Goodbye Kings? How the Maloofs Hoodwinked the People of Sacramento

Shaun TobackCorrespondent IMarch 21, 2011

9 Nov 1996:  Guard Bobby Hurley of the Sacramento Kings stands on the court during a game against the Portland Trailblazers at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won the game 103-102. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule  /Allsport
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In 1997, the Sacramento Kings were a perennial NBA laughingstock. Bad trades—and even worse draft selections—had left the small market team on the bottom of every significant NBA players' wish list. Their team jet was nicknamed "Airball 1" by players. Since 1987, they had posted a winning percentage under .350 a whopping six times, and hadn't broken .500 since arriving in Sacramento.

For years, big-time college prospects like Billy Owens, Bobby Hurley and Pervis Ellison were selected high in the lottery, only to show up in Sacramento either unwilling or unable to live up to their pedigrees. Mitch Richmond was the closest thing the Kings had to a star, but his supporting cast included players like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Olden Polynice—not exactly a latter day version of the 2011 Miami Heat. Or even the 2001 Miami Heat. Simply put, things were miserable for a basketball fan in California's capital. 

But in 1998, things began to look up. A young family of investors named the Maloofs purchased a minority stake in the Kings, and in 1998 they bought themselves majority control. Former No. 1 overall pick Chris Webber was brought on board to be the face of a new era in Kings basketball. Webber was apparently unaffected by the long-running jinx the team had on lottery picks—probably because he was actually drafted by the Golden State Warriors.

Additionally, the team found a diamond in the rough in Peja Stojakovic, acquired proven Center Vlade Divac, and drafted a small point guard from the University of Florida—Jason Williams, who quickly became one of the hottest attractions in the NBA. The foundation for what would be the greatest run in Sacramento sports history had been laid—a run that narrowly edged out Sacramento's previous crowning athletic achievement (the time a mini horse made an improbable run through an arm wrestling tournament at an Orangevale bar).

For a city with no history of success in pro (or even minor league) sports, excitement was at an all-time high. Fans greeted the new owners and new roster with open arms. When the Kings made the 1998-99 playoffs, the atmosphere in the city was somewhere between a father seeing his first child born and a ticker tape parade. People were proud to live in Sacramento and ecstatic at the prospect of any kind of national recognition. After years of praying for basketball relevance, this new ownership group had seemingly answered our prayers.

And for a while, things were good. Really good even. They could have been great if it weren't for Robert Horry and Tim Donaghy, but that's another article. In Sacramento, merely "good" was good enough. Williams was moved for the more steady, less flashy Mike Bibby. Defensive specialist Doug Christie was acquired to give the team a shutdown defender. Bobby Jackson was turned from perennial journeyman to vital cog in the league's most exciting up-tempo offense.

For years, former lottery picks had failed, yet new GM Geoff Petrie had suddenly created success using mid and late picks, drafting players with distinct skills to complement the Kings' talented core.  Predictably, Arco Arena's already high attendance climbed with the Kings' success, culminating with the team averaging 100 percent attendance between 2000 and 2007.

Jerseys and flags could be seen throughout the city. Kings' merchandise was purchased by the truckload. The team was so popular that a local fast food giveaway involving bobbleheads of the team's starters resulted in a Beanie Baby-like frenzy, and an all-time high demand for western-style bacon cheeseburgers.

As the city supported the Maloofs, we also ignored the obvious signs that the family was not 100 percent comfortable in Sacramento. Although they could be seen at home games cheering on their new revenue source, their attentions were split. In 2001, the Maloofs opened their trendy new Las Vegas casino/resort, the Palms. If buying the small-town Kings was partially a move to increase the family's visibility in the public eye, the opening of the Palms was a full-on coming out party, an ego boost of massive proportions.

The Maloof family was clearly more comfortable in large cities, surrounded by the accompanying glitz and glamour, and even though Sacramento did not exactly fit this bill, the city's citizens ignored this potential warning sign. 1998 through 2005 was the honeymoon period between the Maloofs and the people of Sacramento. The people were happy to give the Maloofs some of the NBA's best fans, and more importantly, some of the NBA's best business.

In 2005, however, signs began to surface that the honeymoon was ending.. The team had broken up its once prominent nucleus into various parts that made the team weaker, but were promised by management to fortify the franchise economically for years to come.

A post-microfracture surgery Chris Webber was traded to Philadelphia a for pu-pu platter of mediocrity consisting of Brian Skinner, Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson. These pieces, fans were told by management, had much smaller, more digestible salaries (compared to the max contract C-Webb was being paid) and could easily be traded to teams seeking cap relief as their contracts began to expire. This logic made sense, and fans, used to years of Geoff Petrie out-maneuvering his competition, took the franchise's word for it. 

With Webber gone, and with him the face of the franchise, other formerly valuable team members were rendered expendable. The defensively solid Christie was traded to Orlando for streaky gunner Cuttino Mobley. The following year, Peja Stojakovic, somewhat of a Sacramento-area hero, was traded to the Pacers for the volatile and underrated Ron Artest. Aging battery mate Vlade Divac sensed the changing of the guard in Sacramento and retired from basketball. To replace Stojakovic, Petrie drafted a little-known shooting guard out of Western Carolina named Kevin Martin. A major roster overhaul was complete.

Around this time, rumblings surfaced about the need for a new arena. Arco Arena (I know it's now Power Balance Pavilion, but Cake didn't write a song called Power Balance Pavilion, so it will always be Arco to me) was getting too old, and was not capable of housing the conventions, concerts, and other sporting events necessary to keep the team profitable.

Hurting the arena's cause was its location in relatively undeveloped Natomas. Sacramentans, dreaming of a San Antonio-type riverwalk attraction, not only need to fund a new arena, but they also needed to find an area for it to realistically work—and then develop that area for luxury hotels and restaurants as well.

The people of Sacramento were understandably wary. I know that when a billionaire starts asking me for money, I immediately become skeptical. But at the time, these talks were mere whispers. The Kings, while nowhere near as dominant or entertaining as they had been in years past, were still somewhat relevant in the NBA. They had Bibby, Artest and Martin.

Fans could look at this core and see the future franchise scorer, the wily veteran point guard with ice in his veins and a penchant for big shots, and the wildcard, Artest, who could on alternating nights be everything a team could hope for from a small forward and everything a team doesn't want out of the position. While the honeymoon period was clearly over, things were looking bright enough for fans to continue their support of the team and not worry about minor details like where they would be playing in five to 10 years.

Looking back on it, Kings fans should have been more worried—a lot more worried. The pieces obtained from the Webber trade were never moved for anything significant. Skinner, Thomas and Williamson all occupied space on the Sacramento bench for varying lengths of time, with no positive impact to speak of. Artest, while a tantalizing talent, was too volatile to lead a team, and was clearly headed out of town to a larger market and onto a team with bigger complementary personalities eventually.

Kevin Martin developed into a nice player, but a limited offensive force who struggled (and continues to struggle) with creating his own shot, or providing the playmaking you want to see out of a starting shooting guard. And Mike Bibby, once a symbol of Geoff Petrie's savvy and forethought, became a shadow of his former self seemingly overnight. He was eventually traded to the lowly Atlanta Hawks for a trio of players (Sheldon Williams, Lorenzen Wright and Anthony Johnson) that made Williamson, Skinner and Thomas seem like the dream team in comparison.

Kings fans weren't worried, however. Not because we couldn't see the on-floor talent level dropping, but because we were blinded by our love for the team. People from large cities—or even cities with multiple pro franchises—can never understand the level of tunnel vision that comes with having only one main attraction in your town.

In Sacramento, the Kings are it. Local entertainment begins and ends with the team. There are no final four games or U2 and Rolling Stones concerts or nightlife or tourist attractions to focus on. We have the Kings. And when everyone's eyes are on the Kings, there isn't much looking around to see what else is going on. If there had been, Sacramentans would have seen the warning signs. For us Kings fans, a barely competitive team was enough to focus on.

In the following years, talk of the need for a new arena grew louder and louder, as the product put out by the Kings got less and less competitive. Bibby, Mobley, Artest and Martin were all shipped out, and a full-fledged rebuilding process began. Future building blocks Jason Thompson, Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins were drafted, and although the new core was extremely young, the potential for future success was huge. 

But the emphasis here is on future success. For the moment, the team was (and is) uncompetitive. The people of Sacramento continue their support of the team, but enthusiasm is understandably tempered. Arco Arena doesn't sell out every home game anymore—but neither do most NBA arenas. However, this slight decrease in support may have been just the opportunity the Maloofs were looking for. To take this idea a step further, I believe it was the opportunity they themselves created and had been looking forward to. Let me explain.

Currently, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is being negotiated between the NBA Players Union and the NBA itself. The Maloofs have consistently stated for the last year or so that they will not take on additional salary until the new CBA has been negotiated and, presumably, new economic rules are in place to make it easier to compete for small market teams like the Kings.

I understand this logic, however I don't believe the Maloofs are dumb enough to not see the flip side of this coin: if they are not spending money on the team, the team will not be competitive. In the NBA, you have to spend money to make money. It is no coincidence that the most competitive teams in the league are also spending money to pay the best players. By not spending money, the Maloofs are ensuring that the product on the floor will suffer.

And even the people of Sacramento, in love with the Kings as we are, are not going to pay full price to see a team whose owners are not even attempting to remain competitive or relevant.

It has been about 3-4 months now since rumors began to leak that the Maloofs are eyeing a move to Anaheim. In this brief period of time, the people of Sacramento have begun to panic. The citizens generally are in favor of a new arena, but our voices are drowned out by civic leaders who somehow do not equate the building of a new arena with increased revenue for the city.

The Maloofs have piled on by insisting that any new arena be publicly funded, with the family themselves paying a minimal amount, although they will surely reap the benefits along with the rest of the city. This is where the Maloofs inter-personal relationship with the people of Sacramento comes into play—we have always felt at arms length from the ownership group.

Although they brought us a few years of competitive basketball, none of the family lives in Sacramento, and none of the family has ever seemed particularly impressed by or attached to the city. When you are asking the people of a city to build you an arena that will make you an obscene amount of money, it is always better to have some kind of a personal relationship with them.

The Maloofs, however, do not. They have made their appearances at home games, said all the right things in public, and generally done their due diligence as owners. But they have never demonstrated loyalty or attachment to the people in the same way that the people have shown loyalty and attachment to their team.

When owners who seem disconnected from a fan base allow their team to become uncompetitive, and publicly state that they will not put money into producing a more competitive product, it only makes sense that said fan base will respond with fewer jersey and ticket sales and a generally high level of skepticism regarding the owners' intentions.

I argue that the Maloofs have never wanted to own a team in Sacramento. When they purchased the franchise, it was on its way up. They rode Rick Adelman, Geoff Petrie, Chris Webber and the rest as long as they could, and then they began planning their exit strategy.

If Joe and Gavin Maloof had, two years ago, gone on local television and made a statement saying that they could not function as a business in Arco Arena, and unless a new arena plan was accepted, the team would be moved in 2011, there would currently be a new arena in Sacramento. No doubt in my mind. But they didn't. They waited until the last moment, when the uncompetitive roster they half-assedly put together was struggling for wins, and attendance was struggling with it.

They have used the logic that since the people of Sacramento aren't supporting the team, and the team is not profitable, they have no choice but to relocate. They are ignoring the fact that through years of mismanagement and taking their fan base for granted, they themselves created the conditions we are seeing today. 

I am not one of these unrealistic fans hoping that the Maloof family will find an extra few hundred million in their couch cushions and finance a new arena themselves. I realize that nearly all arenas built these days are done so using—at least in part—public money. Local leaders in Sacramento have thus far been unable to agree to spend this money, and for this, blame falls on us as well.

If the Maloofs had wanted to avoid this scenario, however, they could have done so. They could have warned the people of Sacramento that relocation was a realistic alternative to not building a new arena. They could have continued to keep the Kings competitive, if for no other reason than as a show of good faith to the fans whose dollars they took so eagerly for so many years. They could have offered to put up some of their own deep cash reserves (relocation of an NBA franchise to Anaheim has been quoted by various media outlets between $100 million and $200 million) to keep the Kings in Sacramento.

None of these things were done, and as a result, Sacramento is most likely losing its beloved franchise. 

So, that is how the Maloofs (potentially) weaseled their way out of Sacramento. Luckily for us Kings fans, there are a few factors that could play in our favor:

1. The Palms is bleeding money. The casino's financial difficulties have been well documented, and moving during a time of such economic uncertainty could be seen by the family as a risk not worth taking.

2. The Kings are bad. They will probably be bad for another 2-3 years, minimum. Moving the team to Anaheim would ensure that the Maloofs are the owners of the third most successful NBA franchise in Southern California.

3. Even if an Anaheim move does go through, we at least have the Maloofs' track record to fall back on. The family has a great history of buying businesses and enjoying wild success for a few years, followed by a precipitous fall into mediocrity. While seeing the Anaheim Royals playing on TV would hurt, it would hurt slightly less if the team was terrible, as it most certainly will be.

These factors are small, however, when compared to the massive hole that would be left by a Kings departure.

This city loves the Kings. We need the Kings. It's just too bad the team doesn't feel the same way about the city.


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