In 1983, a group of Sacramento investors, mostly land developers, went to Kansas City, Mo., and bought the city’s basketball team from its financially troubled owners. The new owners told local fans they would honor the Kings’ remaining two-year lease at Kemper Arena and then consider picking up a five-year option to play at the arena.
Two weeks before the start of the 1984-85 season, the Sacramento Bee reported that one of the owners, Gregg Lukenbill, had obtained a building permit to put up warehouse in Sacramento. The warehouse was designed so that it could be turned into a 10,000-seat arena. Lukenbill, as he had before, denied plans to move the team.
“Our commitment to the people of Kansas City remains the same,” Lukenbill said. “Our primary goal right now is to make the team succeed in Kansas City.”
At the end of the season, the Kings’ owners rejected an exceedingly generous arena lease from city officials, broke the hearts of KC fans who had followed the team since 1972, and brought the team to Sacramento to the cheers of local fans.
That had been the plan all along, writes Barry Petchesky on the sports website Deadspin. The article is headlined: “A History Lesson for Sacramento: How Kansas City Lost the Kings.”
Petchesky, of course, notes the irony that Sacramento fans are now being treated to the same kind of betrayal as KC fans were three decades ago, but that’s no surprise.
“It’s never about one city ‘stealing’ a basketball team from another,” Petchesky says. “In both Kansas City and Sacramento, the prime movers were not the fans, but the ownership groups that had soured on their investments and were willing to cash out even if it meant that the city would lose its team.”
Despite all the hoopla, not everyone in Sacramento was thrilled. Then-Mayor Anne Rudin questioned the oft-touted economic benefits that supposedly came from enticing a pro team to one’s city. In a 1985 Christian Science Monitor story, Rudin said:
“I would like to see an impartial study of the economic impact of this [basketball] team. I haven’t yet. And I’ve seen so much movement by teams. How long will they stay? Two years? Six years? And I’ve seen cities that have had to offer bribes, to put it bluntly, and blackmail to get teams to stay.”
Rudin, as longtime Sacramentans may recall, was battling with the Kings’ developer owners over what they wanted in return for bringing a professional basketball team to Sacramento. No, they weren’t asking for public subsidy for a new arena in Natomas. They wanted much more. They wanted the city to open up an ever-increasing swathe of Natomas farmland to development. Millions of dollars stood to be made by rezoning and carving up all that land.
In the end, city officials caved in to developers and kept doing so. That may explain why there are now expensive homes sitting in a floodplain that is predicted to be 30 feet under water in a major flood.
The primary lesson to be learned from the history of the Kings is that team owners and the NBA are loyal to their own moneyed interests. Fans, team performance and the well-being of host cities don’t matter. Owners and the NBA will be the winners in any bidding war between Sacramento and Seattle. The script was written years ago.
Guess who the losers will be?