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Maloof Bros. dig hype as Heat visit Kings

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Bill Reiter

Bill Reiter reported on LeBron James' first season in Miami and has covered the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics and NCAA tournament for FOXSports.com. He also co-hosts Hawkins and Reiter on FOX Sports Radio (Sundays, 12-3 p.m. ET), which can be heard on the FOX Sports App, iHeartRadio, XM247 or your local station. Previously, he was an award-winning sports enterprise writer for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif.

The official-looking woman in front of me says to follow her. She says it’s time to go. Time to see the Miami Heat, on what is the night of the most important sports event Sacramento has seen in some time, from the eyes of its two NBA owners.

“Are you ready?” she asks cheerfully, gently taking my arm.

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The owner’s suite is full of men and women chattering about this loathed and absolutely intriguing Heat team. Most, like co-owner Joe Maloof, do not believe the Heat are the cream of the NBA, or even the East.

Not now.

Not yet.

“Let’s do it.”

We walk, past the shrimp bar and the cold beer and the friendly chef who can whip up a dream in a minute, and hit the hallway full of fans.

This game is huge — huge for Sacramento, huge for the NBA, as every Heat game is for every city when their day arrives. This is the biggest gate the Kings have had in a regular-season game since the Maloofs bought the team 11 years ago, including their glory days earlier this decade.

“Oh yeah, this is good for business,” Gavin Maloof tells me later. “This gate will be two-and-a-half times our normal gate. Usually, the Lakers are the better draw. Not tonight.”

It turns out, villains are very good for business.

We’re walking down the steps of the arena, into the bowl, and as we go we hear fans talking about the team they love to hate.

Then we’re on the floor, walking toward the best seat in the house: Center-court, black-padded chairs, snug against an announcers table, so close and so low to the ground the game already feels different.

Jim Gray, the Kings’ “Special Correspondent” and the host of The Decision, is five feet away.

This is as close to LeBron James’ world as most anyone can get.

Joe and Gavin Maloof are there, hands extended, pointing toward my spot, where we’re about to sit together and get a ground’s-eye view of the most exciting, scrutinized team in the NBA.

This close, LeBron will come into full view. This close, the villains of the East are about to change some hearts and minds about their chances to do great things.

This close, just how good — and how important to the league — the Heat have become will unfold with two owners hellbent on enjoying every damn minute of it.

 

Fired up

“Get that s*** out of here LeBron!”

Gavin is fired the hell up.

“GET IT OUT OF HERE LEBRON!”

He hasn’t let up as the first quarter has gotten under way, and he won’t, not all night, not for a moment, not one godd*** second.

“We sweat every dribble,” Joe, Gavin’s older brother, says. “Every shot, every dribble, every play.”

Maloof brothers

Brothers George, Gavin and Joe Maloof are frequent fixtures at Kings games. Team co-owners Gavin and Joe Maloof say the Heat bring an excitement they haven't felt in a long time to ARCO Arena.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

He’s certainly sweating this play, feet from the action, with his team — literally his team — up by one.

The man is still yelling.

“GET IT OUT OF HERE!”

Gavin, Joe, their mother and I are sitting courtside, talking about the league, marveling at LeBron’s athleticism, talking about the very bright future both Maloof brothers believe their team has in a year or two or three, and this arena feels, finally, like it once did.

That’s something the Heat do. Something hard to see from the television, from even halfway up the arena, from the cheap seats or even press row.

It’s a truth better felt than seen: Hate and awe are strong emotions, the kind that heighten everything about this beautiful game.

“The excitement is back in ARCO,” Joe says quietly, as Dwyane Wade flashes past him, inches away. “This reminds me of the old glory days. Takes me back to 2002. That electricity is back. I haven’t felt that in a long time.

“Seriously. It feels good.”

Good in a lot of ways. The Heat bring an intensity that makes them the Beatles of Basketball. Women cry when they touch Wade. Literally. Fans boo LeBron one moment, roar with pleasure against their own wills the next. Joe whispered “wow” when he was introduced earlier, Gavin “boo” in the same low voice.

Chris Bosh shoots, the ball takes a favorable bounce, the Heat score. And then Gavin is screaming again.

“You’re lucky Bosh!”

“Don’t say that, Gavin,” Joe says, trying not to laugh.

“I don’t care. YOU’RE LUCKY BOSH!”

“Oh man,” Joe says, “he’s going to blow up on us.”

Joe’s still laughing as he turns to me, not yet aware that Bosh will go on to a season-high 17 rebounds.

“True story: When we first bought the team, we went off on Nick Van Exel,” Joe says, still laughing. “He went off on us for more than 40 points. I learned my lesson that night. Don’t taunt the players.”

It’s hard to hear him. Gavin is screaming again.

‘WHAT? LUCK! LUCKY! GODD*** LUCKY!”

Sitting next to Gavin, their mother lets out an excited exclamation.

“Oh, this is exciting!” Colleen Maloof says. “My heart is pounding.”

 

Blue-collar billionaires

The Kings come out swinging, and the Maloof brothers love it, can’t get enough of it, are still screaming their butts off.

Their friends call them the blue-collar billionaires, and why not, because both Joe, 55, and Gavin, 54, sound a lot like fans during a raucous first half.

When Zydrunas Ilgauskas hits a mid-range jumper, Gavin proclaims, “He doesn’t make them against anybody but us!”

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It’s not even remotely true, but Gavin believes it so strongly for a moment I do, too.

When Big Z hits another shot, Joe yells, “Hey you big giant!” It is a strange and friendly enough taunt, and it makes me laugh, because I look over and Joe’s eyes are burning with a crazy, fan-like, hyper-invested intensity.

“Dammit!!!!”

When DeMarcus Cousins is taken out after early foul trouble, the fans boo. So do the owners. They are downright distraught.

“No! Don’t take him out!” Joe yells. “No!!!!”

A little later, Mario Chalmers hits a three-pointer.

Gavin screams, “Lucky son-of-a-b****- god*** Chalmers!” but it comes out loud and rushed, as if it’s one very crazy word. Later, both brothers will quietly say how impressed they are with the young point guard.

These guys are loud, fun, irreverent, passionate, in love with the game and fully without a filter. It’s a refreshing dose of caring, one the Heat are particularly good at drawing out of opposing fans and, in their candid moments, NBA players, scouts, executives and others.

Before the game, Joe Maloof does not quite buy into the Heat hype. Not that they’re threats to the Lakers’ greatness. Not that they’ve “arrived.”

Joe’s a guy whose proximity to Kobe and the Lakers keeps that team at the top of his list, and he thinks Boston, Dallas and Orlando are pretty darn good, too.

But as the game ticks on — even as the Kings stay in it, even as they lead for a while — his tune starts to change.

“I think they can win it all this year,” Joe says at one point. “Wow. They’re good. They’re just explosive.

Still, the brothers, though not thrilled the Heat have a five-point lead at the half, are clearly feeling how close this game is. They want this. They’re hungry for a win over these guys.

I try to prepare them, to tell them that the Heat, as good as they looked that half, are something else entirely in the third quarter. I try to get them ready for what may be an old-fashioned butt-kicking a short time later. I talk about how Erik Spoelstra must be a master halftime game planner, or LeBron and Wade must just turn it on, or how so many veterans must make things click at the halfway point.

But it’s the half, and Kevin Johnson has walked over and is hugging and then talking to Gavin, and people are coming from the stands to shake hands with Joe and reminisce on that time, you know Joe, four years ago, when you gave us that tour at The Palms, you must remember, you know that one time … and hell, anyway, you gotta see the Heat at full speed in the third quarter to understand.

 

A different story

They see. Oh do they see.

Miami opens the second half on a 17-2 run, good for a 20-point lead, and the Kings manage to hit only one of their first 13 field-goal tries.

“Jesus Christ,” Joe mutters.

“You just knew they would,” Gavin sighs.

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There is a lull in the yelling, and the taunting, and the passion. This is what the Heat do to opponents, to fans, to wild-eyed, all-the-way-in owners.

The Heat emerge from their locker room and, without warning and with such ease, they reach out and snatch every last bit of energy and oxygen from the opposition.

For a long time the Maloofs sit there, not able to talk, to move, to react.

By the time the brothers and their team get their groove back it’s too late. It is an old-fashioned butt-whooping, one that came on so fast,Joe’s still trying to figure out what happened.

“Maybe we’re not that good,” Joe says.

He is dejected, and I feel for him. These guys are great, these casino-owning, fun-loving, profanity-screaming billionaires. It’s like being at Wrigley with the bleacher bums, at the Phog with Kansas students, at a Boston bar talking Red Sox with the locals.

I’ve got to look around, remember where and with whom I’m sitting, to remind myself these are some very rich super fans.

“Jesus,” Joe is saying. “Maybe we have a long way to go.”

They do. They’ll be 5-16 after this game, and DeMarcus Cousins somehow manages to look really bad and full of enormous potential at the same time. Great hands. An intuitive basketball sense that’s clear as day from these $2,000 seats. Some impressive low-post moves. Even more impressive in finding new and interesting ways to miss close-range shots after making those moves. A night with only six points. And a very clear need to learn to control his emotions, to say the least.

Still, there’s some talent brewing here in Sacramento, maybe, if things can come together: If Cousins can match his talent with equal parts maturity and self-control, and the other young guys the Maloofs are so excited about — Tyreke Evans, Donte Greene, Jason Thompson — can develop, and the owners can add some missing pieces next year.

LeBron has just hit another shot.

“F***!” Gavin says.

Yep, the Heat can sure make a man feel that way about the team he owns, especially in the third quarter, especially as LeBron and Wade — both talking to the Kings bench now, motivated by some unheard and unseen slight — play like, well, LeBron and Wade.

“F***!” Joe says. “It’s over. Game over.”

 

LeBron, larger than life

LeBron is maybe five feet away. Five feet and pushing on Omri Casspi, who’s guarding him. Pushing hard. Casspi’s pushing back. Also hard.

An official tells them both to cool it, but the official hasn’t figured on Gavin, or the very nice woman sitting a couple seats to Gavin’s right.

Let me repeat this: LeBron James is maybe five feet away.

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“GIVE HIM A TECHNICAL!” Gavin screams, and Joe laughs, and before I can help it I laugh, too. Wow, that was freaking loud. These guys are awesome.

“STOP PLAYING DIRTY!” the woman screams at the exact same moment.

The play is paused for a moment as the official aims for order, and LeBron steps closer. He looks right at Gavin and the woman. Heard them clear as day.

Man, now that I think about it as I look at him, LeBron is one big dude. You could almost say intimidating.

Then LeBron laughs — huge smile, sticks out his mouth guard, and he actually guffaws — and he gives Gavin and the woman his good-natured, “Give-me-a-break” look.

It’s a genuine, authentic, away-from-the-cameras LeBron James moment, and I’m frankly stunned to see it. It’s full of that hidden charm The Chosen One’s friends and supporters swear he possesses. Turns out they were right.

Gavin laughs, and the woman laughs and LeBron laughs again before the play resumes.

A little later, LeBron hits a ridiculous shot.

“Jesus Christ,” Joe says to my left, this time not angry, just shaking his head, talking to himself. “Well, that’s why he’s the best.”

To my right, the Maloofs’ mother asks Gavin, “Is he better than Kobe or what?”

Resignedly, warily, Gavin says, “Yeah.”

 

Idol chatter

“Who is this guy in the hat?” Joe asks.

I look up. The third quarter just ended. A young guy in a stocking cap, looking either very hip or very underdressed, is walking toward us. The Maloofs are standing.

“This year’s American Idol winner,” someone whispers.

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I try to remain sitting down. This year’s American Idol winner isn’t here to meet the sportswriter from FOXSports.com. But they’re literally hovering over me, and Joe’s looking at me like he wants me to stand, and some woman with an L.A.-woman-about-town look is trying to read my nametag and can’t, and it strikes me she’s worried she doesn’t know whether or not I rank.

I don’t rank, not one bit, but I feel bad that she’s not sure, so I stand just in time for Kris Allen to shake my hand.

Then Kris is hugging Joe and the woman is three inches from my face.

“Thank you!” she says to me. She steals a quick look at my nametag. “Bill! We’re having such a great time!”

She leans in. With a secret.

“I’m from the Bay Area, and I’m rooting so hard for you guys!” The American Idol winner has gone from hugging Joe to hugging Gavin. At least I didn’t have to hug Kris Allen. I figure there’s no sense in explaining to the woman they’re not my team. I don’t have time to consider it further. “I want the Heat to lose!” she finishes.

All I can think to mutter is, “You’re welcome.”

Then they’re gone, and the Maloof brothers are sitting down, and I’m thinking, LeBron James really does inhabit a different universe than I do.

And back to the game we go.

Time for the fourth quarter.

 

Impressive finish

The passion is back even if the game is away from them, and the brothers let it out.

“Bad call!” Gavin screams. “God darn it!”

“Come on!” Joe screams. “Come on. Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry up!”

Trust me here: This goes on nearly every moment until the buzzer.

They try to will their guys on. They encourage them, they harangue them, Joe tries to get one of his employees to put a bad call up on the big screen quicker, to get the crowd into it, to make every last fan feel what they feel.

“Sooner! Put it up sooner!”

Just then, back in the game and on his way past where we’re sitting, LeBron runs wide, slips near us and lets his hand flash down. He pats Gavin’s leg with a quick thud as he goes by, a blur.

“He’s a freight train,” Joe says, staring.

The King chuckles as he goes. Unable to stop themselves, so do the Maloof brothers.

“I’m still sweating every play,” Joe says, laughing at himself. “I’m exhausted.”

As time begins to tick away, Joe and Gavin look at this team hated by so many: Bosh, with his 17 rebounds. Wade with his 36 points. LeBron with his effortless double-double.

They keep looking, past the Big Three, past what fans see, to what an owner notices: Mario Chalmers, who Joe liked, liked a lot, and then there was Carlos Arroyo, and how the hell do these guys have two point guards this good?

And Big Z. And that Dampier, one big muscle down low, and James Jones who made the three that made each brother’s face turn deep red, and veterans like Juwan Howard, and it just keeps on going, every man on the roster adding some unfair piece to a team already bursting with the talent of LeBron, Wade and, to a lesser degree, Bosh.

From here, here at center court, where the clock is reaching zero on the Heat’s eighth win in a row, where Wade’s taunts seem close enough to be directed at us, where LeBron’s banter actually is directed at us, where the speed and cohesion of the Heat is scary in its awesomeness — this close, the villains aren’t just the bad guys.

For now they’re the cream of the crop, too.

“You gotta give Riley a lot of credit,” Joe says. “This team — this whole team — is great. They’re great. That’s all you can say.”

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter.

Tagged: Heat, Kings, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, James Jones, Mario Chalmers, DeMarcus Cousins

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