Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Anybody seen Burkle? Kings' potential savior lying low

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2013 - 7:18 pm

There was supposed to be a Ron Burkle sighting at The Bee on Monday, and then there wasn't. The mystery man canceled his appearance a few hours before the 2 p.m. tipoff, offered no reasons and remained true to his reputation within the arena of professional sports.

The Pittsburgh Penguins' billionaire co-owner – one of four investors involved in the proposed $447.7 million downtown entertainment complex and attempts to purchase majority interest in the Kings – is only occasionally seen and rarely speaks.

Back in Pennsylvania, it is said that Burkle would rather slide across the ice on his backside than sit down for a chat with journalists. After rescuing the Penguins from bankruptcy and threats of relocation, and even after financing his team's Stanley Cup championship in 2009, he consistently, unfailingly, hid behind his wallet.

"Ron totally eschews publicity," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said when reached on his cellphone Monday in Philadelphia, "but he is one of those people who has a great instinct for what works. Sacramento could not get a better result than having Ron buy the Kings and develop downtown."

The pieces to this arena puzzle, of course, are all over the map. Seattle is it now? Or will Burkle and his group – which includes 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, Warriors minority owner Vivek Ranadive and, as of late Monday, a surprise fourth major investor – come up with a save comparable to the one that occurred in Pittsburgh?

If not impossible, the task remains formidable, the circumstances forever fluid. The next step occurs tonight when Sacramento City Council members will be asked to approve a $258 million contribution to the downtown arena project, with most of the public funding generated from bonds back- ed by future revenues from downtown parking garages.

Now, just a hunch here, but Burkle and Mastrov, also a late no-show at Monday's media gathering that featured Mayor Kevin Johnson and high-ranking city officials, probably decided that maintaining their vow of silence was the shrewd move at this point given the pending vote, the extremely fragile, political nature of the proceedings, and the sudden inclusion of the prominent Jacobs family, founders of San Diego-based Qualcomm.

Whatever. Kings fans are experts at the waiting game. They haven't won a playoff game against Seattle for how many years now?

If the council approves the private/public partnership, the potential local ownership group presents the Maloofs and the NBA board of governors with a competing bid for the franchise and the relocation committee recommends keeping the Kings in Sacramento, Burkle will make an appearance, make at least a few comments and inch closer to his long-anticipated debut as an NBA owner.

And what kind of owner might that be?

In Pittsburgh, the man in the white hat almost exclusively wears black polo shirts, jeans and shades. There, as presumably would be the case here, he leaves team operations to others and expends his energy expanding his business empire. Until recently, Burkle – who partnered with Penguins legend Mario Lemieux to purchase the team in 1999, fended off repeated threats of relocation, and partnered with the city and state on a $321 million arena that opened in 2010 – refused to be included in the media guide.

In another unusual move for an owner, particularly one so intensely private, Burkle reached out to labor representatives to help resolve the NHL labor dispute that reduced the current season to 48 games.

"At one point, we were moderates trying to help both sides get something done," said Pat Brisson, the agent for Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. "We talked on a regular basis, exchanged ideas and tried to figure out an agreement that would be fair to both sides."

Rendell, who describes Burkle as an old friend and says he benefited tremendously from the billionaire's generous contributions to the Democratic Party during his gubernatorial reign (2003-11), also recalled intense, often heated exchanges during the arena negotiations. On a number of occasions, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman coaxed the two longtime allies back into the room.

"I remember once, I was so (ticked) off, that I said 'That's it, I'm out of here,' " continued the former governor. "We went at it hammer and nail. Ron is a very, very tough negotiator, but he's very fair. If he's going after the Kings and downtown redevelopment, it's because he knows he can make money, which will be good for Sacramento. And as an owner, he spends money to make sure his team can be competitive."

The Penguins aren't just competitive, they're talented and entertaining, and poaching from the struggling Steelers' fan base. Led by Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, with Lemieux and CEO David Morehouse overseeing daily operations, the Pens lead the NHL in victories, have sold out every game since Feb. 14, 2007 – a streak of 272 games – and are widely regarded as America's premier hockey franchise.

So, again, soon enough. The billionaires will speak up on behalf of Sacramento. Or they won't.

Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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