Ailene Voisin

David Stern reflects on Sacramento’s last big win

As his chartered jet looped around Sacramento on its final approach to Executive Airport on Thursday afternoon, NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern peered out the window, searching for the Golden 1 Center amid the high-rises and downtown construction, unable to resist a grin.

No offense to Koons or Piglet, but that sparkling sports and entertainment complex is his creation.

He stuck with it – stuck with Sacramento – when many of his closest confidants urged him to give up, to endorse the Kings’ move to Anaheim or Seattle or some other city, to forget about the cowbells and foot stomping and loyal fans who remained wedded to the region’s only major professional sports team, in good times and in bad.

And now, here he was, jetting to Sacramento for Friday’s dedication of the walkway outside the arena that will bear his name.

“There were skeptics in my office, and I would tell them, ‘You know, guys, I used to do this when you were kicking the slats out of your crib,’ ” said Stern. “ ‘We’re going to keep this team in Sacramento. Between the mayor and the new owners, we’re getting that arena built. And stop, because now you’re pissing me off.’ 

The former commissioner has a healthy ego, and thank goodness for that. He is defiant, dynamic and brilliant; a natural-born leader, and thank goodnesss for that, too. A less committed commissioner never would have had the stamina for the marathon ordeal that spanned four different ownership groups, four mayors, dozens of consultants and too many arena incarnations to count.

The Natomas site. The Cal Expo grounds. The railyard. The eventual site of the new arena – the same site that was proposed and quickly dismissed more than a decade ago – has transformed the community’s urban core, completely altering the landscape.

Three arenas and 31 years later, nowhere to be seen are the cows, the sheep, the endangered species that inhabited the Natomas site, delaying construction of the temporary facility that welcomed the Kings from Kansas City in 1985.

“I am something of an environmentalist,” Stern said, “and I was not as sympathic as Gregg (Lukenbill) wanted me to be when he first talked about building the first arena. There was a toad, or some animal like that, though I can’t recall the details, that was an issue for a while.”

The toad issue was actually a snake issue. And little did Stern know that maneuvering around endangered giant garter snakes would be the least of his headaches. Yet as he prepares for the dedication of 500 David J. Stern Walk, the league’s most formidable figure for the better part of four decades insists it was worth the wait.

“I am very moved by this,” he said, leaning back in the four-seater jet, his left leg extended and encased in a bag of ice. “I’m very grateful to be coming out here.”

During the hourlong flight from Las Vegas, where he had spoken earlier in the day at the America Gaming Association’s annual conference, Stern was relaxed, reflective, surprisingly energized for someone only two weeks removed from knee surgery.

Securing a franchise in California’s capital city remains a significant accomplishment in many respects, not the least of which is that it furthers his (and new Commissioner Adam Silver’s) vision of an NBA model that is stable and strikes a balance between large and small markets.

But, again, what an ordeal.

At Stern’s behest, the league’s relocation committee voted unanimously in April 2013 to block a proposed move to Seattle – the most serious recent threat to the Kings’ future in Northern California. That gave Sacramento leaders a chance to assemble an ownership group that would both match Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer’s $525 million offer for the team and partner with the city on a new arena.

Stern guided Mayor Kevin Johnson through the time-pressured process, introducing him to Vivek Ranadive, then among the Golden State Warriors’ minority owners, who went on to become a principal in the deal.

Stern also reached out to other key investors, among them Nautica swimwear founder Raj Bhathal and members of the Jacobs family – the brothers who own San Diego-based Qualcomm and just happened to own a house in Aspen, not far from Stern’s own vacation home.

“The irony is that I had gone to their place in Aspen months before all of this and tried to pitch them on the NBA, tried to get them interested in Sacramento,” Stern related. “They said it sounded intriguing, but they weren’t quite ready.

“But when Vivek got involved, and he had a history with the Jacobs family through the tech industry, all of a sudden, we had the makings of a legitimate ownership group.”

There were a few other obstacles to overcome. During the days preceding the board of governors deciding vote on the fate of the Kings, two questions hovered: Would Stern allow Ballmer to sweeten his offer to purchase the club from the Maloofs? And would Ranadive agree to accept a reduced amount of revenue-sharing – a team’s percentage of the NBA’s overall earnings – until the doors on the new arena opened, a condition put forth by several owners?

The revenue-sharing issue proved to be a potential deal-killer, the last major hurdle to be overcome. Earlier this week, Ranadive revealed that he struggled with the notion of relinquishing three years worth of league-generated funding, which he estimated at approximately $30 million. Ballmer, by contrast, had agreed not to take any revenue-sharing.

“I stopped taking David’s calls, because I have so much respect and affection for him, and I was afraid that I couldn’t tell him no,” Ranadive admitted.

Once again Stern intervened and essentially saved the deal, suggesting the Kings accept about half of the anticipated revenue-sharing before the arena was completed and that the Ranadive ownership group increase its offer to the Maloofs by $9 million, for a final sale price of $534 million. During a heated negotiation with George Maloof, Stern at one point turned to the younger brother and said, “Who do you think you are talking to? A wimp?”

Stern laughed as he recounted the episode, then scoffed at the suggestion that securing the Kings for Sacramento would be his last major accomplishment. At 74, he has embarked on a second career as a special adviser to the NBA and founder of DJS Global Advisors Inc., a consulting firm for several companies and venture capitalists. He commutes from his home in Westchester County to a Manhattan office across the street from Trump Towers five days a week. His only concession to age – and a bum knee – is a reduction in stress level from excessive to moderate.

Yet as it pertains to his 30-year reign as commissioner, assembling the Kings ownership group that partnered with the city on the new arena that opens next week with Paul McCartney was clearly his final labor of love, the lasting image of his stubborn, competitive and compassionate nature.

“That first game here in 1985, the traffic (on I-5) was bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see,” he said, looking down at the city. “You were in the car with me. Didn’t we get pulled over? I remember telling the driver to pull into the emergency lane, and the next thing I know, there is a red light behind us. So I told the officer, ‘I’m the NBA commissioner, and I’m going to Arco Arena, and I need to get there before tipoff. Can you help?’ He said, ‘follow me,’ and escorted us to the building.”

Stern paused, reflecting on the city’s fretful history with its team. “There are a lot of ongoing stars here. I remember talking to so many City Council members, the different mayors, county supervisors. I would talk to anybody. And the mayor, K.J., he was very important in all of this.”

Asked a final time about those turbulent years, with the futures of a handful of small-market teams once again uncertain, he leaned forward and smiled. “I managed to keep New Orleans in New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina),” he said. “So we are anchoring two small-market teams. In the case of New Orleans, for certain for the next decade, and for Sacramento, we have secured (the Kings) for decades.

“When I look back it was exhausting, but very gratifying.”

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