David Stern refused to let go. In a sense, it really is that simple.
David Stern refused to let Sacramento go.
In the complex world of protracted arena negotiations and multimillion-dollar deals, the human element is a formidable, unpredictable force. It can be the obstacle in the room or the presence that brings people together. It can dictate who stays and who goes.
In the case of Sacramento and its Kings, the NBA commissioner the league's ultimate power broker forced the parties to the table and then drove them toward a tentative agreement. He kept sticking around, coming back for more, despite one failed arena proposal after another.
And the question I have been asked more often than any other lately is this: Why is Stern so stubborn about saving the Kings for Sacramento?
Now, I have known the man since 1981. I rode in his limousine to Arco Arena for the inaugural game in the Kings' Sacramento era, and frankly, I can't even answer that question to my own satisfaction. I have thoughts and theories. I have a gut instinct. But that's what they are. Thoughts. Theories. Gut instinct.
Clearly, Stern is influenced by the region's market size (20th) and lack of competition; by the desire to protect small franchises and avert a glut of teams converging on major cities; and by his decades-long push to increase revenue sharing and allow for competitive balance, never more so than during last summer's collective bargaining discussions.
But count me among those who suspect the commissioner was motivated by additional, intangible elements, among them the realization that the Maloofs were never going to sell and that Joe and Gavin never really wanted to leave; that a dynamic young mayor named Kevin Johnson just happened to be a former NBA All-Star and a native Sacramentan; and, perhaps most significantly, that the region's emotional attachment to its only major professional sports franchise was comparable to that of Portland and San Antonio and Salt Lake City.
I simply can't shake the notion that, at some point, this decades-plus endeavor became personal.
"Leagues that minimize movement (relocation) show great stability," said USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo, Stern's close friend and one-time chairman of the NBA's relocation committee. "Sometimes, circumstances dictate otherwise. Seattle was a really good basketball market for a lot of years, and I would say David did everything in his power to make that happen. It just wasn't in the cards (politically). For Sacramento David has always been sensitive to the fact that there is a lot of equity built up between communities and the fans, and I think that was very much at play there."
Part of what makes any discussion about Stern and his motives so fascinating is that he is an intuitive but not an overtly touchy-feely commissioner. His famous temper spares no one, including journalists, and his work ethic drives employees to seek jobs elsewhere. He has been known to strong-arm opponents, and on more than one occasion during the recent collective bargaining talks, infuriated his players with his biting commentary.
But this is also the commissioner who, as a young attorney, challenged racially discriminatory housing practices in New Jersey, who started and continues to support the most enduring of women's professional sports leagues (WNBA), who embraced Magic Johnson when the world thought AIDS was contracted by mere touch, and who remains unwavering in his support of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. (Stern insists that the next Hornets owners commit to the market for the foreseeable future.)
A year ago in Sacramento, with the Maloofs preparing to file for relocation to Anaheim, Stern responded to Johnson's plea for a final, fateful hearing before the board of governors in New York.
"We had the scare of our lives as far as our sports team," the mayor said Friday, "and what I will always remember is that I sent an official letter to the commissioner asking to address the owners, and he said, 'OK.' I got a chance to be in the room, to plead my case. I tried to say, 'This is someone who graduated and remains part of the NBA family, fighting for his city, and here's what we can do.' But he challenged me on everything."
According to K.J., Stern remained skeptical. He wanted hard numbers from the business community. He sent an entire marketing team to bolster a Kings sales department depleted by defections. He monitored Sacramento's pulse to gauge if the Maloofs had a chance at a comeback, if any proposal had a prayer.
"We have always trusted Stern," Gavin Maloof said, "and he wanted to get this done, and he knew we wanted to get this done. And I'll tell you (laugh), when you're in the room with him, you always know who's in charge."
Johnson, who is confident but anxiously awaiting Tuesday's City Council vote, added, "I'll be 46 soon, and for half of my adult life, David Stern has been a major influence on me. He took the league global, was the first to do that. Those lessons were not lost on me."