Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: Stern saves Sacramento again

05/19/2013 12:00 AM

10/01/2014 2:00 PM

We could nominate him for sainthood. We could erect a statue in front of the downtown arena. We could name a street after him. But at the very least, we should schedule a David Stern Day before the NBA commissioner retires Feb. 1, 2014, because this is the man who saved the Kings.

Again and again.

Stern resisted, explored, implored, engaged, tutored, explained. For all the right reasons – because Sacramento simply did not deserve to lose its only major professional sports franchise – the NBA's most powerful figure refused to allow the much-traveled Kings to morph back into Royals or become SuperSonics, Las Vegas Gamblers, Tampa Bay Bears, Virginia Beach Swimmers.

Or who knows where else those Vlade Divac, Chris Webber and Oscar Robertson jerseys would be hanging right now – and don't forget the Monarchs' WNBA championship banner, either – had Stern wearied of the chronic Sacramento-induced headaches and eased into cruise control for the final months of his stewardship?

While the attempted palace coup by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer was the most serious and exhausting threat to the Kings' future in Sacramento, it was far from the first. The Seattle investors stood at the end of a very long line.

"One way or another, we have been living with this for the past decade and a half," state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said last week after the Maloofs agreed to sell their controlling interest to the investment group headed by Silicon Valley software tycoon Vivek Ranadive. "A lot of fits and starts. Some questions along the way. But (this) totally ranks among the highlights of my time here."

Steinberg, who was among the City Council members who approved the $70 million loan when former owner Jim Thomas launched the first direct hit at the franchise in 1997, ranks high on the list of those deserving credit. The list also includes City Council members who approved a term sheet; city officials who repeatedly revised and improved arena proposals; and especially Mayor Kevin Johnson, a native Sacramentan and three-time NBA All-Star who assembled an impressive ownership group and proved to be just as persistent and persuasive as his former boss.

But KJ will be the first to tell you this: Stern showed him the way.

"The commissioner set out very clear guidelines," Johnson said Saturday. "He said, 'If you want to keep a team, go read the NBA bylaws, go read the constitution, and you will see why teams leave under relocation. If you have fans who support the team and can build a building, it's very tough for a team to be pulled from a city. Understand that section and build your case.' "

Stern, of course, has significantly more experience at these relocation squabbles than his counterparts in the NFL or Major League Baseball. Those bylaws he talked about were included in the NBA constitution after the Clippers moved to Los Angeles without league authorization in 1984. While owners seeking relocation subsequently have played by the rules, the league's inability to resolve Seattle's thorny arena issues and preclude the Sonics' move to Oklahoma City five years ago is the itch that occasionally still flares and swells.

Too seldom mentioned is that, historically, timing is an exceedingly significant factor in the success or failure of most stadium and arena ventures. And unfortunately for Sonics fans, when Stern intervened in Seattle, the region was still in the midst of the recession, fractured by political infighting, and afflicted by arena fatigue; previous public contributions for Seahawks and Mariners facilities left little appetite for aiding the Sonics.

Thus, when the Maloofs four months ago agreed to sell controlling interest to Hansen and Ballmer for $341 million (and a record team valuation of $525 million), the prevailing sentiment within the industry was that the Kings were goners, soon to become Sonics. Even after Johnson introduced the impressive Ranadive and the City Council reiterated its backing for the private/public arena financing plan, Sacramento remained the underdog.

Seattle was too wealthy and too tantalizing a market. Sacramento would never get an arena built. The Ranadive investment group lacked deep pockets. The Maloofs disliked the mayor. And no matter how passionately Stern advocated for retaining an established market, he was deemed too old (70) and no longer as influential among owners who were increasingly younger, wealthier and more forceful.

Reports of his demise, it turns out, were greatly exaggerated.

"David still has control of that room, man," one owner said after the board of governors voted Wednesday against relocation, requesting anonymity because of a league-imposed gag order. "Before the meeting began, I was thinking, 'Seattle might have the votes.' But Stern has a real affinity for Sacramento and a strong belief in small markets and cities with only one team. He mentioned Portland, San Antonio, a couple others, and explained that this is why the NBA is special. He's the one who got it done."

Later, a visibly exhausted Stern appeared relieved and eager to pass the Seattle/expansion discussion duties to his successor, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.

Meantime, the soon-to-be-retiring boss will oversee the Kings' formal ownership transition and offer assistance when asked. And he has been asked by the incoming owners: Members of the league's New York-based marketing arm (TMBO) arrive this week to kick-start the hiring process and season-ticket and sponsorship campaign.

Asked to characterize his recent dealings with Stern, Ranadive laughed. "He is a man of great vision, and he's a strong leader. He is also a very persuasive guy. I told him, 'David, I am afraid to take your calls. You are such a persuasive, charismatic person, it's hard for me to say no.' "

But when it mattered most, it was Stern who said no, which is why Sacramentans need to think more about what this man has done for this team and this community. Sainthood. A statue. A street with his name. A day in his honor. Until we meet again, a simple "thank you" will have to suffice.

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

About This Blog

Ailene Voisin, who has been with The Sacramento Bee since 1997, writes columns on a variety of sports, from the NBA, NFL and baseball to local high schools. Voisin previously worked for the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has been a beat writer covering the Dodgers, Angels and Clippers. Contact her at avoisin@sacbee.com or 916-321-1208. Twitter: @ailene_voisin.

 

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