Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Golden 1 Center gives ex-councilman Cohn emotional boost

Former Sacramento City Council member Steve Cohn speaks candidly about the conflict. Here he was, a native of Kansas City, Mo., a Kings fan since boyhood, voting against the $73 million public loan in 1997 that padded owner Jim Thomas’ pockets and ensured that Sacramento’s only major sports franchise at least temporarily remained in town.

He felt rushed, he explains, to make a decision. He was uncomfortable with Thomas’ inattention to detail. He believed funds were inadequately secured. Yet while Cohn has no regrets about his decision, in retrospect he is grateful the council approved the loan and the city and the Kings lived to fight another day. Make that another two decades.

As relocation threats hovered and repeated arena incarnations failed at sites in the railyard, at Cal Expo, in Natomas, at the current preferred site downtown, the McKinley Park resident emerged as an impassioned, influential figure in the public-private partnership that spawned the soon-to-be completed Golden 1 Center.

“That would have to be the thing I am most proud about,” Cohn said recently, “because I think the arena is the seminal issue for our community, the turning point for changing Sacramento. It shows how investors like Vivek Ranadive and the Jacobs brothers view the region, how young people will look here for opportunity, and from an environmental perspective, it’s already brought more focus on transit. I think it’s time the city and region understand how important public transit is to having a liveable big city.”

Cohn, 62, has plenty of time these days to reflect. With a rueful grin, he suggests, too much time.

During his unsuccessful race for the California State Assembly in 2014, he fell off a ladder while trimming a tree and fractured his pelvis and tailbone. The incident was a precursor of more serious health issues that included discovery of a melanoma on his chest, a mysterious yearlong battle with lower back pain and numbness on his right side, and a month ago, surgery to remove a benign tumor on the left side of his skull.

Though still engaging and dignified, his trim frame hinting at an active life, he moves slowly these days, aided by a walker, and with three titanium plates in his head. A physical therapist visits frequently and Cohn tires easily – an annoyance for someone whose mind and body never seemed at rest. While earning a bachelor’s degree form Yale, a law degree from the University of San Diego, and spending a year in France on a Fulbright Scholarship, Cohn was the prototypical weekend gym warrior.

A superb skier who is fully acquainted with the black diamond runs at Lake Tahoe, he is an avid golfer, cyclist, jogger, tennis player and basketball enthusiast. (As a former law-school classmate, I can also personally attest to his abilities on the dance floor; the future five-term City Council member was the most sought-after partner at our graduation party).

“The toughest thing is that I had so many plans,” said Cohn, who became alarmed in November while in an eight-week Spanish immersion class in Mexico. His right foot began to drag, and though he had been in physical therapy since the previous May, his chronic back pain intensified. Stubbornly attempting to ski a few weeks later at Northstar, he fell twice; the latter time he was unable to stand without the assistance of a nearby teenager.

“I called the doctor in January and said, ‘We have to start from scratch because clearly all this stretching and therapy isn’t working,’ ” Cohn added. “A neurologist examined me and immediately ordered a CT scan. He called me that same night and says, ‘You’ve got a tumor in your brain, and we think it’s a meningioma, which is nonmalignant and grows slowly.”

With a hint at his familiar dry humor, Cohn asked the surgeon if he would recover in time to attend spring training. That wasn’t to be, but no complaints. Cohn considers himself lucky. His daughter, Nicole, underwent surgery to remove cancer in her jaw months after graduating from UCLA. She is married, thriving and living in the Bay Area. His son, Adam, is between jobs and living at home. His wife, Catherine, a retired French and Spanish teacher, is attentive and his greatest source of strength.

During moments when he becomes restless and bored, he works on a book proposal tentatively titled, “True Confessions of a Capital City Councilman.”

The topics will feature his involvement with the region’s transit evolution (the passenger tunnel in the Sacramento Valley Station is named after Cohn); Auburn Dam and water issues; growth and the midtown renaissance; the expansions of Sutter and Mercy hospitals; support of arts, culture and expansion of the Crocker Museum; and development of the railyard.

But the opening chapter clearly evokes the most enthusiasm: The Kings and the arena saga. Cohn offers opinions in surprisingly colorful language on everything from his distrust of the Maloofs to his disappointment in DeMarcus Cousins. As a Kings charter season ticket holder, he suggests, laughing, he owns a few extra chits.

“Jim Thomas didn’t seem to realize how costly it was to run a team,” Cohn said. “The Maloofs, if they had worked with us, could have gotten a deal done. The hardest part for me was the (tentative deal for the downtown site in 2013). I supported it, even though it was more complicated and I didn’t trust the Maloofs. And for all the negatives, I give (Sacramento Mayor) Kevin Johnson a ton of credit, because how he started was, ‘We have to prove to (then-NBA Commissioner David) Stern that he can do business with us.’ We had to do a market deal the NBA would respect, and if the Maloofs bail on us because they really don’t have enough money, this puts us in a stronger position. Stern will realize it isn’t the city, it’s the Maloofs. And he was right.”

More Cohn thoughts: He was upset about the Michael Malone firing, applauded the George Karl hiring and believes general manager Vlade Divac “will get it together. He knows better than anybody what a team needs, the kind of ball movement, the chemistry, that we’re just not seeing with this team.”

And since the Kings have provided few moments of pure entertainment or escapism lately, when he needs an emotional boost, he turns to his laptop for renderings of the near-completed Golden 1 Center.

“Opening night,” Cohn says, smiling, and not without some pride. “I want to be there.”