This arena conversation has always been about us. Our community. Our region. Our leaders. Our commitment to keeping the Kings the area's only major league sports franchise and ability to solve the $400 million financing puzzle in an unconventional, innovative manner.
Who do we want to be?
How do we envision our future?
When we ask the question 10 years from now "How do you like me now?" will we hear favorable comparisons to Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Charlotte, among others, or be regarded as an underperforming community co-opted by petty politicians and others who couldn't get things done.
Couldn't keep the Kings. Couldn't secure financing for a badly needed sports and entertainment complex to accommodate concerts, tournaments, everything from tractor pulls to rodeos and political conventions. Couldn't avoid becoming the nation's only top-30 television market without a major professional sports franchise.
Particularly in the worst of economies, that's no way to make friends, influence the job market and lure new businesses to town.
No, with the March 1 deadline approaching for Sacramento to produce a workable funding proposal for a facility in the downtown railyard, this is the time to play hardball, to come out and throw nothing but Timmy Lincecum high heat at the politicians, at the Maloofs, at the NBA. If we don't take proactive steps to protect the Kings, other cities will continue encroaching on our borders and flirting with our franchise. And soon, one of them will succeed.
This much can be said with certainty entering the weekend: Seattle business leaders are campaigning for another franchise and, according to published reports, targeting the Kings. This is not going to happen for a number of reasons, according to my highly place NBA sources, namely the fact KeyArena is still outdated but more importantly because the Maloofs are not selling the Kings. Repeat after me: The Maloofs are not selling the Kings.
Rather, the real threat to Sacramento comes from a more familiar foe: Anaheim. Honda Center operator Henry Samueli last week took part in groundbreaking ceremonies for a $20 million upgrade designed to make the aging facility more appealing to a prospective NBA tenant. Given that the Kings almost relocated to Anaheim last April, one could (and should) assume that Sacramento's franchise remains atop its wish list.
Another fascinating dynamic is at play.
The Maloof family feud that developed last spring during the relocation talks, then cooled during the summer, has intensified. George Maloof hasn't been seen at a game here all season, and that's probably because he's been too busy sneaking around Anaheim, trying to revise and reconstruct the deal that was rebuffed by the league's relocation committee.
Joe and Gavin Maloof who operate the Kings aren't thrilled about brother George's solo act, and, of greatest significance to Kings fans, the two oldest Maloofs have become more entrenched in Sacramento and even less inclined to leave. They have taken an aggressive boots-on-ground approach to marketing, ticket sales and re-engaging the community.
At this time last year, they were nowhere to be seen, having checked out physically and emotionally before the All-Star break. This year, they live here, they work here. Most days, they can be found in their offices, in their suites, in their courtside seats, in the practice facility, occasionally visiting the locker room.
"We've been working like crazy to turn this around," said Gavin Maloof, who has tabled all arena talk as the discussions enter the delicate phase, "and the response has been great. We think we're really close to turning the corner, the way coach (Keith) Smart has DeMarcus (Cousins) and Tyreke (Evans) playing. And the fans have been great. Our attendance is up. This is a love affair with this team."
The human element in these ever-fragile arena discussions can never be overstated.
Fear of losing the Kings galvanized fans and spawned the grassroots Here We Stay movement. Business leaders responded with a flurry of sponsorships Sutter Health, Intel, ACE Hardware, Pizza Guys, Thunder Valley and Bell Brothers, to name a few.
One NBA employee told me Commissioner David Stern distributed copies of the wrenching Kings-Lakers finale to all his departments.
"We saw Grant (Napear) and Jerry (Reynolds) crying, heard the crowd chanting," he said. "It was pretty powerful."
The league answered with a strong play of its own; it sent almost a dozen sales and marketing experts to Sacramento to rebuild the organization's business department, leaving a few employees here permanently.
So what do we take from all this? From last year? From all these years?
Sacramento is closer to a new sports and entertainment complex than ever, so it is crucial to keep the pressure on. Can't stop now. Remember Joe Serna Jr. If the late mayor had been something less than a visionary and forceful leader, the City Council never would have approved the city's $80 million loan, and the Kings would have left in 1997. There would have been no Kings-Lakers 2002, no Vlade Divac, no Chris Webber, no Bobby Jackson. There would have been no chance of transforming the very look of the city with a stunning new entertainment district.
If Sacramento squeezes everything it can out of the parking proposal bids, ticket surcharges, land sales, national arena operator AEG, etc., without burdening taxpayers, the pressure shifts squarely to the league and the Maloofs to narrow the gap and close the deal. Stern has invested years in this process. He knows something. He knows investors. He never would have pushed for the team's return if he didn't have a plan.
The Maloofs? Hard as it is to believe, they got back up and came back for more.
But these next few weeks, this is about us. Our town. Our community. Our leaders. Our future. Who do we want to be? How do we want to look? We live in the capital of California. It's time to permanently ditch the inferiority complex, and, from this day forward, to throw nothing but high heat.