HOUSTON - Parachuting in to plead his case for the Sacramento Kings, Mayor Kevin Johnson arrived Friday at the site of the NBA All-Star Game to lobby to keep the team from relocating to Seattle.
He didn't bring a lineup of investors to buy the Kings, or a completed financial package to build the new arena needed to secure the team's future in Sacramento. But Johnson spent hours in a series of closed-door meetings with key NBA officials, hoping his visit to Houston would help lay the groundwork to block the Maloof family's proposed sale of the Kings to a group that would move them to Seattle next season.
The mayor wasn't available for comment late Friday. A source close to the situation characterized the talks as "positive and productive." The source wouldn't identify the people who met with Johnson.
The source, who declined to be identified, said the NBA officials seemed to appreciate that Sacramento has "an approved arena plan" - the financing package negotiated a year ago, blessed by the NBA and later approved by the City Council before it was renounced by the Maloofs.
Although the proposed site might shift from the railyard to Downtown Plaza, this source said league officials understand that the basic building block is still in place - the city's willingness to pump in a $255 million subsidy. "The biggest piece of the puzzle is the public financing," the source said.
Seattle has its own financing plan, tentatively approved by city and county officials last fall, including $200 million in public funding.
Johnson may be operating under a bit of a handicap in Houston. Although it's known that ultrawealthy investors Ron Burkle and Mark Mastrov are assembling a counteroffer to keep the Kings in Sacramento, the mayor probably won't announce their partnership until around March 1. He also doesn't have a formal proposal yet for a new arena - a critical piece in his campaign to persuade the NBA - although he says that, too, will be in place by March 1.
"It's an uphill battle to lobby for something when you don't have something solid yet," said David Falk, a longtime NBA player agent and one of the tens of thousands descending on Houston for the weekend. "There's really nothing to discuss unless or until there are competitive and legitimate bids from Sacramento."
A team executive plying the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, who declined to be quoted by name, said most NBA owners aren't yet engaged on the Kings issue. It's being studied by a small group of owners on the relocation and finance committees, which have been combined for that purpose. If Sacramento comes up with a concrete proposal, "it has the chance to change the dynamic," the executive said.
Johnson said the absence of a finalized proposal won't undermine his message this weekend. Among "the folks that are on my target to be lobbied, they'll understand what's going on," he said.
One of the NBA's most influential owners, Oklahoma City's Clay Bennett, chairman of the relocation committee, declined to say which way the league is tilting. "The process will present itself," he said as he breezed through the Four Seasons, where owners and league officials are staying. "The new combined committee is engaged" on the issue, he said.
Other owners took a pass when asked about the Kings. The Los Angeles Clippers' Donald Sterling said, "I wish everyone the best." Dallas' Mark Cuban, often fined for criticizing referees, said with a smile: "There's good reasons to get fined, but (discussing the Kings) is not one of them."
NBA Commissioner David Stern said he hadn't scheduled a meeting with Johnson in Houston but has pledged to give the mayor an opportunity to make a full presentation at the board of governors meeting in New York in mid-April.
While the April meeting is likely to decide the Kings' fate, this weekend could serve as a dry run of sorts. Johnson, who played in three All-Star Games, should have no problem getting face time with league insiders at the luxury hotel suites and other gathering spots around town, said former Houston Rockets chief executive officer George Postolos, who'll be attending the big game Sunday at the Toyota Center.
"There are still a number of owners who saw him play against their teams," said Postolos, now president of the Houston Astros. "They remember him. This is a good forum for him."
The Kings sent just one player to Houston - Isaiah Thomas, chosen for Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge - but the team is going to be a hot topic all weekend. Stern at several turns Thursday said both Sacramento and Seattle are worthy of NBA teams, and the board of governors would face a very difficult decision if Sacramento assembles a strong bid.
He also chimed in Friday on a legal issue brewing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Sacramento: the possibility that the Kings' limited partners, who aren't part of the sale, have the legal right to match the offer from Seattle. That could represent a potentially major stumbling block for the Seattle investors.
"These are the kinds of issues that usually get resolved," Stern said. "Either they do or they don't. This is the kind of situation that resolves itself one way or another."
While the players were attracting huge media attention at the Hilton Americas, the Four Seasons was mainly the place for executives, owners and various celebrities. The commissioner's wife, Diane, got a hug from CNN's Wolf Blitzer; broadcaster Ahmad Rashad and Miami Heat executive Pat Riley strolled through the lobby a few minutes later.
"It's a really big show; it's the NBA's party," Postolos said.
All-Star weekend has figured prominently in recent Kings history. At his news conference in Los Angeles two years ago, Stern confirmed that the Maloofs were thinking of moving the team to Anaheim. Last year, three days of negotiating in Orlando culminated with the Maloofs, Stern and Johnson announcing a tentative agreement on a new arena at the Sacramento railyard.
That deal quickly collapsed, and last month the Maloofs announced they would sell their controlling interest to the Seattle group, led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
It's unknown whether Hansen, Ballmer or any of the Maloofs will be in Houston this weekend. Nor is it clear whether Burkle or Mastrov will put in an appearance.
Anyone coming to Houston might have trouble making themselves heard above the noise. Official All-Star activities include a celebrity game, the slam-dunk and three-point shooting contests and a pregame concert with hip-hopper Ludacris. Fans can shoot baskets and collect player autographs at a four-day "All-Star Jam Session" at the convention center next to the arena.
There's also a staggering array of parties. Nightclubs, luxury-car dealerships and other venues are being turned into red-carpet party zones where - for a price - fans can gaze at athletes, musicians and other celebrities. Rap tycoon (and Brooklyn Nets part owner) Jay-Z is hosting one party Friday, while Miami Heat star LeBron James is hosting another.
Most tickets start at $100 a pop, but access to the stars costs a lot more. If you want to sit near Shaquille O'Neal at his "All-Star Takeover" Friday at the exclusive Marque night club, it will run you $20,000.
Maybe the biggest event of all: NBA legend Michael Jordan's invitation-only 50th birthday party, scheduled for the Museum of Fine Arts.
"It's party city for three days," said Shelby Hodge, editor at large at CultureMap, a website devoted to Houston society and entertainment news. "It's going to be like Mardis Gras."