February 15, 2013

Ailene Voisin: Mayor Johnson must bring his A-game this weekend in fight to keep Kings

These All-Star Weekends aren't what they used to be.

HOUSTON – These All-Star Weekends aren't what they used to be.

The NBA caters to its major sponsors and high-end customers. Current and former superstars schedule parties and compete for celebrity attendees. So many events are squeezed into the three-day schedule, the players go home after the midseason break longing for a midseason break.

And the politics. Yes, the politics.

Once again, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson will be in his element. And probably more so than at any time since he stashed away his All-Star jerseys, the former Phoenix Suns point guard is in need of a powerful performance.

Arm-twisting. Coaxing. Convincing. Pleading. Crossover moves and maybe a three from the corner. Backrooms and hotel suites and lobbies. Anything and everything and everywhere.

Timing is everything, again.

Johnson had hoped to present the league's owners with a compelling offer for majority interest in the Kings – competitive with the $525 million deal the Maloofs signed with the Seattle group headed by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen – and plans for a new sports and entertainment complex, but as this weekend approaches, the major equity partners have not been identified and no agreement has been reached.

Billionaire Ron Burkle and 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov are among those who have met with the mayor and been mentioned among potential suitors. Johnson also has been working with the grass-roots "Here We Stay" movement and attempting to secure financial commitments for future Kings sponsorships and season-ticket packages.

"You just cannot tell me that when Sacramento presents a comparable, fair, competitive deal to what Seattle's done and makes good on this arena, that this team is going to be plopped and relocated somewhere else," Johnson said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. "At the end of the day, you just can't tell me that's going to happen."

Pressed about the time element, he added: "We're going to be ready."

But who can predict what will happen? This ordeal has taken more turns than a carousel. At the very least, it can be said that the Sacramento community is resilient, the NBA is stubborn, and the mayor is both stubborn and experienced.

For three consecutive years, Sacramento and its arena situation has swiped attention during All-Star Weekend from the players. (Kings second-year guard Isaiah Thomas is the team's sole representative here, but again, this weekend is about counting votes, not the number of Sacramento-based participants).

In Los Angeles in 2011, a political convention broke out when word leaked that Joe and Gavin Maloof intended to relocate the franchise to Anaheim. NBA Commissioner David Stern and his owners instead convinced them to consider another arena plan in Sacramento.

Last year in Orlando, after intense and protracted discussions that included Joe, Gavin and George Maloof, Stern and other high-ranking league executives, and Johnson and several other city officials, a tentative agreement was reached for a sports and entertainment complex in the downtown railyard.

Was that really only a year ago?

Gavin Maloof cried in relief. Joe Maloof couldn't stop grinning.

Even George Maloof, the Las Vegas-based developer who wields the influence regarding the family's financial matters and never has shown any real affinity for Northern California, appeared resigned to the notion of the Kings remaining in Sacramento – and in a new building.

But we all know how quickly the bricks crumbled on that tentative deal.

So now it's on to Houston, where the conversation shifts to another city (Seattle), another serious threat to the Kings' future in Sacramento, and another chance for Johnson to chat up old friends and display his considerable leadership skills. The board of governors must approve both elements of the Seattle deal – the sale and the relocation – and are expected to reach a resolution at the owners meetings April 18-19 in New York.

Houston, coincidentally, once endured its own decades-long arena saga.

The Rockets' history is rife with failed initiatives, embattled ownership and a business community once alienated by former team president John Thomas. The public-private partnership that led to construction of the Toyota Center, where most of this weekend's events will take place, was achieved only after Thomas was demoted and eventually ousted.

Yep, that John Thomas. Unfortunately for Sacramento, he was later hired by the Maloofs and guilty of a repeat performance. He's gone now, too, part of the protracted and often-nasty arena past.

But if the Rockets were able to recover, perhaps there's a pattern here. Maybe Johnson can figure this out and Sacramento can recover as well.

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