Kevin Johnson has a long history of overcoming the odds. He was born to a 16-year-old mother and his father drowned when he was three. He was raised by his maternal grandparents in Sacramento and earned a basketball scholarship to UC Berkeley--one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but hardly a hoops powerhouse. Johnson stopped a slide of 10 straight non-winning seasons for the school and led it to the postseason for the first time in 26 years. He was drafted No. 7 overall in 1987, despite Berkeley's weak basketball legacy and became one of the best point guards in the NBA.
When Johnson announced his intention to run for mayor of Sacramento in 2008, the new politician faced the usual questions about an ex-athlete's qualifications to run a city. Johnson defeated two-term incumbent Heather Fargo and won reelection in 2012 in a landslide. His latest challenge: keeping the NBA team from departing the city he governs and grew up in.
A group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced plans to buy the Sacramento Kings in January from the Maloof family in a deal that valued the franchise at $525 million. Hansen would move the Kings to Seattle next season and eventually play in a to-be-built $500 million arena. The group filed relocation papers with the NBA, expecting to vote on the sale and relocation at its April Board of Governors meeting. But Johnson is not letting go of the Kings without a fight.
"I hope Seattle gets a team someday. Let me be perfectly crystal clear, it is not going to be this team. Not our team. No way," said Johnson defiantly Thursday night at Sacramento's State of the City event.
Today is the deadline to submit counter bids to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Johnson said Thursday night that 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov would submit a bid for the team on Friday. The plan also includes a new downtown arena built by Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, who is worth $3.1 billion. The group intends to bring back the defunct Sacramento Monarch of the WNBA as well. The Mastrov bid is "slightly lower" than the Hansen-Ballmer agreement, according to Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo Sports.
The Kings have a shot at staying in Sacramento, but the deck is stacked against them. The NBA has been enamored with a team moving to Seattle to replace the SuperSonics, who relocated to Oklahoma City in 2009 and were rechristened the Thunder. It only became a matter of which team would relocate when funding for a new Seattle arena was secured in September with the city kicking in $200 million towards the cost. Asked last month about the prospects of keeping the Kings in Sacramento, NBA commissioner David Stern said, "Oh, certainly it's plausible to me, but I don't have a vote." Hardly a ringing endorsement for the Kings staying put.
Keeping the Kings in Sacramento will be a costly endeavor. The Mastrov group must get close or match the Hansen bid, although they have the advantage of not paying a relocation fee that is expected to be at least $50 million. On the arena side, the public contribution still needs to be negotiated and the window is closing. The city council voted Tuesday night to negotiate a possible public contribution to the arena. Some Sacramento residents remain skeptical about funding a new arena. The debt of Sacramento (and 29 other California cities) was put under review for downgrade in October by Moody's Investors Services.
The reason so many California sports teams (Raiders, Chargers, A's, Kings) play in antiquated venues is because residents have been hesitant to commit tax dollars to fund construction, particularly during lousy economic times. There has been a stadium building boom the past two decades in sports, but it has largely skipped California with a few exceptions. The NBA's Golden State Warriors and NFL's San Francisco 49ers are planning new venues, but both are privately financing construction. The Maloofs rejected a plan last year that would have used as much as $255 million from downtown parking spaces to help fund a new arena.
Kings' fans have soured on the team and the Maloofs in recent years after years of strong support (354 straight sellouts starting in 1999). Attendance for the club has ranked in the bottom five of the NBA for six straight years. The team has been one of the NBA's bottom feeders in recent years on the receiving end of the league's revenue sharing plan. But Johnson says businesses have pledged $50 million in sponsorship money over the next five years if it stays in Sacramento. The odds are against Johnson and his team once again, but don't count him out yet.
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