Kings fans, thank David Stern
If Sacramento Kings fans want to start thanking people for saving their mid-market city's only major franchise, they would do well to begin in Seattle, work their way through Anaheim and finally wind up shaking hands and pounding backs at NBA headquarters in New York.
And of all these assists, perhaps only one was intentional.
Seattle certainly didn't intend it, and beyond that never would have wished for the grim recent history that pushed that jewel of a city into this conversation at all. Anaheim actually wanted the opposite result: for the increasingly desperate effort to save the NBA in Sacramento to ultimately dissolve into cotton-candy nothingness, so that the franchise would be available to Orange County and the Samueli faction.
But David Stern himself -- that's another story. And because Stern's vote counts more than the other votes, because Stern is the ultimate "first among equals" in the NBA, it bears at least passing note that it was he, in the end, who made Sacramento happen.
Understand: The Kings were gone. The Maloof family lacked the wherewithal to entertain any new arena plan that involved them as much more than flashy tenants. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, as others before him, had bounced through a baffling array of false starts. The city's economy was still suffering, and significant private investment was a pipe dream.
Anaheim promised relief, pure and simple. The market was enticing. The arena was, if not precisely ready, close enough to make the 2011-12 season an inaugural. The lease deal was sweet, and the corporate interest was a win. The Maloofs were ready to go.
So why didn't they? The answer lies with Stern, who very simply refused to allow it.
All mythmaking aside, any other reading of what went down last year rings false. David Stern blocked the Maloofs. He told them to give Sacramento one more year -- this in spite of the fact that the city had no specific counter-offer to make, only its history of remarkable support for the NBA and a demonstrated but very limited corporate enthusiasm. (Owners want luxury boxes at least as much as a rabid fan base.) Johnson's work notwithstanding, the outlook was bleak. Yet Stern prevented the move.
And that was just the beginning. At Stern's behest, NBA executives over the next several months flooded Sacramento and commanded portions of the Kings' operation, including ticket sales. It wasn't the first time; Stern had previously directed some of his brightest associates to work on ways to save the Kings in the California capital, bailing out only after seeing every idea go up in flames.
In the end, the newest, latest plan worked. It came in the 11th hour and 57th minute, but it worked. The NBA in Sacramento was saved.
In other words, Stern did there what he failed to do in Seattle.
There's a connection there, but to believe it you have to be willing to accept a couple of notions. I have no trouble with those.
First, I believe that Stern came down with a severe case of legacy-itis. I believed Stern last year when he told Bill Simmons, "I have regrets about Vancouver and Seattle." And when Simmons pressed Stern about Seattle, I believed Stern's response, which was as follows: "My regrets are that somehow we weren't able to do a better job of getting a building moved around so that we could have kept a team there."
I believe that because it's right. The NBA screwed up horribly in Seattle -- and not only that, but the league's owners in general and the commissioner in particular drastically underestimated the depth of the grief that moving the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City would provoke.
In the end, Seattle may go down as one of Stern's most graphic failures. It's still unconscionable, really, and I say that as an Oklahoma native and a Thunder fan. But Oklahoma City's gain never should have been Seattle's loss. It wasn't until after the shouting, after Clay Bennett had won his approval, that it became apparent what kind of whopping miscalculation the league had made.
Thus, Seattle's contribution to the Sacramento solution was mostly inadvertent, a lasting post-image of misery and blame that has lingered with Stern. Oh, sure, there was some 11th-hour noise raised over the past several weeks about the Kings suddenly being on the radar in the Pacific Northwest, but the larger point is that Stern very likely didn't want to be remembered as the guy who gutted the NBA in two of its most ardent Western markets.
Sacramento swung into action, absolutely, and its mayor and civic leaders deserve all the credit due for that. But before that, the city caught a break. It caught Stern at the right time, looking over his shoulder at the recent unhappiness. Perhaps Stern remembered his own words from 2006, when he called the Kings in Sacramento "a model franchise in the sport." Perhaps he understood the dark implications of seeing the NBA "fail" in smaller-market venues only a few years after being so lionized. Maybe Seattle was never far from his thought process as he gave the California city a year's grace at a time when that qualified as a huge upset.
Second, when Anaheim's city leaders came calling on the Kings, they jump-started a conversation that had been without momentum for months. Anaheim's assist was purely unintentional; the city had a building that was ready to (and may yet) host a pro basketball team. Its motive was pure business.
Still, its dalliance with the Maloofs pushed Sacramento and Johnson to the brink, initiating a year of grinding that yielded the plan agreed to Monday. It also forced David Stern to decide what it was he really wanted for the league -- and for himself.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Voodoo Wave," is in international release. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named a Top 10 Sports Book by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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