He helped demolish the Kings’ championship dreams a decade ago, and later made headlines referring to them as “the Sacramento Queens.”
Now NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal has signed on as a part owner, the Kings announced Monday, a move expected to bring the team a Shaq-sized helping of publicity and glitter, and one that could influence the looming ballot-box fight over a proposed new arena in downtown Sacramento.
O’Neal, the ever-quotable veteran of 19 NBA seasons, will be formally introduced by new majority owner Vivek Ranadive on Tuesday at the Kings’ practice facility at Sleep Train Arena. Ranadive wouldn’t disclose details of O’Neal’s share other than to call him a “substantial investor.”
Arriving for dinner with O’Neal at Zocalo restaurant in midtown Sacramento Monday evening, Ranadive said O’Neal and his considerable celebrity will further Ranadive’s vision of turning the Kings into a global brand: “He’s the most iconic person on the planet.”
The former Los Angeles Lakers great already had indicated he would work with the new Kings ownership group to mentor DeMarcus Cousins, the team’s talented but controversial center. As part owner, he said his role will be a good deal broader. “I’ll be here a lot,” he said outside the restaurant. The Kings’ entourage was later joined at the restaurant by Gov. Jerry Brown.
O’Neal and his outsized personality could be used to sell Sacramentans on the proposed $258 million public subsidy for a new downtown arena, a subsidy that’s being challenged by a citizens group.
“He’s a well known, engaging personality with considerable star power,” said Doug Elmets, a Sacramento political consultant and veteran of the failed 2006 effort to build a downtown sports arena. “It comes at an important juncture in the effort to build the arena.”
The Kings’ new president, Chris Granger, said he wasn’t sure whether O’Neal’s role in the team would affect the arena fight but called O’Neal “a big salesman.”
The group trying to block the arena subsidy, Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, has said it’s close to collecting the 22,000 signatures needed to put the subsidy issue on the June ballot. STOP spokesman John Hyde said O’Neal’s ownership stake in the Kings won’t sway voters.
“It adds a high-profile personality to the deal, but it doesn’t change the economics of the deal,” Hyde said.
O’Neal’s ownership role was revealed just days after ESPN The Magazine named the Kings the worst franchise in pro sports. The Kings took out a full-page ad in The Sacramento Bee on Sunday rebutting the ranking, saying: “Hey ESPN ... Nice Airball. New era. New swagger. The best fans await you.”
ESPN will televise a Kings home game Nov. 15 against Detroit, and team officials said fans are responding to the flurry of publicity the past few days. Phil Horn, the Kings’ vice president for ticket sales, said the team sold several hundred tickets to that game early Monday.
O’Neal becomes the second former NBA star to become a Kings part owner, following retired Kings star Mitch Richmond. David Carter, a sports-business expert at the University of Southern California, compared O’Neal to an even bigger celebrity sports owner: Magic Johnson, a minority partner in the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“This will create an ongoing splash,” Carter said. “It also pays dividends in terms of community relations.”
But Carter said O’Neal can be a credible spokesman for the pro-arena effort only if he has some understanding of the project. “He’s got to know the ins and outs,” Carter said. “He’s got to have some substance.”
O’Neal, who works as a basketball analyst on TNT, told USA Today that he has seen plans for the new arena. His reaction: “Woo-wee. That’s all I can say: woo-wee ... . I know that this arena is going to be the best arena in the country.”
While Ranadive has become a popular figure in Sacramento – as the man who bought the Kings from the unpopular former owners, the Maloofs, and kept the team from leaving town – O’Neal’s presence could boost the Kings’ standing further.
“It’s another demonstration that this ownership group is world-class and is dedicated to world-class entertainment,” said Sacramento political strategist Rob Stutzman.
“If he walks precincts in Oak Park, Natomas and Land Park, I think it’s going to go pretty well, as long as he doesn’t wear a Lakers’ jersey,” Stutzman said with a laugh.
O’Neal was at the center of the great Lakers-Kings rivalry, which reached its zenith in an epic Western Conference Finals playoff series won by Los Angeles in seven games in 2002. Months later, on the eve of the new NBA season, O’Neal said he wasn’t “worried about playing the Sacramento Queens.”
Asked about the comment Monday, O’Neal said he was merely trying to rev up TV ratings for upcoming Kings-Lakers games. “Everybody knows I’m a jokester. Everybody knows I’m a marketing expert.”
While a Laker, O’Neal also was involved in a memorable incident at Sleep Train Arena. After he scored his career 20,000th point during a game against the Kings, the ball was stolen by a fan during a timeout. It was returned to the Lakers bench – defaced by an anti-Shaq obscenity.
But O’Neal also had a warm relationship with the Maloofs. He was an occasional guest at the Palms Casino, which was formerly controlled by the family, and they hosted a retirement party for him at the Las Vegas resort in 2011.
O’Neal told USA Today that he was introduced to Ranadive by Kings minority owner Mark Mastrov, founder of the 24 Hour Fitness chain. The chain operates 10 “Shaquille O’Neal Signature Clubs” in Florida and Texas.