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Scott Howard-Cooper

Mayor Kevin Johnson (left) and Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof need each other more than ever now.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson: Sacramento down to final shot to keep Kings in town

Posted Jul 21 2011 11:32AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Kevin Johnson, the mayor of an NBA-mad city about to lose its team, was privately targeting a replacement team last season for Sacramento, even identifying top candidates: the Hornets, the Hawks, the Pistons, all vulnerable, he thought, to be looted in the same way Anaheim was about to grab the Kings.

Johnson has been a realist throughout his city's bid to retain the Kings, a role that has served him as well as the role of head cheerleader. He plotted the response strike last spring. He declared the decades-long romance between the team and the town all but over in the closing days of the regular season. (The Kings had, in fact, decided to leave. Only the inability of Anaheim to close the deal kept the team in Northern California for next season and provided one final chance to find funding for a new arena.)

And now Johnson knows this: that if the Kings leave after this one final push, the NBA probably isn't returning, the way it went back to Charlotte and could still be lured back to Seattle.

The mayor saying that this is Sacramento's last stand is not shocking. What is interesting is that the message comes from the biggest glass offices at league HQ, too, Johnson told

"I'm going to say that commissioner (David) Stern has told me in no uncertain terms," Johnson said, "that it would be very difficult -- 'Your best bet is to try to figure out how to make it happen while you have 'em here, and that's building a facility. If you don't have a facility, your chances of keeping or getting a team are going to be nil to none.' "

Nil to none. Somewhere between zero and zero.

That means a new tact going forward: No backup plan. No fresh attempt to get the Maloof family to sell to billionaire political power player Ron Burkle, or anyone else dripping money. No updated try at marrying an interested party with the Hornets or any other team.

So it's time for Johnson and the Maloofs to mend fences now that they need each other all over again. It's the Kings or nothing here, and it's going down as Sacramento against itself.

If the money comes in this economy, from private funding and public financing, if about a decade's worth of setbacks ranging from the debated location of an arena to the obvious question of exactly what part of the sky hundreds of millions of dollars will be falling from are settled, the franchise stays, just as Stern has wanted all along.

Same owners, same team.

"Scenario 1," Johnson called it. "We build a facility, Kings stay, owners stay."

There is no other alternative. There is no more time. Burkle or Larry Ellison can want to buy a team all they want, but the Maloofs have steadfastly demonstrated this one is not for sale. There are no more franchises to approach about playing in a new building in a few years. The NBA has grown more hesitant about going into a small market with little prominent corporate support.

"No," Johnson said in a city hall interview at almost the exact moment the league released the 2011-12 schedule. "There's not a backup plan because we control our own destiny. In those other scenarios (last season), the Kings were making a choice and we had to react to what they did. Right now, if we build it, then they will stay here. If we can't figure out a way to build it, they're going to potentially leave and I will be back in trying to figure it out. But I've still got to build a facility or nobody's going to come anyway."

The Sacramento native and former Suns All-Star point guard -- who braced people for the Kings' departure and who was kept out of the loop on plans by the Maloofs -- now says the city has an "excellent" chance to keep its only major-league franchise. That is overly optimistic -- an obscene amount of money has to suddenly appear when it hasn't before -- but there is a good chance the team stays. Coming so close to losing it a few months ago created a scared-straight effect. Fans and civic and business leaders were marshaled into action, putting immense pressure on local government to find a solution.

These definitely are not the dark days of late in the regular season anymore. There is new momentum to get an arena deal done.

But Johnson and the people of Sacramento have to act now. Because it's more clear than ever that if they can't somehow keep the Kings, the chances of Sacramento ever getting another NBA team lie somewhere between nil and none.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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