Sacramento's Last-Ditch Effort To Keep Its NBA Team

The Sacramento Kings have until Monday to ask the NBA for permission to leave town. The team's owners are negotiating a move to Anaheim, which would give the Los Angeles area three NBA teams and leave California's state capital without a single big-time sports franchise. Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports on the man leading Sacramento's effort to keep the Kings: Mayor Kevin Johnson, himself a former NBA All-Star.

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With every passing day, the NBA tea leaves suggest that at least there will be at least one more season for the Sacramento Kings. Earlier this month, the only major professional sports team the city has ever known looked as good as gone.

But as Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports, many credit the full-court press led by the mayor and former basketball star Kevin Johnson.

BEN ADLER: Two weeks ago, it looked certain that this would be Sacramento's final memory of its beloved NBA team.

CROWD: (Chanting) Sacramento. Sacramento.

(Soundbite of clapping)

ADLER: The Kings' 26th season in town had just ended with a gut-wrenching overtime loss to the rival Los Angeles Lakers, the team Sacramento can never seem to beat when it matters most. And thousands of fans simply wouldn't leave. They chanted "here we stay."

CROWD: (chanting) Here we stay. Here we stay.

ADLER: 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 south 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.

Mr. KEN MILLER: I think they're going, but hoping for a miracle.

ADLER: But the next day, Sacramento saw a glimmer of hope.

Mayor KEVIN JOHNSON (Sacramento, California): We get a chance today to build a case for why it makes sense to stay in Sacramento.

ADLER: Mayor Kevin Johnson flew to New York to address NBA officials. He arrived with a couple of aces up his sleeve: millions in new season ticket and luxury suite commitments from local businesses and 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 1990s, Johnson led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals. Now, the mayor was fighting for the town where he grew up.

Mr. 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.

ADLER: Johnson has always been a fierce competitor, in the basketball arena and the political arena. He's also a polarizing figure at City Hall. Critics have consistently faulted him for being long on style but short on substance. After Sacramento's years of failed attempts at building a replacement for aging Arco Arena, NBA Commissioner David Stern demanded substance. He announced a fact-finding effort.

Mr. DAVID STERN (Commissioner, National Basketball Association): To determine whether certain of the representations that were made by the mayor of Sacramento can be reduced to certainty.

ADLER: Stern sent league executives to Sacramento to verify the business support the mayor promised.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ADLER: And earlier this week Johnson delivered. More than 30 businesses handed checks to the NBA.

Mr. 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 for the Kings. That's our commitment.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ADLER: On the first day of the NBA's fact-finding visit, Sacramento went purple. Fans across town wore Kings colors and buildings were bathed in purple light. Bars got in on the act too.

And here it comes, brilliantly purple ice cream.

Mr. CHRIS GARCIA: Yeah, we're not real sure on the flavor. You know, I'm not sure what kind of flavor purple is.

ADLER: 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.

Mr. GARCIA: If the Kings end up not staying, it won't be because of his 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.

ADLER: The Kings owners have until Monday to decide whether to file a relocation request with the league. Yet even if they stay next season, the team's long-term 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 likely the city's last shot.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento.

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