Ailene Voisin

Gregg Lukenbill: ‘It’s happening, and it’s a beautiful thing’

Original Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill and his wife, Sally, watch the Golden 1 Center ribbon-cutting activities last month. He brought the team from Kansas City, Mo., in 1985.
Original Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill and his wife, Sally, watch the Golden 1 Center ribbon-cutting activities last month. He brought the team from Kansas City, Mo., in 1985. rpench@sacbee.com

This is finally, honestly, truly happening.

The city, transforming.

The vibe, changing.

The Kings – the catalyst for all that glitters in the Golden 1 Center – playing their first regular-season game Thursday night in a place to call home. They can buy in now. They can stop renting now. Anaheim, Las Vegas, San Jose, Kansas City, Seattle, among so many others, took their best shots at stealing away the region’s only major professional sports franchise, and to the surprise of everyone except perhaps David Stern and his most trusted advisers, were sent packing.

This is your team, Kings fans.

This is your night, Sacramento.

Gone are more than 15 years worth of relocation threats, the financially strapped Maloofs, the tears shed that night in Sleep Train Arena, when it seemed certain the Kings were within hours of moving to Anaheim and being renamed the Royals, and two years later, of trekking to Seattle and becoming the Sonics.

“Every time I see Vivek (Ranadive, the Kings’ principal owner), I walk up to him, shake his hand, and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Gregg Lukenbill, who assembled the original Kings ownership group in the mid-1980s and convinced then-Commissioner Stern that Sacramento deserved an NBA franchise. “When it looked like the team was leaving, it was sad to watch. And I honestly did not think that an arena could be built, given the economic circumstances we were in. But now it’s happening, and it’s a beautiful thing. For the first time in my life, I’ve seen the city – the capital city of California – grow up and out instead of everybody else coming in from the outside.”

A certain presidential candidate once suggested that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it feels like it took a zillion villages to raise this arena. Stern had plenty of opportunities these past 15 years to bail on River City, so let’s start with that. Yet as one after another Sacramento arena proposal failed, and more and more cities came calling, the Commissioner Emeritus not only didn’t give up, he dug in deeper.

He educated himself on the complexities of California land use law, hired consultants to examine potential sites, sent out an entire marketing department to restore the Kings’ business operations department. Most significantly, perhaps, when Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen offered the Maloofs $525 million for the Kings in 2013, he gave Sacramento one last chance to come up with a competitive counteroffer.

And in the end, David crushed Goliath.

Within a matter of weeks – and when does anything ever happen this quickly in a state government town? – Stern oversaw an insanely compressed process and was directly involved with assembling the Sacramento ownership group. He reached out to Ranadive, reconnected with the Jacobs family, and only hours before the Board of Governors met in Dallas to decide the Kings’ fate (Sac or Seattle?), induced Nautica swimwear founder Raj Bhathal into becoming a major investor in the $534 million counteroffer. The inclusion into the ownership group of respected local developer Mark Friedman, Stern often notes, was another critical factor, as was former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg’s legislation streamlining environmental land use legal issues.

And Mayor Kevin Johnson? His background as a native Sacramentan, former NBA All-Star and unrelenting political presence cannot be understated; while Stern was twisting the arms of the deep-pocketed owners, KJ was his point man on the ground, persuading a few dozen local minnows to join the whales, remaining upbeat and unrelentingly competitive, and at least on this issue, keeping an often-fractious City Council at his side.

But what should not be forgotten – what should always be remembered – was the immense influence of the grassroots movement. KHTK’s Carmichael Dave and one-time Kings executive Greg Van Dusen arranged “Here We Stay” rallies in the park. Current CSN-California reporter James Ham supervised a group that tweeted and blogged and coordinated those “Sac-ra-men-to!” chants inside Sleep Train Arena, and in his free time, produced a documentary “Small Town, Big Heart.”

Then there were those 70 or so people in the white T-shirts who occupied the majority of the seats at virtually every City Council meeting during which the Kings’ future was on the agenda. The Crown Downtown bunch should take a bow. They did the grunt work for almost four years. They lined up outside the council chambers for hours before meetings, often standing in the rain. They endured hours of often-deadly discussions on non-Kings matters, then walked up to the microphone and made their pitch.

“We were teachers, nurses, construction workers, retirees, just everyday people,” said Mike Tavares, one of the group’s leaders, “and our message was that keeping the Kings and getting an arena was bigger than basketball. It was about concerts, events, economic energy, and revitalizing downtown. We wanted this arena downtown.”

Downtown absolutely. No offense to Natomas or Cal Expo or the Railyards, but that unsightly black hole just blocks from the Capitol was always the ideal location. While speaking with David Aldridge on Tuesday night, the TNT analyst went on an impassioned riff about how the Verizon Center transformed his hometown Washington, D.C.’s urban center, serving as the engine for a surge of restaurants, retail, housing. The same thing will happen in Sacramento, he said, wishing he could attend Thursday’s opener.

Since Lukenbill was the first and the loudest Kings fan, on this most amazing and memorable of opening nights, he gets the last word.

“In my opinion, this will go down as a turning point for the city of Sacramento and the region,” Lukenbill said, beaming. “We have a chance to do something special, to show off our history as the capital city, the railroads, the waterways, the Gold Country. This is just the beginning. We need hotels so we can get an All-Star Game, and really start behaving like adults. But I can’t tell you how good it feels to finally see people coming together, with government and businesses, to get sometime done. This is … this is history.”

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