NBA owners will have full plates during end-of-season meetings this week in New York, and I promise that's not a Donald Sterling joke. In addition to compulsory discussions of competition and revenue and Rich DeVos' semiannual Nutrilite pitch, the ridiculously named Board of Governors will be presented with a nice little riddle regarding the arena standoff in Sacramento.
You see, the city of Sacramento, led by former All-NBA point guard and current mayor Kevin Johnson, actually got its business together and came up with what appears to be a solid plan that requires investments from an operating firm (that'd be global megalith AEG, developer of L.A.'s STAPLES Center, K.C.'s Sprint Center and potentially L.A.'s Farmers Field) and the Kings. One can reasonably assess it to be a fair deal, given that all parties shook hands on it at the end of All-Star Weekend in Orlando.
Attitudes have changed among one party: the Maloof family, who owns the Kings. George Maloof, the clan's frown-ridden youngster, called the arena deal "fair" back in February. Nothing in the deal has changed. Now Maloof is singing a different tune, telling reporters that the family wants to renegotiate the deal as his lawyers file public records requests seeking all communications between city officials, AEG and the NBA during the negotiations.
Basically, we went from handshake to j'accuse in about a month. And the NBA's stuck right in the middle.
The NBA as a franchising entity -- a basketball chain with individual owners, if you will -- operates on a pretty straightforward principle: cities need to contribute to new arenas or massive renovations to keep their teams. This is why David Stern allowed the Seattle SuperSonics to be sold to wide-eyed out-of-towners from Oklahoma City: The politicians in the Emerald City and in the statehouse were not playing ball. Sacramento has played ball. The state of California has played ball. The city has met its requirement to contribute to the new arena -- in fact, a complex financing mechanism will fund $255 million of the $400 million project. The city has done its part.
The NBA cannot at this point turn its back on Sacramento, right? Seattle was supposed to be the example that served as a deterrent. Given Sacramento's relatively quick funding plan approval, one could say the Seattle example was effective in lighting the River City's tail on fire. To now let the deal fall apart on the whims of an erratic businessman whose financial record is starting to resemble that of the actual Sacramento Kings (not good) would essentially tell other NBA cities that even if they move mountains to do their part, they still might not keep their teams. That's death to the principle upon which the league's current arena regime is built.
Picking up the Maloofs' tab on disputed items is another possibility with all sorts of bad feelings attached. Hell, the league already runs one team; the owners' appetite to give a competitor a helping hand cannot be great. Frankly, the other owners shouldn't have to pitch in here: a fair deal exists in Sacramento, and if the team had different owners, chances are that this wouldn't even be an issue. That's why a cadre of Sacramento business leaders, at least one of whom has been directly involved in selling the arena plan to the public, are asking the NBA to replace the Maloofs as owners. It's a dangerous move that risks unifying the NBA owners -- billionaires, like anyone else, rarely like being told what to do -- but that presents the problem in simple, stark colors. The problem is that the Maloofs do not appear to have enough money to remain NBA owners in Sacramento.
Hence the desperate attempt to move to Anaheim last spring, where Henry Samueli, the owner of the NHL's Ducks, would have fronted all sorts of cash and even gotten the club a temporary TV deal on the network he owns. The Maloofs don't do modest returns, and existing in a small market in the NBA remains an issue of existence. There aren't many small market teams (if any) who do killer business in up and down cycles. The teams in L.A.? They do killer business no matter what. Look at Sterling's Clippers, who have been awful for the bulk of three decades in the City of Angels. Donald Sterling is doing just fine on paper despite the futility. The Maloofs want that: massive riches when the team is good, solid profits when the team stinks.
That'd be their prerogative ... if they owned a team in a city that didn't play by the NBA's rules to get funding for a new gym. Chances are that when the Maloofs called off the moving vans last May they expected the city to fall flat on its face, just as it has in all previous arena funding attempts. Kevin Johnson didn't let that happen. Now the Maloofs face the prospect of being "stuck" in Sacramento, which likely means selling the team within a couple years so the family can move on to the next gamble. No wonder the family has lashed out and tried to wreck the deal; this could be the Maloofs' last opportunity to save themselves from an NBA-less existence.
The NBA cannot reward that behavior at the expense of Sacramento, and Stern must know it. In the end, the conditions under which the commissioner and a majority of owners can push the Maloofs aside don't really exist. The Maloofs are making payroll (if narrowly), and their major creditors on the team (the league's credit facility and the city) are largely docile. There's no real precedent or legal justification for the Board of Governors to push the Maloofs aside until the point at which they cannot function as an ownership group.
But something's gotta give. Stern and his lieutenants know the situation and their options better than anyone. Let's hope they can find a solution that keeps pro basketball in Sacramento, with the Maloofs or without.
The Hook is a twice-weekly NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.