The owners insisted they had no plans to move the team. That's what the Maloofs swore, raising their right hand as their left hand worked deals with buyers first from Anaheim, then Virginia Beach, then Seattle. And that's what the owners of the Kansas City Kings maintained 30 years ago, even as they did everything in their power to relocate to Sacramento. These things are cyclical, and if Sonics fans know this dance from both sides, so do Sacramentans.
It's never about one city "stealing" a basketball team from another. 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. In each case, a new arena with a favorable lease was a prerequisite for the league to sign off on the move. In each case, no overgenerous concession from the soon-to-be-abandoned city would ever have been enough to get the team to stay. Every unhappy franchise is unhappy in its own way, but every relocation plays out in almost exactly the same fashion. It always will, at least until America runs out of suckers.
The Kings have been vagabonds for longer than the NBA has existed. Twelve years in Rochester. Fifteen years in Cincinnati. Six seasons split between Kansas City and Omaha, and then seven more in just K.C. On June 8, 1983, an investment group from Sacramento purchased the Kings. The same people had tried, and failed, to buy the Pacers the previous year. Any struggling franchise would do. But from the start, the new owners insisted they had no designs on moving the team.
''These people are making it possible for this team to remain in Kansas City,'' [outgoing owner Leon] Karosen said. ''It's just that simple. I want to emphasize that we are not selling the team with the idea that it be moved. They have assured us that their goal is to provide a quality NBA operation in Kansas City with continued improvement on the playing floor as their primary goal.''
Gregg Lukinbill, who would serve as the new owners' spokesperson, hammered the point home. They would turn the team around, he promised. ''We're looking for an improved record,'' he said, ''we're looking for improved attendance and an improvement financially.''
(It should go without saying that in 2011 one of those owners would recall that the plan to move a team to Sacramento came well before the purchase of the Kings.)
A month after the purchase, a Kansas City councilman named Frank Palermo claimed that the Kings owners were formulating plans to build a temporary arena in Sacramento, so the Kings could move as soon as their Kemper Arena lease ran out after the 1984-85 season. Kings executives vehemently denied the report, with president and GM Joe Axelson offering to the Associated Press what could have been taken as a threat:
"It's unfortunate that someone who shoots from the hip as Palermo does would be the City Council's sports committee chairman. I am disappointed that I am forced to refute irresponsible statements made by Palermo in this secondhanded way. People like Palermo who sit back and say the Kings are leaving will find it a self-fulfilling prophecy if they don't wise up and try to help us instead of hurt us."
Two weeks before the start of the 1984-85 season—the Kings' last in Kansas City—the Sacramento Bee reported that 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 again denied plans to move the team, but for the first time he tied the Kings' future to their attendance, saying there would be specific targets to meet.
"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."
Lukenbill said the owners would announce those attendance targets—if the Kings could average a certain number of fans per game, the team would break even and there'd be no need to move. This attendance figure was supposed to be announced by opening day, but opening day came and went. The front office continued to promise a hard target, even as the Kings sold more tickets than they had in years. Finally, they picked Nov. 21 as the day to set the bar.
The Kings did issue a statement on Nov. 21, but no target attendance was mentioned. No attendance or income figures would be forthcoming, Lukenbill and Axelson said. Instead, the Kings would not renew their lease with the Kemper Arena, citing unfair terms. There would be no future discussions about keeping the Kings in Kansas City unless a new, more favorable lease was offered.
"If this occurs it will restore our confidence that the powers that be in Kansas City would like to retain NBA basketball," Managing Partner Gregg Lukenbill said in the statement. "We will then sit down to negotiate an extension of the lease."
A new lease would come. Kansas City offered a "generous, perhaps unprecedented" lease to keep the Kings at Kemper Arena for five more seasons. According to the Kansas City Times, it would charge the Kings just $1 a year and give them percentages of concessions and parking.
The lease offer was officially extended on Jan. 21, 1985. That very same day, the Kings filed paperwork with the NBA to move the team. Lukenbill called it "a joyous day in Sacramento." Second-year commissioner David Stern said he had "no qualms" with the announcement.
In their new home, the Kings were treated like, well, Kings. On a West Coast road trip in April, the Kings took a detour to Sacramento to see their new city. The Los Angeles Times describes the scene.
A fleet of five white limousines carried them to a practice session, where 1,800 fans were packed inside a 1,200-seat gym.
All five local television stations were there, along with dozens of radio and newspaper reporters, who busily recorded every precious moment.
The players began practice by running wind sprints while the spectators clapped in unison. During shooting drills, the fans cheered wildly.
Afterward, there was an autograph session, which guard Reggie Theus interrupted when he had to go outside for some fresh air.
"They were coming over the tables at me," Theus said.
That night, the lead story on the television newscasts was that the Kings had been in town for a day. Forward Eddie Johnson was interviewed as he took a helicopter ride over the city. Guards Larry Drew and Mike Woodson were interviewed as they dined at Burger King. LaSalle Thompson talked to a television reporter while he shopped for clothes.
Back in Kansas City, the reaction was more muted. In the first game after the Sacramento deal had been completed, just 6,228 fans showed up to Kemper Arena. The AP game story reports that "there were occasional shouts of 'Stay here' and 'We don't want to lose you,' but the crowd was otherwise quiet."
The season finale saw more venom, directly largely at GM Joe Axelson, who had repeatedly said, "I don't know what else we could have done [to stay] in Kansas City." The AP again:
11,371 people who gave a standing ovation to every player, starter and reserve, during pre-game introductions.
Several hundred wore masks that were obvious and unflattering portrayals of Axelson. A dummy made up to look like Axelson was passed around to be kicked and pummeled.
"We want fat Axe," one section shouted for several minutes. There were signs reading, "Nuke Sacramento," "Thanks for the Memories," and "Kill Axelson."
The day after the season ended, the NBA's owners voted unanimously to approve the Kings' move to Sacramento—on the condition that a new, full-sized arena be built, or the team would be relocated again. (The ARCO Arena, now Sleep Train Arena, would open in 1988.) David Stern said he was "delighted." Sacramento Kings T-shirts went on sale that morning. "I like Kansas City, but I have no great feeling of guilt about what we did," Axelson said. "I have a great feeling for the city, but Kansas City didn't support us—for whatever reason." It was the rich old suit's equivalent of slapping the backboard after a dunk.
The saga ended as these things always do, with one city heartbroken and another city elated. But two quotes during the sale's dénouement stand out as being particularly telling. Anne Rudin, then-mayor of Sacramento, was happy to have the Kings, but she had seen enough of the process to realize there was no guarantee it wouldn't happen again. She told the Christian Science Monitor:
"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.''
Then there's Joe Axelson, who had been instrumental in moving the Kings first from Cincinnati and then from Kansas City. Axelson, who retired in 1988 and died in 2008, was convinced that Sacramento was the last stop for a nomadic franchise.
"We have a new building and a new team in a city that never had one. It can't miss."
In 1985, spurred by the Kings deal—and the Clippers leaving San Diego, and the Colts leaving Baltimore, and the Cardinals considering a move to Arizona—Congress sought to address the issue of franchise movement. Twin bills were submitted before the House and the Senate that would require all professional sports franchises to gain the approval of a federal arbitration board before relocating. Executives from the NBA, the NFL, and MLB appeared before a Senate committee to argue against the bills.
David Stern was one of those testifying. "It is the leagues themselves," Stern said, "and not the federal government or a regulatory board, that are best suited to weigh the variety of competing considerations and balance the numerous relevant factors involved in a proposed relocation." The bill never made it to a vote.