Ailene Voisin: Stern extends his long history with Sacramento tonight

10/30/2013 12:00 AM

10/30/2013 5:10 PM

David Stern will be in Sacramento tonight because he doesn't want to miss this, either. Encores are rarely this rewarding. Embattled franchises tend to relocate, not move a few miles down the freeway. Professional sports is littered with woe-is-me stories about abandoned communities, squandered opportunities and organizations that cease to exist.

But remarkably, not this city, and amazingly not this franchise.

If not quite a coronation – that occurs only after a championship – Sleep Train Arena tonight will host the biggest celebration since the Sacramento Kings welcomed the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 25, 1985.

"I'm calling it a 'Retention Party,' the unofficial 'Welcome Home,' " Stern joked the other day, "and I'll be there when the new arena opens in October 2016, too."

No way he misses this. The Kings and the NBA commissioner share too much history. Their roots trace to the dark days of the early 1980s, a time of drug scandals, feeble television contracts, tape-delayed playoff games and underfinanced ownership in Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Cleveland and, notably, Kansas City.

NBA fans were just getting to know Magic and Bird, reintroduced to the enduring, electric Lakers-Celtics rivalry, when a brash young Sacramento developer named Gregg Lukenbill purchased the Kansas City Kings. There were no salary caps in 1983, no cable contracts, no team charters. The Dream Team wouldn't be introduced for nine more years, the WNBA for an additional five years. Stern's prediction that international players would someday flourish in America's game was greeted with raised eyebrows and hoots of laughter.

This season's opening-day rosters include 92 players from 39 countries.

Stern's global instincts not only indirectly delivered Sarunas Marciulionis and Vlade Divac to the Kings, they factored in the team's surprising survival in this sense: Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive is a native of India, a region the league is targeting aggressively for growth.

The combination of factors – Ranadive's investment, aggressive local leadership, the political will to pursue private/public funding for an arena, a mayor who is a former NBA All-Star – produced a dramatic, even stunning turn of events for a Kings franchise long rumored to be moving to Las Vegas, Anaheim, San Jose and, as recently as last spring, Seattle.

"There was no buyer and no arena," Stern said. "But the mayor (Kevin Johnson), to his credit, said, 'What do we need?' I told him, 'A buyer and an arena.' "

Ranadive and his fellow owners produced the $535 million offer accepted by the Maloofs. Johnson, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Sacramento City Council members put together an arena-financing plan. The addition of prominent developer Mark Friedman solidified the local commitment, a significant development that allayed concerns among influential NBA owners.

But none of this happens – no visit by the Denver Nuggets, no celebration, no cowbells, no downtown bathed in purple – if Stern wavers in his stubborn gut-level belief that franchise relocations cheapen his league. Repeatedly, throughout the ownerships of Lukenbill, Jim Thomas and the Maloofs, he turned away potential investors who were intent on moving the franchise. He evaluated one arena proposal after another, persisting, cajoling, instructing, directing, assembling, constantly pressing for a viable deal.

Stern will tour Downtown Plaza with Johnson and meet with Steinberg and Gov. Jerry Brown at the Capitol this afternoon, then receive the purple-carpet treatment later in the evening, not unlike his experiences on opening night in 1985.

"The details are a bit hazy after almost 30 years," Stern said with a chuckle, "but I wore a tuxedo, and I remember that we got stuck in a long line of traffic on the way to the game. There was no chance I was going to make it, so I told the driver to pull over and drive on the shoulder. Then sure enough, we hear the sirens. I said, 'Officer, I'm the NBA commissioner. I'm supposed to open the building (Arco Arena I). But we have no shot at making it without your help.' He said, 'Follow me,' and escorted us the rest of the way."

The cranky old replacement barn is on life support. The concourses are congested, the visitors' locker room much too crowded despite some recent improvements. But it can hang on for three more seasons. Tonight, after Stern takes his bows, the cowbells will clang, the whistles will blow, and most importantly, a game will be played.

MORE FIT FOR A KING?

Five improvements fans will notice at Sleep Train Arena:

Parking lot: All the potholes have been filled, and the lots have been repaved and re-striped.

The floor: It's been refinished, with a new look at center court.

More treats: The Kings promise more regional food – and microbrews, too, including Rubicon IPA, American River Coloma Brown and Anchor Steam White IPA (these will change throughout the season).

Stay connected: Internet access has been upgraded – the arena boasts 90 new wi-fi spots – so fans can use social media.

Stay dry, too: The roof has been repaired, so there shouldn't be any more leaks.

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

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