The old barn in Natomas has hosted its last NBA game. Nobody is really mourning the occasion, least of all the man who built the place – onetime Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill.
Lukenbill, 61, was at the arena formerly known as Arco on Saturday to take a bow for bringing big-time sports to Sacramento. Flanked by his six kids, he was happy to be there, to be remembered, to get his due.
It was nice a gesture to be sure, but Lukenbill hasn’t gotten his full due from Sacramento – not by a long shot.
During the 1980s, Lukenbill became – through force of will – one of the more consequential people in the state capital during the past half-century. Along with building the arena where the Kings have played since 1988, Lukenbill built the first Arco Arena to house the Kings from 1985 to 1988. He spirited a sagging NBA franchise away from Kansas City and to his hometown in an audacious campaign of pure chutzpah.
He also built the Hyatt Regency hotel, which changed the skyline of a once-sleepy downtown. He helped get lights on the Tower Bridge. He came close to luring the Raiders to Sacramento and began building what he hoped would be a stadium for an NFL or MLB team. He was part of a generation of developers who opened up Natomas and expanded the footprint of the city of Sacramento dramatically.
My whole philosophy has been about quality of life. Sports. The arts. Universities. They make a huge difference in creating jobs and giving kids a vision of making people care about their community.
Lukenbill was in his 30s when he did most of this. He was a gruff, mustachioed ball of cantankerous fury, a lumbering, guileless blue-collar figure in a town full of passive-aggressive environmentalists – and of backroom money men who eventually wore him down and caused Lukenbill to retreat from public life before selling the Kings in 1992.
What people remember most about Lukenbill is that time in 1989 when he appeared on an Arco Arena catwalk 85 feet above the floor because condensation from rainwater was dripping on to the court during a contest against the 76ers. He wore a flannel shirt, but no safety harness. The embarrassment of a canceled NBA game was a distinct possibility until Lukenbill – the owner of the team! – used a banner to fix the leak.
Sacramento was saved from the public relations hit but, in a way, Lukenbill took the hit instead.
People have laughed about the image of him peering down from the catwalk ever since. It wouldn’t be the last time that Lukenbill would be the punchline of a funny story for caring more about getting things done than about how he looked doing it.
But if the leaky-roof story is the only way you remember Lukenbill, then you are selling him short. In recent decades, there have been few dreamers in Sacramento bigger than him.
Spend some time with the man and you’ll realize he doesn’t have the ability to quickly or concisely articulate the bold visions that drove him to being the biggest newsmaker in town for a period roughly from 1982 to 1992. To get the full Lukenbill story, you’ll have to sit with him – for hours.
Ask him a why a non-sports guy cared so much to bringing the NBA to Sacramento, and within moments your head is spinning as Lukenbill discusses the Lewis and Clark expedition, how Ronald Reagan created the economic conditions to develop Sacramento, how water was the city’s greatest asset until we lost control of it and why Sacramento stopped producing jobs. He’ll show you vintage photos of the city when it was first settled. He’ll go on and on and on and you’ll go along with him because you’re still waiting for your answer.
For Lukenbill, bringing the Kings to Sacramento was about fostering a sense of civic unity that would lift the city out of the shadow of Silicon Valley. “The arena is the community indoor living room,” he said. “My whole philosophy has been about quality of life. Sports. The arts. Universities. They make a huge difference in creating jobs and giving kids a vision of making people care about their community.”
He cares about building Arco and buying the Kings, but he’ll talk more intensely about the lost deals that undercut him and – he believes – Sacramento. “In 1982, I had a deal to bring Intel to Natomas,” he said. Slow-growth policies within the city limits pushed Intel to Folsom instead.
The civic partners who Lukenbill said supported his vision of amenities and jobs to lift Sacramento both died prematurely: Former Sacramento Bee CEO C.K. McClatchy and former Mayor Joe Serna Jr. At the same time, Lukenbill said he fought furiously with business partners Joe Benvenuti and Fred Anderson, both of whom are now deceased. He was spread so thin and was so financially leveraged that he didn’t have enough time to focus on a Kings franchise that lost far more games than it won under his watch.
“I was in a partnership that was poison,” he said. “At one point, I was in 54 business entities in the 1980s. I was a wild man.”
Though few know it, Lukenbill built Arco Arena as part of his hope to become a modern-day Samuel Brannan, who became the first millionaire in California in the wake of the Gold Rush. Brannan established banks, the first general store in Sacramento, the first newspaper in San Francisco – ventures that made him a towering figure.
Lukenbill also had history-changing vision. He tried to bring neighboring communities together by pushing a 1990 initiative that would have consolidated Sacramento city and county and made it the third-largest city at the time in California. It failed. Then acrimony in his business group caused the Raiders-to-Sacramento deal to fail. The money ran out for his stadium venture. McClatchy died. Other business ventures perished. Serna would die by 1999, seven years after Luckenbill parted ways with the NBA franchise he brought to town.
Before he sold the Kings, Lukenbill faced another crisis, similar to the leaky-roof scenario. Arco Arena was set to host an NHL game but the machine that made the ice for the rink was having issues. Instead of hiring someone to deal with it, Lukenbill rounded up a bunch of stethoscopes to find the cracks in the bowels of Arco that were causing the ice to melt.
“We made the ice, the game went on,” he said. “Then I went to my next board meeting and (the other members) literally laughed at me. I was insulted. I was too close to the fire. These were guys in $1,000 suits and they thought me going out there and fixing the (problem) myself was nuts. It was a (expletive) miracle but did they appreciate me? No.
“It was a tough environment,” he continued. “I was getting screwed over. And I realized I didn’t want to live my life that way. ... I felt impotent, like I was a fool for having believed in all the things I did. You can do great things in a partnership and then kill yourselves for money. I had thought that I was going to show these guys that I can be that positive spirit that can lead and make really great quality-of-life things happen. ... But I didn’t have the support of the business community or my partners.”
What might have happened if Lukenbill had built his stadium and brought the Raiders to Sacramento? How different would Sacramento be if city and county had been consolidated? Or if Intel had set up shop in the city limits instead of Folsom?
We’ll never know, but what’s certain is that Lukenbill’s arena stood for more than just a basketball venue. Other plans of his didn’t come to fruition, but Lukenbill isn’t bitter. He lives happily, albeit almost anonymously, working as a business consultant. His East Sacramento home is beautiful, and he’s surrounded by family.
He may be underappreciated, but Sacramento is a far better place because of this roll-up-your-sleeves dreamer, even as memories of his accomplishments grow fainter with the closure of the old barn that Lukenbill built.