National Basketball Association
Mayor KJ pivotal in keeping NBA in Sacramento
National Basketball Association

Mayor KJ pivotal in keeping NBA in Sacramento

Published May. 16, 2011 9:06 p.m. ET

The day he departed for the biggest meeting of his life, Kevin Johnson clicked on the television and found an unlikely source of inspiration.

A documentary was airing about the Baltimore Colts' infamous middle-of-the-night move to Indianapolis. He saw how Baltimore's marching band kept playing, kept fighting, kept bringing attention to the city until it was finally rewarded with a new NFL franchise.

''I was watching it and I was very empathetic of that community,'' Johnson said. ''We did not want to be one of those cities. It was motivation.''

What a time for that documentary to air.


What a time for a former NBA All-Star to be elected Sacramento's mayor.

The Sacramento Kings were determined to relocate to Anaheim: no longer selling season tickets, applying for new federal trademark names and embracing the Anaheim City Council's vote to issue $75 million in bonds to entice the team.

Even for a guy who once dunked over 7-footer Hakeem Olajuwon, that was a tall hurdle to overcome.

''It was one thing after another. All signs pointed to them being gone,'' Johnson said. ''The chances of them staying? I would've said slim to none at that time.''

Slim was good enough.

The culmination of his efforts comes Tuesday night when Johnson represents the team at the NBA draft lottery in a sign of goodwill from Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, capping a remarkable turnaround for Sacramento that only a point guard-turned-politician might've been able to make happen.


Johnson had convinced NBA Commissioner David Stern to allow him to speak at the league's board of governors meeting in New York, an unusual request no doubt boosted by Johnson's basketball background. The idea that he would plead Sacramento's case before owners was still something most considered a political Hail Mary.

Johnson saw it as an opportunity.

The mayor's office first reached out to Sacramento Metro Chamber President Matt Mahood, and within days they scheduled a meeting with the region's business brass to raise corporate dollars.

''Initially, I did roll my eyes a little bit,'' Mahood said. ''But we made the calls, and the mayor closed them. The more companies stepped up, the more he closed and the more we started to believe.''

The money gave Johnson something concrete he could present to owners.

He sat across Stern at a horseshoe-shaped table in a conference room April 14 at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, giving his pitch to a crowd that sat ready to reject Sacramento's latest ''eye-roller'' arena plan, as the commissioner put it.

Johnson promised the Kings millions of dollars in sponsorship pledges from the corporate community to give the city one last chance to finance a new facility. He closed with a speech about what the team meant to Sacramento, tugging at the heart strings of even the most dollars-and-cents-minded billionaires.

''I've been around governors and presidents, and what I saw was an unbelievable, almost Hollywood-type moment,'' said Darius Anderson, partner in a group headed by Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle, in attendance to propose a plan to buy the Kings or another franchise and move it to Sacramento. ''To a person in that room, one of the best speeches I've ever heard.

''The momentum shifted right then and there for Sacramento.''


Being a facilitator was a role Johnson knew well.

He spent almost his entire 12-year NBA career with the Phoenix Suns, a 6-foot-1 point guard whose athleticism and quick-thinking made him a fan favorite most still call ''KJ.'' He was a three-time All-Star, member of the U.S. gold-medal winning team at the 1994 world championships and well-liked in the locker room.

''The only problem I ever had with Kevin is he didn't pass me the ball enough,'' TNT analyst and former Suns teammate Charles Barkley joked when he campaigned for Johnson.

Those days have long been over.

Only twice since he retired in 2000 has Johnson even touched a basketball, on his 40th and 45th birthdays to see if he could still dunk, the latter just passing in March. Both times his aging legs weren't enough to throw one down.

''I couldn't even get the lift to try the second time,'' he said, chuckling.

With basketball over, he needed something to fill the void.

Johnson traces his decision to return to Sacramento - where he's a third-generation native - and run for public office back to a conversation with his grandfather, George Peat.

''My grandfather used to tell me not to sit on the sidelines and complain,'' said Johnson, who was elected Sacramento's first black mayor in 2008. ''If you can do something about it, throw your hat in the ring and stop it.''


That fighter's mentality shined through with the Kings.

Johnson called former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory about how that city dealt with the loss of the Hornets - who moved to New Orleans after the 2001-02 season - and, most importantly, how the city quickly lured back an NBA franchise.

He reached out to officials in Seattle, who lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, and they encouraged him to squeeze every last resource from the private sector to launch a campaign for Sacramento's cause before it was too late.

By the time it was all done, Johnson had secured pledges - which later became checks - for more than $10 million in Kings sponsorship and ticket sales, essentially buying Sacramento one more season to approve a plan to finance a new arena.

''The infusion of corporate dollars and the mayor's ability to rein them in was the tipping point,'' Mahood said.

The NBA's relocation committee, already skeptical of three teams sharing the Southern California market, recommended the Kings stay in Sacramento at least one more season. Following that recommendation, the Maloofs decided not to put a vote before owners.

''Sacramento won because it was united, and the mayor was a huge part of that,'' said Chris Lehan, chairman of Johnson's arena task force and a consultant for past arena and stadium projects across the country. ''He really was the point guard - he distributed the ball and got everybody involved.''


And so the final countdown ticks.

Sacramento has until March 1 to approve a plan to finance a new arena - or else. Stern and the Maloofs practically guaranteed the franchise would move to another market if the city couldn't approve an arena plan by the latest deadline.

In an area hit hard by the economic downturn and government budget cuts, there has been a divide between sports fans and the broader community over spending public dollars to build a sports and entertainment complex. Civic pride might finally trump it all.

The togetherness Sacramento showed to delay the move and the NBA's ultimatum are what make Johnson confident the community will finally agree on a financial plan. The first step comes with an arena feasibility study due May 26.

''I believe there's a different political will now. It's bigger than basketball,'' Johnson said.

A small sign of that shift comes in Johnson's appearance at the draft lottery. He joked with the Maloofs that he will ask for an honorary 10-day contract with the Kings if they somehow end up with the top pick, which the team has only a 7.6 percent chance to land.

Then again, Sacramento has faced tougher odds before.


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