Sacramento celebrates keeping Kings with downtown rally

05/24/2013 12:00 AM

09/03/2013 5:38 PM

It was a collective exhale for a weathered fan base.

Thousands of Kings fans packed downtown's Cesar Chavez Plaza on Thursday night to celebrate the franchise's suddenly solid future in Sacramento. It was a raucous rally, with fans packing the sidewalks around the park for hours before the gates opened and several hundred remaining long after the festivities had ended.

Former and current Kings players addressed the crowd. A huge screen behind the stage flashed video highlights of the team's glory years. Dance groups performed and members of local rock band Tesla serenaded the audience.

The true superstars of the night weren't the Kings players or the musicians, but rather an unlikely group of out-of-town investors led by a Silicon Valley software tycoon.

The spotlight shone brightest on Vivek Ranadive – described by Mayor Kevin Johnson as "the captain of this ship" – whose new ownership group just last week reached an agreement to buy the Kings from the Maloof family.

Like a rock star making his way into a stadium, Ranadive was mobbed as he arrived at the rally and darted from one media appearance to another. NBA staffers had to supply the soft-spoken executive with a lozenge to soothe his spent voice. One woman in the crowd followed Ranadive with a sign that read, "In Vivek We Trust."

And when he took the stage, draped in a custom Kings jersey with his name on the back, a crowd that Kings officials estimated at 15,000 erupted.

"I want to promise you that the Kings are your team," said Ranadive, whose daughter Anjali sang with Tesla. "And the Kings are here to stay."

The other star of the night was Johnson, who led the city's effort to assemble an ownership group and arena plan good enough to block the Kings' proposed move to Seattle. The mayor was introduced to the crowd by Kings legend Chris Webber, who lifted Johnson in a bear hug when he took the stage.

"Did you believe we could pull it off?" the mayor said. "This is truly a defining moment in the history of the city of Sacramento."

The Ranadive group reached a deal to buy the Kings last Friday, two days after the Kings' proposed move to Seattle was vetoed by the NBA. The NBA board of governors is expected to approve the sale next week.

The investors' group also has an agreement with the city to build a new $448 million, publicly subsidized arena for the team at Downtown Plaza. Ranadive told reporters his group has "sent the check" to purchase the Downtown Plaza for an undisclosed sum from JMA Ventures, the firm that bought the mall last fall.

"We now have the ability to control" the Downtown Plaza site), he said.

City officials have said they aim to open the arena in time for the 2016 NBA season.

Fans lined downtown streets for hours before the rally began, creating the kind of festive atmosphere downtown that city officials hope to see with a new arena.

Tim Ghiorso, a Kings fan who trekked to Dallas for the NBA vote sealing the Kings' future in Sacramento, was working the crowd – as an employee. He just got hired as one of 40 new season-ticket sellers and was looking for his first sale.

"I've got to make some sales or they'll let me go," he said with a smile.

Marquis Hunter and Shawana Richards arrived with matching T-shirts that had the lines through the names of the cities trying to lure the Kings – Las Vegas, Anaheim, Virginia Beach and Seattle – followed by the tag line: "Nice try Maloofs!"

Hunter said he just bought season tickets for the first time and was psyched for next season. "I knew they were gonna stay," he said.

Several hundred fans crowded around a makeshift booth as Ranadive and Johnson gave a live interview to ESPN, occasionally chanting "Thank you KJ" and "Sacramento." Afterward, Ranadive signed a giant "Long live the Kings" banner that will hang from the rafters of the arena.

Co-owners Andy Miller, a San Francisco tech executive, and Chris Kelly, a former Facebook executive, mingled with the crowd, largely unnoticed, and talked enthusiastically about their plans for the team.

"We need to bring India to Sacramento – you do that through social media," said Miller, who's been named chairman of the team's technology committee. He said the team will roll out a new mobile app that will let fans at the arena order food, pull up video clips and upgrade their seats.

Kelly arrived at the rally following a stint in the ticket-sales office of Sleep Train Arena. He acknowledged that he wasn't able to get any tickets sold, but got a "maybe" from one fan. "I'm hoping I'll get a late close," Kelly said.

Team owners are watching social media to get a sense of what fans want in the new arena, he said, adding, "We're seeing every post."

Kings minority owner John Kehriotis, attired in purple, gushed like a starstruck fan about meeting his new fellow owners.

"They are a great group, a diverse group," he said. "They are positive thinkers, with no limits. They are going to set an example for the league."

Earlier Thursday, Ranadive also took a 15-minute turn inside the Kings' ticket office at Sleep Train Arena, phoning season-ticket holders to ask them to renew for the upcoming season. He made four sales, in one case persuading a fellow Hindi speaker to double his commitment to a total of $20,944.

"Thank you sir," he told the purchaser, "and I look forward to seeing you opening night."

He told another fan who agreed to renew his season tickets: "I know where your seat is, I'll come say hello." With yet another caller, he had to spell his first name and appeared to have trouble convincing the season ticketholder it was really him.

Before he started on his phone calls, Ranadive led employees in a brief chant: "You have to say, 'Attitude, huh!' " he told them. "I want an exclamation point."

They complied.

WANT MORE?

Watch a live replay of Thursday's Kings rally at http://blogs.sacbee.com/sports/kings/archives/2013/05/sacramento-kings-rally-live-updates-photos.html

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

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