David Stern’s final NBA season began in a familiar place on Tuesday night, as he handed out championship rings to the Miami Heat for the second year in a row, his third time in Miami in his nearly 40 years of acting as the league’s commissioner. Following the Heat’s win over the Bulls in their season opener, Stern headed to a less familiar setting: Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena, where he will preside over a rebirth of sorts for the Sacramento Kings.
The Kings, for too long rumored to be packaged for sale by the Maloof Brothers to a series of investors that would move the team elsewhere, are in Sacramento to stay. The team is hanging around thanks in part to the efforts of Stern and his deputy Adam Silver, but mostly due to the tireless work of Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, and the deep pockets of new Kings owner Vivek Ranadive.
Ranadive has refurbished some of the more embarrassing parts of the Sleep Train Arena (though, unfortunately, he hasn’t changed the naming rights situation), and Stern wouldn’t miss the unveiling for the world – also because his visit is a throwback to the first game of the Sacramento Kings era, one that Stern attended in his second full year as commissioner. From the Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin:
If not quite a coronation – that occurs only after a championship – Sleep Train Arena tonight will host the biggest celebration since the Sacramento Kings welcomed the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 25, 1985.
"I'm calling it a 'Retention Party,' the unofficial 'Welcome Home,' " Stern joked the other day, "and I'll be there when the new arena opens in October 2016, too."
In talking with Voisin, Stern likened his visit on Wednesday to the one he made 28 years ago:
Stern will tour Downtown Plaza with Johnson and meet with Steinberg and Gov. Jerry Brown at the Capitol this afternoon, then receive the purple-carpet treatment later in the evening, not unlike his experiences on opening night in 1985.
"The details are a bit hazy after almost 30 years," Stern said with a chuckle, "but I wore a tuxedo, and I remember that we got stuck in a long line of traffic on the way to the game. There was no chance I was going to make it, so I told the driver to pull over and drive on the shoulder. Then sure enough, we hear the sirens. I said, 'Officer, I'm the NBA commissioner. I'm supposed to open the building (Arco Arena I). But we have no shot at making it without your help.' He said, 'Follow me,' and escorted us the rest of the way."
This is all good news. Because while the fans in Seattle surely deserve an NBA team, the NBA is a better place for having stayed in Sacramento.
Clearly, Stern and Silver were not happy with how the move that took the Seattle SuperSonics from their home went down, even though the NBA’s league office had to publically support the move. Former SuperSonics owner Howard Schultz sold out the adopted hometown that made him millions, giving the team to a pair of Oklahoma City businessmen that had obvious intentions to move the SuperSonics to a ready-made NBA arena in their hometown.
It was weasel-y and duplicitous on both sides, and Stern was wrong to not step in while the Oklahoma City owners lied through their teeth about making every effort to stay in Seattle.
Stern’s eventual replacement, Adam Silver, made up for that mistake in dealing with the potential Sacramento-to-Seattle move in meetings with NBA owners last spring. From the Sports Business Journal:
Silver listened as debate raged between NBA owners, a phalanx of lawyers and Stern; the point of contention was whether ownership would allow the Sacramento Kings to be sold to a group that would move the team more than 625 miles north to Seattle. In the balance was an astounding franchise price of $406 million, along with a relocation fee rumored to be around $75 million, which would be split among ownership.
None of that mattered to Silver as he surgically cut through the posturing, pushing to keep the Kings in California and sending a message to owners and the fans about the importance of franchise stability.
“Adam was very blunt and it changed the conversation in the room,” Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said. “The lawyers spoke and David spoke, but Adam found a higher calling that all of us tapped into.”
That’s cold comfort for Seattle fans, who get to watch the league continue apace without a team in Seattle, while the just-as-skeevy Maloof brothers got their money, and Sacramento kept its team. It’s potentially devastating news for a would-be fan base to note that the 30 current NBA locations Silver will inherit when David Stern steps down in February are exactly where the league wants its teams placed, and that Silver wants no change to that particular map between now and his own retirement.
On the flip side of that will be thousands of happy Kings fans, all wearing purple, in attendance for their franchise’s rebirth on Wednesday night. That’s reason enough to celebrate.
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