In February 1988, a rookie NBA point guard named Kevin Johnson was traded from Cleveland to Phoenix and took a hard look at his new digs. "The downtown was dead," Johnson recalls. "There was one freeway." There was also one professional sports team, the Suns, and they played in a bedraggled building on McDowell Road. The team wasn't very good, on its way to 54 losses and a fourth straight sub-.500 season, but the fans were loud and loyal. The decrepit arena, the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, was known simply as the Madhouse on McDowell.
Johnson loved his new home. It felt just like his native one. "Sacramento and Phoenix were the same place," he says. Johnson had hoped to play in Arco Arena for his hometown Kings after attending Cal, but they passed on him with the sixth pick in the '87 draft, and the Cavaliers took him seventh. He vowed to destroy the Kings. Johnson spent 11 more seasons with the Suns, and in only one of them did they finish with a losing record. That success sparked a resurgency: Phoenix landed the NFL's Cardinals, the NHL's Coyotes and baseball's Diamondbacks. The Suns moved into a glass palace downtown. "The community got behind the team," Johnson says, "and the team revitalized the city. I saw how it can happen."
Now 47, Johnson is the mayor of Sacramento, and instead of burying the Kings he appears to have saved them. On Monday the NBA's relocation and finance advisory committees recommended that the Board of Governors deny the Kings' application to move to Seattle. The board will vote the week of May 13, a referendum on the fabric of the league. What separates the NBA from the NFL and MLB is its commitment to mid-sized cities that otherwise could never have attracted franchises. The NBA went to San Antonio and Salt Lake City, Portland and Orlando, Memphis and Oklahoma City, and thrived in each as the only show in town.
Seattle is bigger than Sacramento, with more business and culture, so it might seem a better market. But the NBA challenges such assumptions. From 1985--86 to 2007--08, when Seattle and Sacramento both had teams, the Kings sold out 19 seasons even though they had winning records in only nine of them. The SuperSonics, scrapping with the Seahawks and the Mariners for customers, sold out six seasons even though they were .500 or better in 16. Over 23 seasons, Sacramento outdrew Seattle 20 times—including 1995--96, when the Sonics went to the Finals and the Kings sneaked into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
"I know the world isn't always just, but there is one just result here," says Darrell Steinberg, president pro tempore of the California State Senate. "Sacramento has earned this." The Maloof family, which bought the Kings in 1999, was ready to move the franchise to Anaheim two years ago because they could not gain funding for a new arena. Johnson petitioned NBA owners for time and negotiated an arena deal in Sacramento, but the Maloofs backed out of it last spring. On Jan. 21, they announced plans to sell their majority stake in the Kings to hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who would take the club to Seattle.
In three dizzying months Johnson put together a competing ownership group in Sacramento, headlined by Warriors co-owner Vivek Ranadivé, 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs; raised $50 million in pledged corporate sponsorships; and came up with a plan for a $448 million downtown arena flanked by restaurants, shops, apartments and a hotel. The city council passed it in three days, improbable anywhere, and especially California. Two decades after the Suns lost to the Bulls in the Finals, Johnson felt like he was back in the playoffs. "The adrenaline is the same," he says. "In some strange way, if we keep this team, that may ease not winning it 20 years ago."
Seattle will be a world-class city whether or not it includes the Kings. The stakes for Sacramento are higher than the Space Needle. When Johnson was elected five years ago, Sacramento ranked among the top 10 cities nationally in company foreclosures, according to the mayor. "Our economy was overly reliant on real estate and government jobs," he says. "We had to diversify." Downtown Sacramento is not what it was when Johnson broke into the league. One block north of the state capitol is bustling K Street Mall. To the east is artsy Midtown. West would be the arena and adjacent development, anchoring that district and generating an estimated 4,000 jobs.
Taxpayers across America have heard similar pitches about the benefits of public stadiums, and many have been burned—most recently in Miami, where they spent upward of $360 million on Marlins Park, only to watch owner Jeffrey Loria gut the team a year later. The Sacramento deal calls for less public financing: $212 million (compared with $125 million in Seattle), most of which will be raised from parking and ticket surcharges generated by the arena. The group is promising sellout crowds, but unlike the Marlins, the Kings can deliver. They've enjoyed unwavering civic support; they are to Sacramento what the Spurs are to San Antonio and the Jazz to Salt Lake City, with fewer victories.
At the Board of Governors meetings two weeks ago, owners were briefed on the competing proposals. The Maloofs publicly endorsed the Seattle group and critiqued the viability of the Sacramento plan, but outgoing commissioner David Stern, a champion of the league's mid-sized cities, characterized the offers as being "in the same ballpark." Still, one owner called Sacramento the underdog, and not for any reason it could control. In Seattle's hulking TV market, the franchise would no longer get money through revenue sharing. "If that's why they lose their team," the owner warned, "it sets a bad precedent." The committee was not willing to jeopardize its smallest members.
The first week of the NBA playoffs was ruled by favorites—the Heat, Thunder, Knicks and Spurs. Sacramento, just hoping for an 8 seed again, sprung the best upset.