needs to be examined.

It is the story of a downtrodden family looking to move the last major asset of their portfolio.  And while they have tried to play the victim, they are anything but.

On the way out the door, they hope to stick it to the city that has supported them for the last 15 years one more time.  They are hoping to embarrass Johnson for interfering with their business.

The key to any non-fictional narrative is that it should be based in fact.  And that is something NBA owners truly have to weigh before making this decision.  How did this story reach the point where George Maloof would give two impassioned anti-Sacramento speeches to his fellow owners in a little over two weeks time?  And does he and his family have the right to dictate where one of their franchises will play just out of spite?

The Maloofs are wondering what is holding up their $358-million payday from the Seattle group led by Hansen and Steve Ballmer. And they aren’t the only ones.

It’s too good to be true. An amazing deal is on the table to return basketball to the 12th largest television market in America. This city has great tradition, fans and an incredible economy.

So what gives?

Why is the NBA, or better yet, David Stern standing in the way of what seems to be a storybook ending for both the Maloofs and the city of Seattle?

“No doubt, it’s a tough decision,” Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer wrote on Friday. “But if you’re looking at it from the Seattle perspective, it’s frustrating that commissioner David Stern continues to defend the Sacramento offer while giving vague references that it does not fully match the Chris Hansen deal.”

It’s no doubt that this has to be painful for Seattle and the Maloof family, but that is only because you are looking at one storyline in this mess of a tale.

It has a lot to do with Sacramento.  The mayor, the fans, Vivek Ranadivé and a deal that is “in the ball park” are good enough reasons for the NBA to consider staying in California’s capital for good.

But let’s be honest, that is not the only reason a decision has moved from April 3rd to April 19th to early May.

The Maloofs need to take a long look in the mirror before pointing fingers at Johnson or Stern or anyone else.  They have no right to be angry with anyone but themselves.  And the Seattle group probably should have done their homework before getting into bed with these folks.

There is a long and sordid history here that needs to be examined.  It is a history of failure and questionable decisions that have led to an untenable situation in Sacramento for the Maloof family.

In 2006, the city of Sacramento was ready to build a brand new state of the art stadium for the Kings with Measures Q & R.  The vote was set for a quarter-of-a-cent sales tax increase that would have given the Maloofs everything they wanted and much more.

“The first chunk of money that we projected would raise $750 million,” former Sacramento city councilman Rob Fong said during the taping of “Small Market, Big Heart”.  “That was going to go to building out the arena in the railyards and we thought we had plenty of money to do that.”

A big press conference was called and the night before, local politicians spent the evening going over every detail of what was to be said the next day with the Maloofs.  The stars were aligned for Sacramento to finally get a dream arena with both the owners and city on board.

According to sources with intimate knowledge of the situation, everything was perfect until moments before Joe Maloof took the stage.  Instead of following the talking points from the city’s press agent, he shunned them away in favor of a new script from his attorney.  At that point, Sacramento knew the fix was in.

Joe stumbled through a speech and tanked the deal in catastrophic fashion.  He questioned the viability of the site. He questioned the parking situation and in effect, he threw away months, if not years of work by city officials.  The infamous Carl’s Jr. commercial followed, almost mocking the voters of Sacramento with the brothers Maloof sharing a $6,000 bottle of wine to go with their $6 burgers.

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Billionaires asking for a public subsidy while flaunting their wealth?  The measures unsurprisingly failed in epic fashion.

On its face, it sounds like a gaff, which is exactly how it has been spun.  But what most folks don’t know is that immediately following the collapse of Q & R, the entire Maloof family hopped a plane for New York and asked Stern for permission to relocate the team immediately.

That was 2006.

The NBA responded by sending arena consultant John Moag to Sacramento to investigate the issue.  After close to three years on the job, the NBA decided to back a complex plan proposing a land swap of three major sites – the Cal Expo Fairgrounds, downtown railyards and Sleep Train Arena in Natomas.

The idea, dubbed the Sacramento Convergence plan, had about as much chance of succeeding as the Flowbee.

Without a massive public subsidy to get an arena deal off the ground, the convergence plan had no chance.  The failures of Q & R just a few years before made it clear that a tax increase was off the table.  By tanking the 2006 vote, the Maloofs left the city of Sacramento in a no-win situation that would last for years.

The plan fell apart completely in October of 2010 when Cal Expo pulled out of the deal, setting the stage for the January 2011 news that the Maloofs were in negotiations with Henry Samueli to move the team to Anaheim.

Coming into office in December of 2008, the mayor made a new arena for the Kings one of his top priorities.  Johnson was instrumental in bringing developer David Taylor and the ICON group to conceptualize the convergence plan and worked hard to unify city councilmembers to get something built in Sacramento.

When Stern confirmed reports that the Maloofs were trying to move the Kings to Anaheim, Johnson put on a full-court press, blowing the NBA away with nearly $10-million in new corporate sponsorships for the Maloof family and even bringing in billionaire Ron Burkle to purchase the team if they decided to sell the franchise.

The fans rallied with the Here We Stay and Here We Build campaigns, giving Johnson all the political backing he needed.  And the NBA, which wasn’t ready for a third team in Los Angeles, put the brakes on Anaheim.

The Maloof family said they would give the city one more shot to get a new arena built and once again, the NBA sent a group to investigate what had gone wrong in one of their premiere small markets.

A team of league executives was brought to Sacramento to reboot the franchise and the Maloofs turned in all of the negotiations for a new arena over to the NBA.

“We’re encouraged that something can be done,” Gavin Maloof told reporters at Kings Media Day following the conclusion of the 2011 lockout.  “Obviously, we’re leaving that up to the mayor and the city and the NBA.  The NBA is keeping us apprised of everything that’s going on.”

Knowing that a public vote would still fall on deaf ears, the city of Sacramento, led by Johnson and his staff, found $250 million hiding under a giant rock.  By monetizing the city’s parking assets, Sacramento was finally able to carry their portion of the load for a new building.

In 2012, the NBA vetted a deal for a $390-million arena in the railyards and both the city of Sacramento and the Maloof family agreed to the deal during a wild negotiation session at All-Star Weekend in Orlando.

The Kings were staying in Sacramento.

There was a celebration and tears of joy from Gavin as he and brother Joe stood with mayor Johnson during a timeout  of the Kings’ first game following the All-Star Break. Arms were raised in victory.  A speech or two was made.

“There is going to be a beacon of light shining bright in 2015,” Gavin told the fans at center court. “A brand new arena!”

But once again, the Maloofs left Sacramento standing at the altar when they backed out just weeks later.  Not only that, but George Maloof held an impromptu press conference while the NBA Board of Governors were still in session.

To say that George killed the deal would be an understatement.  While cameras were rolling, George turned the mic to a recently-hired economist to explain how Sacramento couldn’t afford the deal in place.

Everyone was shocked, including commissioner Stern who had spent plenty of time negotiating this deal himself.

“In my view, it was always subject to any party saying they didn’t want to do it,” Stern told reporters.  “It was always non-binding and I think it’s fair for the Maloofs to say they don’t want to do it.  If they had done that a little simpler, a little earlier and a little more directly, it could have saved a lot of angst and trouble.”

While Stern had to worry about insulting one of his owners, Mayor Johnson couldn’t hide his disdain.

“They are now saying they don’t want to do the deal, which essentially means they don’t want to be in Sacramento,” Johnson said.

“I think Sacramento deserves a partner that would honor their commitment,” Johnson added.  “I think Sacramento deserves a partner who wants to work in good faith.  And I think Sacramento deserves better than what we’ve gotten up to this point.”

After a year of intense work, the deal was over and the Maloofs’ image in Sacramento was cemented forever.

Over the last year, the Maloofs flirted with Virginia Beach then settled on a deal with Hansen and Ballmer to move the team to Seattle.  At no point did they ever offer the franchise to local buyers.

What has happened here is ugly and spiteful.  There is no other narrative that can be spun.

What’s worse is that the fans of Sacramento have stuck by their team.  While the product on the floor became unwatchable and the arena substandard, they showed up.  Despite their owners making three attempts to relocate, they rallied again and again.

During the stretch of 2006 to 2013, the Kings went in the tank, more often than not boasting the NBA’s lowest payroll and missing the playoffs seven-straight seasons.

The Maloofs seemed to make sure their product was bad and that fans walked away from each and every game feeling they had just wasted their hard earned money on a franchise that didn’t care about winning.

How could you blame the fans for not filling up the building?

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready to show up in force for someone who cares.  More than 12,000 people have signed up for season tickets in a new building with new ownership.  More that $50 million in corporate sponsorships are waiting to be signed in a city without a single Fortune 500 company.

So look at the narrative that the Maloofs are spinning.  It is their right to turn down an NBA-vetted arena deal, but it is not their right to put public subsidies around the league at risk.  It is their right to sell the Kings, but it is not their right to decide where the team will play going forward.

They are asking the league to leave a city that has been a model franchise for 22 years until they systematically torched their own product beginning in 2006.  They are asking to leave a city offering up a $250-million subsidy for a new arena and an ownership group that will help spread the NBA brand.

And more than that, they are asking the league to do this as their last act as owners.  If you are the NBA, do you allow the Maloofs to end Sacramento’s run for the sake of revenge against Kevin Johnson and an incredible fanbase before they leave the league for good?

That’s what we’ll find out in the very near future.

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.