SACRAMENTO — The Kings and the NBA gave Sacramento one last chance to prove it deserves to be an NBA city.
Now it’s up to Mayor Kevin Johnson and the business community to come up with a viable plan for a new arena after so many failed attempts in the past.
“This is one of the proudest moments of my life because the community believed when no one else did,” Johnson said Monday. “We kept believing. And if you believe, anything is possible.”
The decision by the Maloof family to keep their team in Sacramento rather than apply for relocation to Anaheim is only temporary. Co-owner Joe Maloof and NBA Commissioner David Stern made clear that the team will leave after next season if an arena plan is not in place.
“We spent 13 years and millions of dollars to try to get an arena built,” Maloof said. “We don’t have the answer. The mayor has the answers and we’re willing and able to listen. He’s got to have a plan. We never want to be untruthful to the fans of Sacramento. There is a sense of urgency, and that’s up to Mayor Johnson and his political team.”
Stern praised Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, for his Herculean effort at mobilizing the community to keep the team. Stern’s support for another chance for Sacramento is a far cry from his stance during the All-Star break in February, when he said the league would spend no more time trying to get an arena built in California’s capital city.
At that point, the Kings’ departure seemed almost inevitable. But after two extensions of a March 1 deadline for relocation, and Johnson’s efforts to arrange $10 million in sponsorship pledges from the corporate community, the city gets another chance.
Stern said he is sending a team of nine league officials to Sacramento this week to assist with marketing, tickets and the arena.
“We’re going to put all of our efforts in Sacramento and make it happen and make it succeed,” Stern said. “But if it can’t and this becomes yet the fifth or sixth or seventh, it will be the last as far as we’re concerned, for an effort in regards to an arena. I pledged support for a move to another market.”
A feasibility study for a new arena in Sacramento is scheduled to be completed later this month. There has always been a divide between Kings fans and the broader public on how to finance a facility.
Four California lawmakers, including the leader of the state Senate, sent a letter to Stern last week pledging to work with local leaders over the next year to try to build a sports and performing arts complex to replace the Kings’ outdated arena.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, said he would use his clout to make sure his district gets its share of state bond money that could go to build the complex.
“We came away with a strong sense that this was worth the additional year because it seemed to us to be so important to the leaders of Sacramento that they would not allow the opportunity to pass without getting it done,” Stern said.
Sacramento was once a thriving NBA franchise that produced sellout streaks of 497 and 354 straight games. The building formerly known as Arco Arena provided one of the most notorious home-court advantages in the league, a place where fans clanked cowbells so loud opposing coaches and players pleaded to have the noisemakers banned.
The Kings won an NBA-best 61 games in the 2001-02 season behind Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, losing to the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference finals at home in a decisive Game 7.
Sacramento, with budget deficits and heavy job losses during the economic downturn, has turned down initiatives for years to contribute public dollars to replace or upgrade the aging arena.
“If we want to be a major league city, you have to have major league facilities,” Johnson said. “And what you saw happen (Monday) and over the last couple of weeks, is the community stepped up and said we can make big things happen.”
If Johnson’s plan doesn’t come to fruition, Anaheim could once again be an option for the Kings next year with the Honda Center and its luxury suites waiting in Orange County.
Anaheim’s City Council already issued the bonds needed to entice the Kings to move, but the Maloofs decided to give Sacramento one more chance.
“I think it’s the fair thing to do,” Maloof said. “We’ve always said we think Sacramento has the best NBA fans in the world. Their overwhelming show of support was incredible. But now they realize that we’re giving them another opportunity and we’re anxious to play basketball.”
Maloof said he appreciated the support and encouragement from Anaheim officials and said he believed the city would get an NBA team in the future.
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait said his city proved it’s “NBA-ready” and should be considered its own market separate from Los Angeles, which already has the Lakers and Clippers.
Stern praised Anaheim’s efforts and said he believes the city will one day have an NBA team.
“This process only moved it along, rather than detracting from it,” Stern said.
The Kings are coming off their fifth straight losing season, finishing 24-58. With a core of young players led by 2009-10 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans and big man DeMarcus Cousins, the team believes the future can be bright. The Kings should have another high draft pick and room in the salary cap to add key pieces necessary to get back to the postseason.
“Our future is very bright on the basketball court because of our young up-and-coming team,” Maloof said. “We’re going to have a top five pick and then we’re going to have a great amount of money to spend on free agents.”