Mayor Johnson pressed Maloofs for a commitment

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:09 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – The city's decades-long fight for a new arena came down to a single question.

It was Sunday afternoon, and Mayor Kevin Johnson sat across the negotiating table from the Maloof brothers, whose family has owned the Sacramento Kings since 1999. He looked them in the eye and asked, "Are you committed to Sacramento?" If they weren't, he said, there was no point continuing the talks.

"Each of them, one after another, said, 'Yes, we want to be in Sacramento,' " the mayor recounted Monday, saying he hugged Joe, Gavin and George Maloof. "I knew at that point we had an excellent opportunity of making this deal happen."

There was some uncertainty leading up to that exchange.

The Maloofs had met privately with NBA officials for hours on Sunday, as city officials huddled in a separate conference room or in the hallway. During those talks, the NBA laid out the proposed financing plan to the Kings owners – a plan the NBA and Sacramento officials had negotiated without the Maloofs' direct involvement.

The focus of those talks, according to interviews with multiple people briefed on the negotiations who were not authorized to speak publicly, was developing a plan to close a $35 million gap between what the city wanted from the Maloofs and what the family offered to put into the arena effort at the start of the weekend.

That task got a bump from a phone call Monday morning.

As negotiations stretched into a third day, Johnson called AEG, the giant arena operator the city is counting on to provide $50 million toward the project's cost in exchange for running the facility and collecting much of the revenue.

The mayor asked AEG for more. The company agreed, pledging nearly $60 million. It's yet not clear what AEG got in exchange – city officials were reluctant to disclose all the details until legal wording is finalized for a "term sheet" to be released to the public Thursday.

The AEG pledge was celebrated by high-fives handed out by Johnson, according to a source involved in the talks.

Meanwhile, the NBA also agreed to help. NBA Commissioner David Stern said Monday he assembled approval from the league's other team owners to "in effect authorize me to be as supportive as we can be in this process, so that we could cement the future of the NBA in Sacramento."

While Stern did not release details of that support, a source said he was indicating the league's willingness to provide a financial safety net to the Maloofs to help them come up with their share of upfront funding for an arena.

With the phone call to AEG and the NBA's support in hand, it wasn't long into Monday's negotiating session – within the first hour, the mayor said – that "everyone in the room knew it was going to happen."

"You want to celebrate," he said. "It's like you know you have more points than the other team, but there's still time on the clock and you can't celebrate quite yet."

Stern said there were reasons to push ahead. He told those in the room he was impressed with what he perceived to be increased political will in Sacramento to work through an arena deal. He cited votes by the Sacramento City Council – divided on so many other issues – that generally showed strong support for moving forward with a financing plan.

The league and the Maloofs also seemed relieved that a bill pushed by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, had passed through the statehouse allowing for large construction projects to receive streamlined environmental review.

By about 1 p.m. Eastern time Monday, after three days of closed-door meetings, the sides had the framework for an agreement.

Johnson exited a conference room and entered a ground-floor elevator inside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a resort tucked in a corner of Disney World. By his side were Stern and the three Maloof brothers.

Seconds later, the elevator doors opened in the hotel lobby, and the group emerged to a crowd of stunned reporters. "It's a new day for Sacramento," the mayor said. "It's going to be a defining moment for our community."

As Stern tried to take his turn before the cameras, Johnson interrupted. He embraced the commissioner, who rested his head just below the mayor's right shoulder.

"There have been some who suggested it's a fool's errand, but I don't think any of us felt it was the least bit foolish," Stern said. "We felt it was a worthy cause, a worthy goal, and if you bang your head against the wall enough, you get good results. And we all did that."

Gavin Maloof, the second-oldest brother often seen cheering courtside at Kings games, was approached a moment later by reporters.

Unable to contain himself, he broke down in tears.

"It's been a long time," he said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ryan Lillis



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