SACRAMENTO, Calif. – During a 12-year career as an NBA point guard, Kevin Johnson understood well the value of quickly shifting momentum back in his team’s favor.
Tuesday, in his current role as mayor of Sacramento, he found himself in a similar position, trying to restore faith in the citizenry that there’s a chance the hometown Kings can stay put.
A day after it was announced that the current owners of the Kings had agreed to sell the team to a group that would move them to Seattle, Johnson said his city has only begun to fight during a 30-minute news conference that often seemed more like a pep rally.
“Let me be very clear,” he said to a crowd of several hundred jammed into the lobby of the Sacramento City Hall, many wearing Kings jerseys and carrying banners and signs. “We are going to do everything that we can to create an environment where we can keep what’s ours, our team, here in Sacramento.”
As part of that effort, Johnson announced that 19 local investors had pledged to contribute at least $1 million to become part of an ownership group the city hopes to assemble. Johnson hopes to put together a group to make a counteroffer to the reported $341 million (to purchase 65 percent of a team valued at $525 million) the Seattle group led by Chris Hansen has agreed to pay. Johnson said all had stepped forward since Thursday and are proof of the support the team has in the city.
The big news, though, will come later, maybe by the end of this week, when he said he hopes to announce the identity of one or more “equity partners” who would put up the serious money to back the ownership group.
“We are going to do everything that we can to put forth a fair and competitive offer to match, or come as close as we can, to what they are offering in Seattle,” Johnson said. “We are making great progress on the ‘whales.’ We believe there are people who are going to invest in Sacramento. And there are not one or two groups, there are multiple groups that can come in at the level that we need them to.”
That group would also help finalize an arena deal as part of Johnson’s four-point “Playing to Win” plan to keep the team in Sacramento. He said he hopes to present the plan to the NBA Board of Governors when it meets in April to give its decision on whether to approve the sale of the Kings to the Seattle group.
Johnson said he is basing the plan on a similar approach used by San Francisco in 1992 to prevent the Giants from moving to Tampa Bay.
He also referred to Sacramento’s efforts to keep the Kings from relocating to Anaheim in 2011, saying “we have been here before. Our backs have been against the wall. They have told us it wasn’t going to happen. But each and every step along the way, as long as there is time on the clock, our community always finds a way to stand up for itself.”
Johnson said Sacramento has to assume it might need to have its plan in order by March 1, when the Kings can file for relocation.
The question, of course, is whether Johnson and Sacramento really have a realistic shot at keeping the team.
Some national observers have already reported it won’t matter and that the move of the Kings to Seattle for the 2013-14 season is a formality. The team would play in KeyArena, likely for two seasons, while a new arena in Sodo is built.
Michael McCann, a sports law expert at the University of New Hampshire and a legal analyst for NBA-TV, said the deck is stacked heavily against the Kings but that Johnson shouldn’t be ruled out.
“I think that the odds are very high that the Kings will be moving to Seattle,” McCann said Tuesday. “I think clearly there is an agreement between the relevant parties in terms of Hansen and the Maloofs (current controlling owners of the Kings) to make that happen. I also think there seems to be support from other NBA officials and owners, that this is going to be OK with them. So it seems like it’s well set up for succeeding. But it’s not a done deal and Kevin Johnson, if there is a mayor out there that has influence in the NBA, none have more so than Kevin Johnson.”
That’s what Kings fans are hoping. The scene before and during the news conference mirrored those of many events in Seattle in 2007 and 2008 as fans of the Sonics showed up to support the team.
Gloria Bailey stood behind Johnson with a sign that read “Seattle: No NFC title. No Kings.”
Bailey, a fan of the nearby 49ers, said she was taking a playful jab at Seattle, saying she actually cried when the Sonics left in 2008, knowing the anguish it inflicted on fans of the team.
“I felt your (Seattle’s) pain,” she said. “But don’t come here to take our boys. We are fighting for our boys.”
“I’m doing this for one reason – it’s time to fight,” said Phil Oates, one of Johnson’s 19 local investors. “Somebody wants something that I own. It’s mine. I’m not giving it up easy.”
One fan, Nate Hunghart, said he wants to hear more before thinking the Kings can truly stage a comeback.
“No one’s going to care until the whale shows up,” said Hunghart. “Until they hear the exact arena plan.”
Wearing a jersey of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, Hunghart said, “Most fans are wondering why they don’t expand to Seattle” and allow Sacramento to keep its team. For the moment, though, the NBA has said that is not an option.
What is, Johnson insisted time and again, is the Kings staying where they have played since 1985.
“I would also caution the folks in Seattle, don’t celebrate too early,” he said in his closing remarks. “… Be cautiously optimistic. Be smart. This isn’t about our city against their city or one mayor against another mayor. We have something that is ours, we want to keep it, and we are going to do everything we can to make Sacramento the final resting place of the Sacramento Kings.”