Eyes Wide Open

This article was written for and submitted to the Sacramento Bee in Feb., 2010 but never published. It was resubmitted before later being published on SonicsCentral.com.

When it comes to the Sacramento Kings I have always been an old school fan.

When I think of the team I still think of them as the cellar dwellers, the perennial losers of the Western Division losing game after game in front of some of the best and most passionate fans in the NBA. I loved that the franchise was such an underdog.

Those are the Kings I remember.

No offense to Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and exceptional playoff teams of recent years. In my nostalgic mind I just tend to think of the league when my Sonics were on top. When I think of the Kings I think of Mitch Richmond.

Now Richmond may not have been perfect but when we watched him from afar he was a player that people around the country could root for. He was a guaranteed performer who never gave up. Every single year he would be a statistical leader in the league. Every year the announcers would commiserate that he would never become a star because his team was so poorly assembled, ownership so terrible, and the market so small. It was a virtual certainty that if he could just escape that smalltown, mismanaged franchise he would be a huge star and get the wins he deserved. I dreamt of my team trading for Mitch Richmond. I relished the thought that someday he would join Gary Payton in Seattle and lead my team to a championship. In my mind Richmond, not Webber, Divac, or Stojakovic will always represent the Kings.

I wonder sometimes how Mitch Richmond felt, finally escaping to the big lights of Washington DC to play for the Wizards and ultimately being a bust. I wonder how it felt for him watching the Kings transform into an elite franchise and build years in which they not only were winning, but in which it was great fun to be associated with the franchise. I wonder if in some ways he regretted what patience he had because it never paid off.

While he probably wished Sacramento the best it must have hurt. Somewhere deep inside he had to have some resentment at their success without him. Even though he tried to contain it there must have been some painful bitterness that he lived through all the hard times but never got to enjoy the good times with his team.

I know how he feels now. I know because a franchise that I was once a part of is having success and I don’t get to enjoy it with them. We’re divorced and they have moved on. I know because I am watching Kevin Durant grow into a star in Oklahoma City and trying to cope with the fact that my Seattle SuperSonics no longer exist.

That’s right. The Seattle SuperSonics.

The Sonics franchise which was in the league for 41 years, 16 longer than Sacramento. The Sonics franchise that won divisions and conferences and even championships, something the Kings never achieved. A franchise that can stack Gary Payton up against Mitch Richmond and Shawn Kemp up against Chris Webber when comparing franchise history, leaving Spencer Haywood to spare. A franchise in its original city that never imagine relocating. Just 10 years ago they were an elite and storied franchise in the NBA, today they are simply gone. Like the great fans of Sacramento we assumed that our legacy was enough to ensure that it would never happen to us. We assumed wrong.

As the city of Sacramento mulls arena options I feel compelled to share with them some of the lessons that I have learned as our team was lost.

#1: It is not a bluff.

First and foremost the people of Sacramento need to understand that it is not a bluff.

They will move your team. They’ve shown it. Not only have they shown it but right now it appears to be working out well for them. Despite tough talk and an assumption that the league would back down for PR reasons Seattle was shown to be completely impotent in their efforts to block relocation. After being bullied into a lease termination settlement by the league Seattle failed to get their act together to force fund a building renovation and start the clock ticking to attract a new team. Just 18 months later league ratings are up, any buzz over the poor treatment of Seattle fans has died down and the Thunder franchise is doing relatively well in their new home. All the hard work is done and behind them. The league held firm and has been proven victorious.

Government officials and residents of Sacramento need to understand that if a deal is not reached the team will move. This does not mean that Sacramento should write a blank check. It does mean everybody involved should understand what is at stake when they are considering their options. This is not a question of "pay the price or force a stalemate" because there will be no stalemate. It is not a question of "pay the price or see if they back down" because they will not back down. The decision in front of Sacramento is to pay the price or lose the team. That is it. Period.

This is really hard to accept because in so many ways professional sports franchises seem bigger than life. There is a feeling of historic importance about them. A feeling that those franchises have such a large and visible presence, a worldwide persona, and a sense of heritage and history that is so big that they simply cannot be swept under the rug. Parents grow up watching a team and they raise their children to watch that team. You can travel the world and find people in any country wearing a Sacramento Kings Jersey. You can have a sense of connection to others through the shared memories that are associated with that jersey.

For a fan it is life altering to realize that a franchise is not bigger than life. It can be packed up into boxes, moved, renamed, and presented to a new city and new fans who will treasure it as much as you did. Fans have to realize that someday you may go to a store and find they no longer sell items with the Kings logo. Instead the Golden State Warriors will being forced down your throat and you will be told they are somehow supposed to just become your team. You will go to ESPN, look for Sacramento and instead find Kansas City, Anaheim, or perhaps even Seattle. For a time your local paper will continue to have a section devoted to the Kings. Then they will change the name to "Kings/Relocation". Then one day it will simply say "NBA" and all references to your franchise will be gone. All of this can be done easily and efficiently in the same way you can move houses or relocate your business. Just ask the people of Seattle or even Kansas City where the Kings existed for 13 years before they eventually found their way Sacramento.

#2: Having an NBA team is not cheap.

The second thing that people in Sacramento need to understand is that whatever deal they are offered will not be a great one. Now that you realize that the civic pride, cultural heritage, and wonderful exposure that goes along with the NBA can be boxed up and moved to another city you have to understand that those other cities will pay a great price for the privilege of having them. Because of this competition you have to pay a market price for a nearly irreplaceable asset. There are only 30 of them in the world. They will tell you the deal is good, and it may be good compared to some others that have been built but overall it will be hotly negotiated by a team that knows it has other options. An NBA team is a precious commodity and cities across the nation are willing to make sacrifices to hold onto them. The price is high.

In Seattle we kept refusing to pay the price and waiting for a better deal. What we found time and time again was that the deal never got better. In fact as things dragged out and we gave the league time to look at other options we found ourselves competing with other markets and the deal got worse. If you want a Porsche you can’t expect to pay for a Kia.

#3: Understand the clock is ticking.

The third and most important thing that Sacramento can learn from Seattle is the deceptive timeline of this decision making process. While it may seem like there was a 2 year battle to save the Sonics hindsight would indicate that in reality the move was a done deal the day the team was sold. An unstoppable force had been set in motion and nothing could deter it. That sale occurred on July 19, 2006. On that day the wheels had been set in motion and there was nothing we could do about it except create some noise while they moved out of town.

In February 2006, Just 6 months earlier, David Stern had traveled to Washington to express his support for arena proposals in the region. Around that same time one of our cities most respected business leaders, Team owner Howard Schultz held a press conference in which he expressed concern with the status of the project, but also hope that something could get done. "Our first choice has been and continues to be to stay here." Schultz said at the time.

After that press conference there was no further conversation, no further warnings, no substantial rumblings of a sale. There were no deadlines or countdowns. No final chance at all from the fans perspective. One day the team was ours, the next day the papers said it had been sold to Oklahoma ownership and our fate was sealed.

During the 6 months between that press conference and the sale announcement our city and our fans did nothing, absolutely nothing. We never really realized that the game had begun. As a result all of our rallies, all of our clamoring, and all of our efforts occurred after the deal was done. We were too late.

What this means?

Sacramento is blessed to have great ownership in place with the Kings. I met with Gavin Maloof in 2008 at the NBA Owners meeting and he is as committed to the fans and genuinely passionate as any owner in sports. He expressed his sympathy for our plight and hope that he could help resolve the situation.

This was 30 minutes after he voted, along with 27 other owners, to approve the relocation of my team.

Gavin Maloof was not above doing what had to be done. He voted for relocation not because he is a bad guy and not because he didn’t like Seattle. He voted for relocation because he knew that one day it could be his turn to ask the other NBA owners to support him as he took necessary steps to protect his investment and move on from a situation that he considered intolerable.

I am certain that the Maloofs will not consider leaving Sacramento until they feel they have completely run out of options. That said I hope that Sacramento fans learn from the Seattle situation is that the casual fan really may have no warning if he decides that those options have run out. The Maloofs, like Schultz in Seattle, will have no reason at all to let you know when they reach their limit. Once they have reached that point it will actually be against their best interest to give you warning or help you preserve the team. Economic times are hard and the Maloofs may have real and substantial economic cause to simply give up by selling or moving on. If they reach that point they may say truthfully that they have tried everything in their power. They may let you know that they made the decision with great sadness and regret. What they will not do, once they have hit this point, is to let you know the decision has been reached in any way until after the process has been started and is irreversible. They will have reconciled internally that it is not their fault and that their hand was forced. Once the hard decision has been made the loyalty of the fans will be an obstacle to be avoided rather than an asset to be rewarded. They will be doing everything possible to ensure that you don't know what they are doing so that you cannot stand in its way. It will simply be the most painless option for them.

Knowing these three things Kings fans should understand that they have to be willing to pay a price, that the cost of not paying that price is the teams departure, but most importantly they need to know that the time to help is now.

They need to be keenly aware that if the Kings were to follow a similar script to the Sonics then you may have already passed the final warning and that the time for any kind of action is now.

If the Kings flagship radio station wants to gather support among fans then they need to do that NOW, not wait until the team is sold. If fans want to hold a "Save The Kings" rally, or to call their city council representatives then they should be doing so NOW.

If you own a business and want the Kings to stay it is essential that you call your city council members or the mayor’s office to offer support. If you frequent local businesses ask those business owners what they are doing and encourage them to be active. Small business support is the most critical element to getting this done. It will empower the elected officials to go out on a limb and find a way to save your team.

Now is the time for fans to visibly show their support and begin getting active in this process. They should consider themselves "on the clock" and realize that February hope can in fact lead to the game being over by July if they do not step up.

While it may seem early it is not. A solution has to be reached while the league and the franchise are still cooperative partners instead of adversarial negotiators. It has to happen before the franchise is being shopped nationally to the highest bidder because at that point the price will go up and the chances of success will be go down substantially.

If the Kings wind up on the open market you can bet that Seattle will show interest. Everybody will feel bad about it but that will not stop us. We will rationalize our actions by saying that "They are going to move anyway and better us than San Jose." or something along those lines. People in every city but yours will look at the situation and say "Sacramento had their chance." just like they said about Seattle.

We have learned some hard lessons here and if our city makes a play for your team you can’t say we didn’t warn you. So get busy and support Mayor Kevin Johnson in efforts to build an arena. Show appreciation for the Maloofs by supporting them and send a message to the NBA that you value their product. Save your team. Do it now while your efforts still matter.

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