- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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Sometimes the healthiest food tastes the worst. So ignore the sour flavor that accompanies the term "Sacramento Kings part-owner Shaquille O'Neal," an aftertaste still lingering from those Lakers-Kings playoff battles at the turn of the century, and focus on the positive signal it sends: a playing career should be a step, not a final destination.
Not enough players set team ownership as their target. They don't realize that anything else is just living as a tenant, rather than a landlord. They don't get that the best way to change the league's power structure is to join it. And they don't realize that they had more capital by age 23 than any of their billionaire bosses did, so there's no reason for them not to occupy their seats one day.
The list of prominent players with both the foresight and the means to buy in has been short. Magic Johnson owned a share of the Lakers before he cashed out, then joined the Los Angeles Dodgers ownership group. Michael Jordan joined Robert Johnson's group that founded the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, then Jordan took control of the team. Now we can add Shaq to the list.
Shaq gets it. He always did get it, at least when it came to business. He understood that a career in sneakers, even a lucrative, Hall of Fame-worthy career, wasn't enough. He always pursued outside interests, sought to broaden his profile and expand his business portfolio. He didn't always make the best investments; like a number of capitalists, he fell for the flavor-of-the-month celebrity restaurant and Internet startup crazes in the late 1990s (remember All-Star Cafes and Dunk.net) and saw both of those fall to the ground. Then again, he also bought into less glamorous operations that were steady cash generators, such as coin-operated car washes.
The Kings are far from a car wash. Buying into an NBA franchise is both a financial and symbolic victory. Teams might have outrageous labor costs and lose money on an annual basis, but the long-term payoffs are outstanding. The best proof? The Sacramento Kings.
Five years ago, who would have guessed that the Kings were a better place to park your money than BlackBerry. BlackBerry commanded half of the smartphone market and its stock was worth $150 a share, while the Kings were floundering in an outdated arena and losing their once-rabid fan base. Well, BlackBerry shares are currently trading at less than $10, while Vivek Ranadive's group bought the Kings for an NBA-record $535 million.
Three years ago, the Golden State Warriors sold for $450 million, when they had won a single playoff series since 1992. If the bad houses on the block can fetch around half a billion, that's the neighborhood you want to invest in. NBA teams have two things going for them: allure and exclusivity. With no expansion in the forecast it creates billionaire bidding frenzies for the existing teams. An increasingly owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement only makes the club more desirable.
The only thing is, this franchise didn't feel like a natural fit for Shaq. The man who tormented the Kings, sometimes crudely, sometimes artistically (as in this mocking serenade to the tune of the "Cheers" theme) now literally has a vested interest in seeing them succeed. Longtime Kings employees who probably called Shaq all kinds of unprintable names will now have to refer to him as Mr. O'Neal.
Sports can create jarring transitions and strange allegiances. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are now Brooklyn Nets, a year after their former Celtics teammate Ray Allen bolted for the Miami Heat. Phil Jackson coached Kobe Bryant again after dogging him even worse than Shaq did the Kings. The NBA standards for "unfathomable" are set too high for Shaq's Kings ownership to qualify.
Rather than shake our heads, we should applaud. Shaq put his money where his mouth dissed.