Sacramento Mayor Johnson introduces plan to save Kings, tells Seattle ‘don’t celebrate too early’

One day after the NBA announced that the Maloof family had reached an agreement to sell the Sacramento Kings to a Seattle-based ownership group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — an agreement that seems to make the team's exit from Sacramento and the return of the Seattle SuperSonics all but a done deal — Sacramento Mayor and 12-year NBA veteran Kevin Johnson held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to introduce a four-part plan aimed at keeping the Kings in Northern California.

"Does [the Maloofs-Seattle deal] mean it’s over? Absolutely not," Johnson said at the City Hall press conference. "Our game plan has not changed."

For Seattle-area fans eager to see Sonics basketball once again, Johnson said: "Don't celebrate too early."

[Related: Seattle's Key Arena needs work to host an NBA team]

The first step in the so-called "Playing to Win" plan, as laid out by Think Big Sacramento, includes identifying area stakeholders willing to become part of a local investment group. After that comes identifying major equity partners (whom Johnson called "the whales") to provide the bulk of the capital necessary to present a bid competitive with the Seattle group's estimated $341 million offer to purchase a 65 percent interest in the Kings, based on a total valuation of $525 million. Once the money's lined up, Johnson's task will be to demonstrate to the NBA's Board of Governors both that Sacramento has a legitimate commitment to build a new downtown arena to house the Kings, and that Sacramento remains a viable market vibrant enough to support an NBA franchise.

"We're going to do everything we can to put forth a competitive offer," Johnson said.

Tuesday's presser focused on the first step, which Johnson said began with a goal of securing three to five citizens to come into the fray as local owners. Since last Thursday, Johnson said, he'd found 19 people willing to commit at least $1 million to the project, including Dale Carson, CEO of Sleep Train, the mattress chain that in October purchased the naming rights to the Kings' current home arena, and Kevin Nagle, CEO of Envision Pharmaceuticals, who joined the effort to save the team last year.

Local developers David Taylor, Phil Oates, Steve Ayers, Dorene Dominguez, Kenneth Fahn, Larry Kelley, Ali Youssefi and the Tsakopoulos family provide the bulk of the local group's backing, joined by concert promoter Michael Fahn, telecommunications executive Brad Jenkins, PeopleFinders CEO Rob Miller, online game-maker Mark Otero, aviation executive Scott Powell, presentation software executive John Stone, doctors Nathan Allen and Aaron Reeves, and two anonymous investors.

"These are folks who realize that the Kings are a civic asset for our community," Johnson told those in attendance at the press conference, including "throngs of cheering Kings fans," according to Ryan Lillis of the Sacramento Bee.

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While the introduction of the large group of small investors re-establishes the broad base of local support for efforts to keep the Kings in town, the second step — nailing down said "whales" — could prove far more challenging.

"We are making great progress on the whales," Johnson said. "There's multiple groups that can come in at the level we need them to."

Johnson said he hoped to be able to announce that a major investor is in place by the end of this week; as's David Aldridge and Scott-Howard Cooper noted, the distance between "hope" and "announce" could be vast.

Johnson's conference wasn't the only Kings-related political happening on Tuesday. According to USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick, California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (a former Sacramento City Council member) has made inquiries of the state Department of General Services aimed at raising questions about California's business dealings with Microsoft's Ballmer, one of the leaders of the Seattle group. As Amick notes, said "inquiries" could also be construed as thinly veiled threats; how effective Steinberg's saber-rattling or Johnson's fundraising wind up being remains to be seen.

If Johnson can indeed land a "whale," then he'll need to lock down the downtown arena backing and hone the "continued viability of the Sacramento market" argument. On the former, as Cowbell Kingdom's Jonathan Santiago noted, he looks to have the continued support of proposed arena operator AEG; on the latter, as both Santiago and SB Nation's Tom Ziller have written, the "only pro franchise in the nation's 20th largest media market" card will likely be played early and often.

Johnson will need to have all four pieces in place by March 1, which is the deadline for the Seattle group to file for relocation of the Kings franchise. From there, as I noted on Monday, the Kings' fate will rest with the NBA Board of Governors, who would decide at their April 18 meeting whether to approve the sale to the Seattle group and subsequent relocation or force the Maloofs to work on a deal with Johnson's burgeoning local ownership concern.

[Also: Grizzlies make a salary-cut trade, but it's not Rudy Gay]

Asked why the Board of Governors would turn down a done deal with the Seattle group in favor of yet again pursuing a Sacramento-based resolution with the Maloofs, who have repeatedly shown themselves to be loathe to sell the team locally, Johnson rested on the city's repeated good-faith efforts to make a deal work and its history of support for the NBA.

"It is unprecedented for a team to be relocated from a city that has done everything that this community has done for 28 years," Johnson said. "We did everything [the NBA] laid out and we're still here ... we have been good partners."

Johnson also addressed the difficult issue of the potential removal of the Kings from Sacramento meaning the potential return of the NBA to Seattle, a city that saw its rich NBA legacy interrupted in 2008, when second-year owner Clay Bennett moved the Sonics to his hometown of Oklahoma City and renamed them the Thunder. From Antonio Gonzalez of The Associated Press:

"When I played in the NBA for 12 years, Seattle had some of the best fans in the NBA," Johnson said. "No different than Sacramento. Incredible fans. And when they lost their team a couple years ago, it was devastating to me, because those fans fought like crazy and rallied and they cheered on the home team. And I strongly believe they deserve an NBA team at some point. Just not ours."

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