Marcos Bretón

Opinion: ESPN’s ‘Down in the Valley’ shows how community saved Sacramento Kings

NEW YORK – One of the biggest stories of recent Sacramento history was the saga to keep the Kings from relocating to Seattle or Anaheim. Each spring from 2010 to 2013 brought a different crisis or countdown moment to the Kings relocation over the objections of a broader community.

But until now, this story was strictly local. To the national media, Sacramento was portrayed as a bumpkin town when the team seemed poised to move to Seattle.

On Friday night, at a film festival founded by legendary actor Robert DeNiro, this Sacramento story was told in a much different way.

On the big screen of a lower Manhattan theater, in a featured showing at the Tribeca Film Festival, condescension for Sacramento gave way to a kind of reverence for the spirit of a community that rallied to stop its team from being sold away.

“Down in the Valley” is a 77-minute mediation on the nature of devotion that was produced by ESPN as part of its acclaimed “30 for 30” documentary series of films. It is scheduled to air in the fall.

Director Jason Hehir, who has crafted several noteworthy films for ESPN, has constructed the Sacramento story in a way that is meant to resonate with people far beyond the borders of Sacramento.

“This story shows why sports matter so much in communities,” Hehir said.

“It will explain why we care so much.”

The trick to doing a film like this is to avoid being maudlin. I can recall friends taking their adult children to what many thought was the last Kings game in 2011 and posting wistful photos of the occasion on Facebook. These friends told representative stories of how they had marked the years via family outings to Kings games.

But this story also was about greed and bare-knuckle business, with the major parties driven by money and not love.

Hehir was able to coax the two biggest conspirators working against Sacramento to go on camera. First was George Maloof, the “smart” brother who pushed aside Joe and Gavin Maloof to put the Kings up for sale after his older brothers had vowed that would never happen.

George Maloof is the unquestioned villain of “Down in the Valley” as is Seattle hedge fund billionaire Chris Hansen.

You may recall that Hansen was not only part of a Seattle partnership that offered in excess of $500 million to buy the Kings. He also illegally funded the drive, which ultimately failed, to circulate petitions that sought to force a public vote on the Kings arena.

Hansen refused all interview requests from The Bee during that time and barely spoke to the media in Seattle.

In “Down in the Valley,” he is surprisingly contrite and humble after being battered publicly and losing a non-refundable $30 million in his attempt to buy the Kings.

Hehir asks him if he felt a moral quandary for trying to steal away a team from Sacramento after Seattle’s own team – the SuperSonics – relocated to Oklahoma City.

“Yes,” he said. Hansen was not at Friday’s screening in New York, but George Maloof did show up.

Was it awkward? Yes. Did Maloof ultimately get what he wanted in a big payday by selling the Kings for more than $500 million? Yes.

Will Sacramento ever forgive him and his brothers for allowing the Kings and Sleep Train Arena to go bad and then trying to sell the team to buyers in two different cities?

Hehir hopes so.

“I would love to see George Maloof at half court of the new Kings arena,” Hehir said. “I believe the Maloofs were good guys who got in over their heads financially, ethically and morally. I feel such an affinity for Sacramento that I don’t want to see them hate (the Maloofs).”

At one point in the film, George Maloof – looking very forlorn – peels back the sleeves of his dress shirt to show a tattoo of the Kings logo on his arm.

“I would love to go back someday to say ‘hi’ to everyone,” he says. Hehir’s film reminds the audience that the best years in Kings franchise history were when the Maloofs owned the team.

They lost their shirts when their Las Vegas casino failed, and they had to sell the Kings. Business was business. They became the common enemy, but that narrative is supplanted by the intrigue of NBA Commissioner David Stern working with Mayor Kevin Johnson to orchestrate a denial of the sale to Seattle.

Johnson is at the heart of the story, but Hehir wisely avoids making it a story only about Johnson. KJ and Stern clearly worked on the inside to keep the Kings in Sacramento, but the effort wouldn’t have worked had the Sacramento community at large not stepped up to prove the team belonged here.

Many local faces flash across the screen, and the final images of a 2013 celebratory rally in Cesar Chavez Plaza drives home the point of the film: This was a community win secured by local people.

New Kings owner Vivek Ranadive is a bit player in this story. Ranadive was at the screening Friday but ditched the after-party attended by nearly 100 minority Kings owners and business leaders.

This seemed fitting. It’s not his story.

The closing message of the film is that owners do not fully own the Kings – the community does.

By the fall of 2016, the new Kings arena downtown will be fully operational. Long-dilapidated buildings around the arena are being purchased and remade – just as Sacramento’s rotting urban core is being remade.

That all began when the Kings as a community asset were saved. The tears and joy of the final images in Hehir’s film were real.

Opponents of the Kings arena complain about its cost but never acknowledge what would have been a much bigger cost: Doing nothing and letting the Kings leave.

The Downtown Plaza shopping center would still be dead, as would Sacramento’s urban core, and Hansen would now own Sleep Train Arena.

That type of story wouldn’t have made a movie anyone wanted to see and would have been bad for Sacramento.

In one sense, it’s a shame that ESPN won’t air this film nationally until the fall – when the NBA season restarts.

It shows Sacramento in a way the nation needs to see it: As a vibrant community where people truly care.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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