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Sacramento City Council passes most important vote to keep Kings in town

Mar 7, 2012, 3:07 AM EDT

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I interviewed Carmichael Dave, the person most synonymous with Sacramento’s grassroots effort to keep their basketball team, way back on April 5, 2011. The Kings were all-but gone by most accounts, and I asked Dave what he thought the Kings’ chances of leaving were.

“90-10.”

It turns out that he might have been a bit optimistic, as there wasn’t a soul on record, including mayor Kevin Johnson, that thought the Maloofs would keep their team in the Cowbell Kingdom.

And during the Kings’ final game last year, when the Lakers were up by 20 points in the first half and the team was honoring its lifelong season ticket holders with the future not just in doubt, but in the trash – I thought to myself, ‘This is what it’s like to watch your own funeral.’

Even the Lakers fans that had gathered that night stopped giving Kings fans the business. They knew when enough was enough. 2,000 or more people stayed after the game, refusing to leave the arena. Players, coaches, media, management, and anybody affiliated with the team all stayed back to take in the scene. Grown men, including then coach Paul Westphal and TV commentators Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds – they cried. They weren’t the only ones.

In the background, people were working, though. Some of those people had great influence and some of them had simple tweets. Together, and with no one part being able to complete its work without the other, they were able to keep their team and by virtue of that – give their region hope for a better day.

Tonight, the Sacramento City Council voted 7-2 to approve the term sheet drawn up by all of the stakeholders of the $387-400 million Entertainment and Sports Complex. The wheels could theoretically spin off, but there are 5-of-9 votes in the council that are rock solid in favor of the arena. The other four votes range from serious opposition to only mild opposition, as evidenced by two of them crossing the line tonight. In addition, tonight’s vote will put the project in real motion, with more money being spent as the city finalizes the parking portion of its contribution.

And aside from all of that, sources from each side of the table indicate that they are a full go and the Kings are staying in Sacramento.

It was a moving scene, having interviewed many of the fans, stakeholders, city leaders, and the like for over a year. These people spent hundreds of hours not just to protect a basketball team, but to keep their region from going under. The Sacramento area, having relied on the public sector for decades, has been beset by 12 percent unemployment and big-name companies are leaving weekly.

Or maybe the word is ‘were.’

Kevin Johnson, the hero in all of this, was able to raise an additional $10 million in sponsorships before the plane hit the ground for last year’s NBA Board of Governors meeting. With some help from Jerry Buss and Donald Sterling, Johnson was able to convince David Stern and the NBA that Sacramento could be a viable place for an NBA team – and that most importantly that he could deliver on an arena.

He formed a coalition that included business leaders, fans, churches, various ethnic groups, and heavy hitters from the political world that had a vested interest in keeping Sacramento afloat.

He floated the name, ‘Burkle.’

And I don’t know when Johnson whipped the city council to determine whether or not he had their votes, but he knew that if he kept the ball moving that good things would happen.

When the motion to approve the term sheet was made last night, 500-1000 arena supporters packed two floors of the new city hall and one floor of the old, adjacent city hall. The opposition had its chance to speak first and 19 of the two million people in the Sacramento region spoke out against the arena deal. In the interests of time K.J. limited public comment in support of the arena to 45 minutes. When that time ended, he asked those that didn’t get a chance to speak to stand up.

Nearly everybody in each room stood up.

After public comment, as each councilperson spoke it became clear where each of them stood.  When two opposition votes from the last motion moved over to the pro-arena side it was clear that the Kings were going to stay. A full year’s worth of anxiety and effort started to settle, and with one more moment to go – the room looked tired and worn out. Sensing that it was time to vote, though, they sprang into action and started waving their signs.

The payoff was near.

The roll call vote meant that each councilmember would have to say their vote out loud, and when it was Johnson’s turn to give the final vote he screamed ‘YES’ into the microphone.

It was somewhat anticlimactic since we knew the results weeks ago, but it was his Braveheart moment. And Carmichael Dave had a Braveheart moment when he stood on a 12-foot ladder and told 2,000-plus fans that they had to leave the arena but not to give up hope. And each of those fans that organized en masse, made documentaries, and wouldn’t give up – they had their Braveheart moments, too.

That’s the best part about this story, aside from the happy ending. Faced with a less than 10 percent chance of success these people banded together, did something, and might have staved off long-term erosion of their economy.

And if the Kings can play some winning basketball, that will be a close second.

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