Ailene Voisin

Sacramento faces big hurdles to luring All-Star Game. But ‘innovator’ is on its side

Seven years ago this weekend, in this same Staples Center interview room, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern confirmed that the Maloofs were engaged in serious negotiations to relocate the Kings franchise to Anaheim.


So this is progress. No one is threatening to flee, Golden 1 Center is thriving, the urban transformation is ongoing, and understandably, the Kings and the city are becoming a little greedy. They are tag-teaming on a bid to land a future All-Star Game that the league routinely dangles as a reward for communities that bend, borrow and whatever, to finance a modern facility.

The official bid to host the annual showcase in 2022 or 2023 will be submitted to the league on Friday, and though current Commissioner Adam Silver on Saturday reiterated his support and desire to accommodate, that familiar thorny issue – the number of hotel rooms – persists.

“Sacramento and the surrounding communities provide enormous opportunities,” Silver said during his annual news conference. “Wine country, great golf, great scenery, all kinds of wonderful things. But at the end of the day, we have to have a sufficient number of rooms.”

Anyone have a spare bedroom? Two spare bedrooms? What about a bunk bed? What about a cruise ship? What Silver is saying, ever so gently, is that for Sacramento to play on the big stage, the Kings and the city have some major hoops to jump through.

While Visit Sacramento president Mike Testa said approximately 11,000 hotel rooms are available within the city and unincorporated areas, a significant number fall short of the league’s requirement for four- and five-star accommodations. The bid should receive a boost from the new 250-bed Sawyer Hotel, the 170 rooms at the Hyatt Centric boutique upon completion, and another 350 rooms at a hotel planned near the Convention Center, but the numbers are still dicey.

Silver, who was dazzled by Golden 1 Center when he visited on opening night, said he was open to suggestions and receptive to the prospect of housing guests on cruise ships.

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive is an “innovator,” the commissioner said, “and he said we’ll figure it out. I have no issue with (cruise ships), though it’s not clear that would solve the problem.”

It’s not like there is any lack of bidding cities, either. Consider this a practice run for the Kings’ return to the playoffs, which may or may not happen before the city scores the annual gala. Charlotte, Chicago and Indianapolis will host the festivities through 2021, with Milwaukee (new arena), Golden State (getting new arena), Oklahoma City and possibly Boston in the mix for 2022 and 2023.

Yet in the year of the “Lady Bird,” who’s to say the league won’t take a flyer on the smaller of its two Northern California sites? Before addressing inquiries about future All-Star locales, Silver, unprompted, cited his avid interest in expanding the league’s reach via technology. “I’d say I love being out here in Los Angeles and sort of in Northern California where there is so much focus on the use of technology.”

Sacramento’s downtown landscape these past few years has changed almost as rapidly as the tech industry. Take a long nap and you might not recognize the place when you wake up. Before Golden 1 Center, the Downtown Plaza was a cemetery without the headstones. Apart from the too familiar sight of homeless residents sleeping on sidewalks and doorways, which should shame all of us, the city increasingly has a lot to offer.

Future plans figure to sustain the momentum, with the Downtown Commons, expansion plans for the Convention Center and renovation of the Memorial Auditorium.

“We’re kind of a hidden gem in a lot of ways,” Testa said. “An event like that (All-Star), the curtains would get lifted on Sacramento. The well-kept secret we all know becomes not a secret anymore. Look at how excited the city was when we hosted the NCAA Tournament. The NBA takes all that into account – the arena, the attractiveness of the city, the fact we source food from our local markets. The narrative has changed. I don’t have to explain where we are located anymore. People know Sacramento.”

With apologies to Kings fans who still haven’t recovered from Game 6 of the Kings vs. Lakers, right here in Staples, let me make one final observation: Hours after the Kings were robbed that night in 2002 by horrific officiating, I walked out of the building and crossed the street to my rental car. The arena was surrounded by parking lots, vacant lots and empty buildings, with few pubs, restaurants or signs of life in sight.

Today, the area around Staples Center has morphed into a dynamic West Coast version of Times Square, with activity and the type of energy Sacramento is generating on a smaller scale. Also worth noting: This is the fourth All-Star Weekend Southern California has hosted in the modern era, and the third since the late Marvin Gaye’s stunningly soulful version of the national anthem.

So, why not? Sac kept the pressure on and saved the Kings. No reason to stop now.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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