SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Kevin Johnson was 19 years old when the NBA's Kings moved from Kansas City to his hometown in northern California in 1986. In the quarter-century since, Johnson has gone from star point guard at the University of California to NBA All-Star to mayor of Sacramento. It's in his current role that Johnson faces one of his most significant challenges yet: The NBA player-turned-politician is charged with ensuring the NBA team doesn't skip town.
Johnson displayed an innate sense of timing and pace during his 12 seasons as an NBA point guard, and he knows it won't be too long before the final buzzer sounds on Sacramento's efforts to find a new home for the Kings.
"At some point, if we can't build a new entertainment and sports complex, they are going to have to shop elsewhere," Johnson said.
"I don't have a gun to my head," he added, "but the clock is ticking and there is not a whole lot of time on the clock."
Kings fans are welcomed to Arco Arena this season by giant banners portraying the franchise's two young stars-in-the-making: second-year guard Tyreke Evans(notes) and rookie center DeMarcus Cousins(notes). Neither player was yet born when Arco opened its doors on Nov. 18, 1988.
Among unrenovated NBA venues, only the Detroit Pistons' Palace of Auburn Hills is older, and that's just by two months. Arco is the league's smallest arena, with a seating capacity of 17,317 and 30 luxury suites. The Kings, however, are far removed from their glory days, when they packed the building every night; last season, they ranked second to last in attendance among the league's 30 teams. The naming rights of the arena, which sits in the Natomas area between downtown and the airport, also are set to expire in February.
A campaign to build a new $600 million downtown facility – which would have been funded by a quarter-cent sales tax increase over 15 years – was overwhelmingly rejected four years ago. Another plan that would have involved Cal Expo, site of the California State Fair, also has been scrapped.
The Maloof family, which owns the Kings and Arco Arena, has repeatedly said it hopes to keep the franchise in Sacramento and has pledged $300 million of its own money for a new facility. Still, there's a handful of other cities which could court the Kings, if given the opportunity, including Anaheim, Calif.; Kansas City; Seattle; San Jose, Calif.; and Las Vegas, where the Maloofs own the Palms hotel and casino. NBA commissioner David Stern said last month that the Maloofs have a year to "figure something out" in Sacramento.
"We're just interested in getting something done," said Kings owner Gavin Maloof. "We don't care where it is or how they do it, just that they get something done."
Johnson is now trying to put together a plan to build an arena in the downtown railyard. The company that recently took over development of the 200-acre site has expressed interest in discussing the issue with Johnson.
"If you look all around the country – whether its basketball, football or baseball – those arenas or stadiums are built in the part of the city with an urban core," Johnson said. "They have a huge catalytic impact on your downtown area."
Johnson conceded that "we have a long ways to go" before his plans become a reality.
"It's a marathon," he said. "There are going to be 100 twists and turns along the way before we get there. We're going to figure out a way to get it done. I would like to think that, within the next year, we have a clear path to a new arena – which means at that point it would be three-plus years out."
Johnson has been a regular at the Kings' high-profile games since he became mayor; he sat courtside when the Los Angeles Lakers visited last week. If he gets his wish, he'll someday be able to walk to a Kings game from his downtown office.
"As a kid growing up with no professional team, it was a big deal when the Kings moved from Kansas City and were able to move out to Arco," Johnson said. "But to be able to be part of a new entertainment and sports complex that's transformational would be an unbelievable accomplishment because, over the last 10 years, so many people have tried and failed.
"I must say this, though: If we are able to build a new arena, it won't be in my first term. I'm going to have to be re-elected because it's going to take four years to do it. If I get it started, I don't want to just cut the ribbon at the groundbreaking. I wouldn't have quite as good of seats if that's the case."