It was a spring night in 1986 and I was a high school senior driving home from my job in the lazy Sierra Foothill town of Auburn, just 35 miles from Sacramento. Across the Ford Pinto’s AM radio was the excited voice of Sacramento Kings announcer Gerry Gerould. He was shouting, because about 10,500 fans were going nuts in a temporary NBA arena. Sacramento was about to have a Big League moment. Its first ever.
The Kings of the National Basketball Association were in their inaugural season in Sacramento, and that night I exulted as Gerould described Celtics legend Larry Bird missing back-to-back free throws because of the deafening roar of the crowd in the “Madhouse on Market Street.” Bird’s failure sealed a Kings win. Sacramento had just defeated the team that would go on to win the NBA title that year. Sacramento was big league.
Sacramento is the 20th-largest media market in the United States. It is a significant metropolitan community by any standard. Yet Sacramento has always suffered in comparison to its larger California cousins in the Bay Area and Southern California. Sac (as locals call it) has an identity largely wrapped up in being a government town. And as this is a state with failed politics, the city’s very name has become a pejorative.
But since 1985 this sprawling and diverse community has been bound together by one commonality. We have big league basketball. And we love our Kings.
It’s mostly been a painful experience to be a Kings fan. Teams were bad to mediocre. But, for a brief era, from 2000 to 2005, we were the darlings of the NBA. General Manager Geoff Petrie put together a team that dazzled and soared to the franchise’s greatest heights. The Vlade Divac-led Kings graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and any bona fide Kings fan will tell you the refs stole an NBA championship from us in 2002, giving a controversial call to the hated Lakers. Just try walking into a Sacramento bar in a Laker jersey and arguing otherwise.
When I had the fortune to see the Kings play the Knicks in Madison Square Garden during those glory years in 2000, New Yorkers bought me hot dogs and beers. I was a Kings fan. They had never met one before. My team was cool. I was cool. Because I was from Sacramento.
I have traveled to Africa, Asia, and the back corners of Europe. When I say I’m from Sacramento the language barrier is broken. “Ah. The Kings!” Yes, the Kings.
So maybe you can see why Sacramentans are so viciously loyal to their team.
When the current Kings owners, the Maloof family, sought to move the Kings to Anaheim last year, the community sprang into unprecedented action. Businesses organized campaigns to raise money for a new arena (necessary to keep the team here long term). Local leaders tried to put together a last-gasp arena deal. Local TV stations declared “wear purple” days to show solidarity.
I’m a political consultant, so I did what I knew how to do. I organized a referendum drive in the city of Anaheim to block the publicly financed deal that Orange County city was offering the Kings. This was taken as news, but it shouldn’t have surprised anyone: Sacramento is a political town. Screw with us, and you better be ready for hardball politics. Anaheim was flummoxed. And for a brief of couple weeks I was as popular in Sacramento as a political consultant could possibly become.
Ultimately, the Kings remained in Sacramento, and NBA Commissioner David Stern spearheaded a deal for a new arena that will keep the Kings in town. Owners Joe and Gavin Maloof appeared with Stern and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (a former NBA player) to announce a deal. Sacramento rejoiced.
Until it turned out that the Maloofs couldn’t live up to the deal. In recent weeks, they backed away from the agreement they made on a new arena. This was disappointing but not a shock. Although they were the owners during the team’s most glorious years, the Maloofs have repeatedly let down Sacramento and Kings fans. This is now the second arena deal they have destroyed.
The Kings are the last component of a crumbling Maloof empire. Their father left them a golden goose–a beer distributorship in New Mexico. Such a business is essentially a legalized monopoly. It printed money. They lost it.
They built a popular casino in Las Vegas, The Palms, but have now lost that in a failed attempt to expand it. And it appears they no longer have the capital required to operate an NBA team. You would think they would sell, but it’s possible the windfall from selling the team would not cover their existing debts.
They are cliché second-generation screw-ups, frittering away the fortune left to them, trying to live pathetic playboy lifestyles. In sum, they appear to be both deceitful and stupid.
That may sound harsh. But that’s a sentiment coursing through the veins of all Sacramentans right now. It even unites liberals and conservatives, who otherwise don’t agree on much.
Sacramento is a big-league city struggling to hang on. We have been hammered by the housing crisis. Corporate jobs do not flock here. The public sector that fuels our economy has taken its hits. We’re clawing and scratching to fight back, to hang onto our houses, to find jobs.
So don’t mess up our basketball team. Our Kings. It’s personal to us. The Maloofs may own them, but that’s our money in their pockets. We have leverage. Time to sell them, boys. Get out of town.
Rob Stutzman (@robstutzman) is president of Stutzman Public Affairs in Sacramento.
*Photo courtesy of neighborhoods.org.