The lines snaking out from the Crest Theatre extended halfway down K Street, past clubs and restaurants, amused bystanders, and two light-rail platforms. It was a full hour before the Sacramento premiere of Down In The Valley, a new entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, and yet the street was already aswarm with fans and local celebrities.
Barbara “Sign Lady” Rust was there with a trademark custom sign reading “Sacramento’s done it ALL, to keep NBA BASKETBALL.” Carmichael Dave, a local radio host heavily featured in the documentary, showed up rocking Kings purple. But no ESPN representatives were there to celebrate the project; Michelle Rhee was not seen; and no Kings representatives were seen basking in the glow of their team’s supposed salvation, save mascot Slamson.
ESPN announced hours before last night’s premiere that it had postponed the October 20 broadcast of Down In The Valley, citing “a renewed focus on certain issues,” by which it meant the broadening public awareness of sexual abuse allegations made against Kevin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, whom the film celebrates. A source told our Dave McKenna that the movie was “on the ropes.” Everyone seemed to be fleeing from the project—except Kevin Johnson. Even if this would be the only time the show would ever run, the show, if the mayor had anything to do with it, would go on.
Ben Sosenko, press secretary to the Sacramento mayor’s office, corralled the media together about 10 minutes before Johnson showed up. He told us, briefly, what he wanted us to ask Johnson about. This was always supposed to be a victory lap for him and the other key figures in getting Sacramento to pay a quarter of a billion dollars in public funds for a new stadium, and they wanted to keep it that way. The mayor, we were told, only wanted to talk about the contents of Down In The Valley—not the quarantine in which ESPN had placed the movie, and certainly not the consistent pattern of women accusing him of sexual abuse. It didn’t work out for them.
Kevin Johnson, when he turned up, was repeatedly asked about the abuse allegations. He evaded every hard question and threw back only circumspect talking points. The only elaboration he gave was on whether or not he will seek a third mayoral term, and he gave the same defense as ever to questions about his alleged abuse of a teenager, which is, in summary, that people accuse you of all kinds of stuff when you’re famous. He didn’t want to talk about it, but he never broke his practiced calm. It was quite a performance:
When he was done, Johnson went onto the purple carpet that had been rolled out for him, and into the theatre. The only media members allowed into the movie were those featured in the documentary: Kings broadcaster Grant Napear, Carmichael Dave, and Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton.
With ESPN and the team going out of their way to avoid Johnson, and the network non-committal at best on the question of whether the movie will ever actually air, the people who watched the movie at the Crest may well end up being some of the very few people who will ever see it. Major players are, rather publicly and for the first time, openly balking at supporting Kevin Johnson. And yet there he was last night, celebrating like he’d saved the team all over again.
“There’s nothing and no one who can rain on this parade,” he said.
The movie is not exclusively about Johnson, although he is cast as an outright messianic figure who saved Sacramento from becoming another washed-out Central Valley ghost town. Down In The Valley opens with a short biographical sketch of him. His chief of staff Kunal Merchant has as much interview time as anyone in the movie. The process of keeping the Kings in Sacramento was about more than Johnson’s negotiations with David Stern and the NBA’s board of governors, but the movie’s central argument that Sacramento is worth a damn and deserved to keep its team crucially hinges on Johnson’s charisma and work ethic as central factors. He is the star of the piece.
The press got questions in, the mayor deflected them, and if you didn’t keep an eye on who was supposed to be there and wasn’t, the whole thing might have looked and felt a little more like a celebration than a funeral. Slamson borrowed someone’s bike and took a few laps around the bemused crowd of onlookers. Important Sacramentans wore evening gowns and nice suits. It may be that pretty much no one other than the 1,000 or so attendees will ever get to see Down In The Valley, but Kevin Johnson isn’t the type to miss a chance to throw himself a party.
Photos by the author.