The commissioner was working late on Wednesday, a conference call cutting into his evening commute out of midtown Manhattan. Far from the big city, out in the sticks in Sacramento, David Stern wanted to send word: The NBA isn't letting the Sacramento Kings leave without a fight.
The Maloof brothers had visited his office on Monday, determined for Stern to get between their franchise and city and between the acrimony and the risk of the regrettable resolution of exiting Sacramento. It's turned so nasty between Sacramento and the Maloofs that the Kings owners threw their hands into the air and gave up.
Essentially, they asked Stern: Step down out of the Olympic Tower, take over the new arena initiative and save the Kings in Sacramento.
"The NBA has never done anything to this scope," Stern said.
Maybe that's because the NBA has never had as profound of a franchise crisis as it does now. Stern has called this a "model" franchise in the sport, "a spectacular success story," and there's a genuine urgency for the commissioner's plans to visit Sacramento in early December and begin probing the possibilities with the politicians and developers and Kings ownership.
Make no mistake: The biggest issue in the NBA isn't about toy store basketballs and bad behavior technical fouls, but the stability of its most successful franchises. Sacramento has a league-best streak of 317 sellouts at Arco Arena, which has been the loudest arena in the league and the most anchored to its franchise. Pound for pound, cowbell for cowbell, there's a good case to be made for Sacramento as the best market in the NBA.
So, there's no salvation awaiting the Maloofs and Kings elsewhere, no city that'll ever love this team and cherish it and, yes, support it the way Sacramento has done in good times and bad. It won't be Las Vegas, where the Maloofs run the Palms Casino. Nor Anaheim. Nor St. Louis. Nowhere else.
The Maloofs lost a confusing public vote on a downtown arena initiative last week, a referendum that was never clear to anyone – not the citizens, nor the Maloofs, nor the commissioner. In the end, the campaign was punctuated with allegations that the Kings owners sabotaged the vote because they themselves didn't want to move downtown.
Especially in the West, the climate for public and private arena-stadium partnerships has never been worse. Good relationships go awry over building issues; love affairs between cities and teams turn traumatic. Nothing had ever come between Sacramento and its team – not Garry St. Jean coaching, not Olden Polynice playing center, nothing until this.
The NBA could live with the New Jersey Nets leaving East Rutherford for Brooklyn, but Sacramento is a soul-bearer for the sport, a beacon of possibility for small-market teams. "Some skeptics questioned whether the NBA could succeed in Sacramento," the commissioner remembered. It's flourished there, and it is everyone's responsibility to make sure this unravels no further.
Once, the NBA had a beautiful thing going in Charlotte, but when the city grew to disdain its owner, George Shinn, the people refused to ever vote him the public funding needed to build an arena. Charlotte never should've lost the Hornets, and it's a painful memory that was still on Stern's mind this week.
"It sort of dawned on me in listening that there is really nothing more important than this," Stern said. "Maybe I could have been more helpful in some other cities, like the first time that the Hornets left Charlotte."
If he didn't do enough to save Shinn from his political mess, Stern sounds determined not to make the same mistake with the Maloofs. He goes back with their father, George, to the early 1980s when he owned the Houston Rockets. His kids, Gavin and Joe, were the whiz kids who breathed life into one of the NBA's worst basketball operations. Sacramento was dying for a winner, and the Maloofs gave it to them.
Now this seven-year fight for a new arena to replace Arco has grown acrimonious, and Stern concedes that part of his job here is to "diffuse" the two sides. These are the worst fights in sports now: communities vs. owners, public vs. private funding. The arena issue has also raged in Seattle and Portland, two longtime thriving NBA cities.
Yet nowhere could the Maloofs move the Kings and ever replicate what's happened in Sacramento. Through everything there, the fans are still the loudest in the league and still selling out night after night. Just look at Memphis now. The Grizzlies were a novelty for a couple years, a hot ticket under Jerry West and Hubie Brown, but they're gasping for air now, ranking last in attendance this season.
As a sports town, the whole identity of Sacramento is wrapped up in its pride for the Kings. A recent Sacramento Bee poll found that six out of 10 citizens declared themselves Kings fans. Still, this has turned terrible. Public officials are decrying the Maloofs as duplicitous, and newspaper columnists are taking sides with city officials and developers here, the owners there.
All of it has been polarizing, and all of it needs the commissioner's political savvy and his deft deal-making.
"The Kings and Sacramento are an NBA success story and I'm not interested in seeing the success end in failure," Stern said. "We don't accept that."
The NBA shouldn't now, nor ever. This is a fight the NBA can't lose because here's something no one would've once ever believed about Sacramento:
This is a city the league can't replace.
- David Stern