A year ago, fans of the Sacramento Kings learned that the Maloofs, who own the franchise, were in talks to relocate the team to Anaheim after the implosion of another arena funding plan. Over the course of a couple months, lawyers on the Sacramento city staff sent threatening letters to Anaheim, to the NBA and to the Maloofs, a state legislator tried to pass a bill preventing sports team poaching within California and fans rallied to rail against the plot. In the end, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson -- that Kevin Johnson -- convinced NBA commissioner David Stern to keep the Kings in Sacramento for at least one more year while a last-ditch plan came together.
Meanwhile, Anaheim city leaders approved renovations to the Honda Center -- upgrades that would make the building more attractive to an NBA tenant. Those renovations got underway last week ... as the Sacramento City Council was battling over a bid to push approval of a vital piece of the arena funding plan to the June ballot, well after the NBA's March 1 relocation application deadline. That vote nearly passed; it wasn't that arena supporters feared a public vote would kill the plan so much as waiting until June on a decision would have been instant death for the Sacramento Kings.
That's because Anaheim has company in the sky over Sacramento. Seattle has joined Anaheim, circling above Sacramento, ready to swoop down and take away the Kings if the local funding plan implodes.
It's an odd juxtaposition given Seattle's very recent history.
Seattle's beloved, supported and successful SuperSonics were poached by Oklahoma City. Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO and a Seattle native, got fed up with the difficult arena process in Washington state and sold to an out-of-towner, OKC's Clay Bennett. Bennett sandbagged for a couple years before whisking the Sonics away; Stern was absolutely complicit in the hardly veiled extortion effort, though the commissioner does seem both wistful and sad that Seattle had to lose its team. But there's a bottom line for Stern and the NBA: teams get arenas with public help, or teams are free to leave. It's basically a league policy at this point.
It's so cold and bare that in the press release last May announcing that the Kings would remain in Sacramento for the 2011-12 season, the Maloofs actually flat out said that Stern had given them a green light to leave if things fell apart. Stern isn't sending teams out of town in the dead of night: he wants everyone to see the consequences of a local government failing to fund a new arena for the NBA tenant. While Stern may harbor personal sensitivities about losing the Seattle market in 2008, it worked as planned in the macro sense: he made an example out of the Emerald City.
Now, Seattle is looking for vengeance, or at least to do a little poaching of its own. Reports suggest Seattle native Chris Hansen, an investor now based in San Francisco, is behind a plan to get a new arena built in his hometown and an NBA team placed there. The Kings have been openly mentioned. Anaheim has real competition. All this news comes out as Sacramento city leaders face a series of difficult votes to approve a difficult plan; Sacramento is working hard to finish the job as two vultures begging for failure hover, chops dripping with anticipation. The volunteer commission working on behalf of Mayor Johnson sent a nasty letter Hansen's way on Monday, accusing him of trying to steal jobs from a city among the hardest hit by the recession.
Three cities fighting desperately for one NBA team. One city has already begun $25 million in upgrades as a lure. Another is considering privatizing operations of its downtown parking structures to raise the capital needed. The third is openly flirting with a team without an arena even in place. This is one hell of a salve for the NBA's demand problem, one that has saddled a bad ownership group with the Atlanta Hawks, one that resulted in the Charlotte Bobcats and Philadelphia 76ers being sold for discount prices, one that has the New Orleans Hornets lingering on the market.
All of a sudden, Stern is finding no problem getting Sacramento to bust its ass and get funding for a new NBA arena. All of a sudden, Stern is finding solutions, not hurdles, in Seattle's process. And all of a sudden, Stern has yet another free agent NBA city -- joining Kansas City and Newark -- with an NBA-ready arena in the works to help drive pressure on the next Sacramento Kings. Let it never be said that Stern isn't a master of this game.
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