Two weeks ago, it looked certain that this would be Sacramento's final memory of its beloved NBA team. The Kings' 26th season in town had just ended with a gut-wrenching overtime loss to the rival Los Angeles Lakers. And thousands of fans simply wouldn't leave.
At that point, it didn't appear the team's owners had any
intention of staying. The Maloof family was deep in
negotiations to move the Kings to Anaheim. NBA owners would
meet the next day to discuss the team's future. And fans like
Ken Miller had just about given up.
Miller: "I think they're gone, but hoping for a miracle."
But the next day, Sacramento saw its first glimmer of hope.
Johnson: "We get a chance today to build a case for why it makes sense to stay in Sacramento."
Mayor Kevin Johnson flew to New York to address the NBA's Relocation Committee. He arrived with a couple of aces up his sleeve. Ace number one: millions in untapped corporate revenues from local businesses. Ace number two: billionaire grocery magnate Ron Burkle, who's ready to buy the Kings and keep them in Sacramento. As an All-Star point guard in the 1990's, Johnson led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals. Now, the mayor was fighting for the town where he grew up.
Johnson: "It's funny that as an NBA player, I've gotten dressed for many games, and you're always excited. And I played essentially 12 years for one NBA team. But this morning, for the first time, I got dressed and I felt like I was playing for the Sacramento Kings."
Johnson has always been a fierce competitor - from the basketball floor to the political arena. He's also a polarizing figure at City Hall. Critics consistently fault him for being long on style but short on substance. This time, after Sacramento's years of failed attempts at building a new arena, NBA Commissioner David Stern was demanding substance. That day, Stern announced a fact-finding effort …
Stern: "…to determine whether certain of the representations that were made by the mayor of Sacramento can be reduced to certainty."
Over the next two weeks, league executives would visit Sacramento seeking hard evidence of the business support the mayor promised. And a few days ago, Johnson announced $10 million in corporate commitments. More than 30 businesses handed checks to NBA officials.
Johnson: "The league has said to Sacramento, show me the money. And today, we're doing just that. We're making a down-payment on the future of the Sacramento Kings and this being a permanent home for the Kings. That's our commitment."
Elmets: "There's no question that this is a game-changer."
Political consultant Doug Elmets was in the room when the NBA met with business leaders, representing one of his clients. He says Johnson has used his NBA ties to Sacramento's advantage.
Elmets: "This is where politicians - and particularly Kevin Johnson - rise to the occasion. He is a pretty good salesman, and he's done a pretty good job in the last couple of weeks."
Ben: "And here it comes, brilliantly purple ice cream!"
Garcia: "Yeah, we're not real sure on the flavor. I'm not sure what kind of flavor purple is."
On the first day of the NBA's fact-finding visit, Sacramento went purple: lights on buildings, signs in windows, and fans across town wearing Kings colors. Bars got into the act too. Chris Garcia was trying some suspicious-looking ice cream along with his drink at 3 Fires Lounge. He said he hadn't followed local politics much, but he's impressed with Mayor Johnson's efforts.
Garcia: "If the Kings end up not staying, it won't be because of his lack of effort or lack of trying at this point. If they do stay here, I think that legacy is going to pay dividends for him locally and beyond for years to come."
Yet even if they stay next season, the Kings' future remains uncertain. Commissioner Stern says Sacramento won't be a viable NBA market without a new arena. Voters have rejected arena taxes before, and this is very clearly the city's last shot. A development team created by Mayor Johnson is working on a finance plan. It's due out in late May. If the dollars or the politics don't pencil out, all of Johnson's efforts these last few weeks may end with one more heartbreaking overtime loss.