When I trusted the Maloofs*

Jed Jacobsohn - Getty Images

An essay on the gray area between love and hate, on misfired anger and the end of all suffering.

I'm not sure anyone in Sacramento has ever fully trusted the Maloofs, and that is why the headline of this essay has an asterisk. In modern sports, truly trusting an out-of-town owner of your favorite small-market team is naive at best, foolish at worst. Particularly when that team is based in a city like Sacramento that, though lovely, is not exactly known for its glamour, and when those owners, the Maloofs, though eager and seemingly sincere, have the profile of jet-setting party boys who need cameras on them to feel alive. The mix is volatile. This is why wannabe actresses don't move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The personal goals and reality don't work together.

But for so long we trusted the Maloofs to a non-negligible degree: the team won, the arena was packed, the economy was doing well. The bottom fell out of all three around the same time: 2007. The team fell apart. The economy tanked. The fans stopped selling out ARCO. At the end of 2006, the Maloofs had a role in tanking an otherwise decent set of ballot measures (which frankly were unlikely to pass given the lack of community leadership on the issue at the time) to fund a new arena. That ballot tanking -- which might have been as much about oil-and-water Maloofs-and-Sacramento as it was a bit of greed on parking -- coincided with the Carl's Jr. $6,000 burger ad that really riled up a subset of the local population.

Even after that, for many of us, the trust wasn't cracked. Just called into question. I offer as proof the comment thread (and post) on occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Maloofs' purchase of the team.

[A]nyone who has been around longer than 10 years understands just how much the Maloofs helped this franchise by rescuing it from the previous ownership. ... The Maloofs have made some unfortunate steps, but in total have been by far the greatest ownership team the Sacramento Kings have ever had. Joe and Gavin, in particular, are great, accessible, passionate owners who deserve our kudos.

That was me, a little over three years ago.

Now I'm organizing FTM Night.

[A quick word on FTM Night: somewhere along the way, some folks got the idea that FTM Night was meant to fully express our anger at the Maloofs for what's happened in Sacramento. But anyone who has followed Sactown Royalty for at least a year or so knows that we deal with anger in a slightly different way than society at large: we get really sarcastic and goofy, not GRARry. Some commenter opposed to FTM Night wrote in some thread that we were encouraging people to go to the arena and yell "F--- the Maloofs!" and whatnot. NO. We're dealing with this in the same way we dealt with Paul Westphal's shenanigans and the John Salmons trade and all of that: by making jokes. That's why it's Fans Thank Maloofs Night. We're flipping our anger sideways and expressing it in riddle, albeit loosely-coded riddle. That's also why I was so disappointed in the Kings' decision -- and it was the Kings' decision, not the Maloofs' decision, though an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty obviously play a role in any controversial decision -- to bar Greg from training camp. That just added fuel to the idea that this is some sort of revolt or uprising against the team. It's more like a real life GIF thread at the arena, using the Maloofs -- who are currently on track to move our team -- as the butt of the jokes. We encouraged fans to show up to a mid-week game against a mid-rung East team. We did ask people to avoid parking at the arena if possible and to cut out concessions -- that's what they say got us booted from training camp, by the way: asking people not to spend $8 on a beer -- but we wanted fans to show up. Many commenters said they were planning on sitting out the season in protest, but instead will attend this one game. The idea was not to hurt the Maloofs' balance sheet. It was to convince fans who otherwise refuse to give money to the Maloofs to come to a game for a cause, however silly or petty it might be. But the translation was bad (which is my fault) and the Kings in addition to some readers saw this in the worst light possible. So now things are weirder than they need to be. Dammit.]

The question of how we got here doesn't even need to be asked. We're here because we as fans want one thing -- a long-term commitment to Sacramento by the Kings -- and the Maloofs appear to want the opposite. Where they lost me is not in their self-interested desire for flexibility, maximized profit and authority. That's all, at least, understandable: sports are business. We don't hate the player that takes a bigger offer in another city. Perhaps the same should apply to owners, though the issues of choice (as in, owners buy a team rooted in a location, whereas players are drafted) and timeline (less than a decade for players, several decades for teams) complicate matters. But even if you could square that up and think of teams as we think of free agents, the lying, the cowardice, the repeatedly two-faced lack of honesty -- that's what killed the trust. That's what severed my belief in the Maloofs once and for all.

***

Back in 2009, I don't think the Maloofs had straight-up lied to us about relocation. They were open about the need for a new arena, about the financial ramifications of being stuck in ARCO. There was some goofy negotiation around Q & R in 2006, but most of us had moved past that by 2009 and 2010. When the Cal Expo plan fell apart, we understand why: the same ol' local lack of vision and respect for community interest over each man's own fiefdom. And frankly, I like to think that even when the NBA's Cal Expo plan failed and when David Stern announced that the Maloofs were talking to Anaheim and when it became clear that everything was going right to Hell on the express train -- I like to think that even then we responded with reason, with passion and with no small measure of trust.

This was 2011. Last year. Right when all of that was happening, I wrote this open letter to Joe and Gavin Maloof. The brothers we knew. The brothers who lived and died on every shot, the brothers who were cool -- I mean, Playboy Club, Hardwood Suite and $6,000 burgers, right? -- but weren't too cool to act like us at ARCO. Last year. Last year we were all trying to understand each other, trying to trust each other.

The trust was finally broken, ironically, on Fan Appreciation Night: April 13, 2011. The Maloofs and Kevin Johnson would both be presenting their cases -- the Maloofs for relocation to Anaheim, the mayor for another year in Sacramento -- to the NBA Board of Governors in New York the next day. The Maloofs can never boast enough about their commitment to their customers. But it was, by all accounts, the cheapest, most shoddy Fan Appreciation Night ever. The mayor booked a red eye to New York so that he could attend part of the game, potentially the final game in Sacramento Kings history. The Maloofs did not. They were already in New York when the game tipped off. And if they were watching carefully, they'd have noticed two people wearing Lakers gear in their familiar courtside seats. (One of the brothers later angrily refuted that they'd given their tickets to friends who were Lakers fans, and blamed an unnamed staffer for letting them get into Lakers fans' hands. The whole situation remains a mystery.) Jerry Reynolds and Grant Napear closed the broadcast with tears, we closed the season sobbing, Carmichael Dave climbed a ladder and a few thousand fans stayed with him, and the Maloofs weren't there, and the Maloofs weren't really seeing what we were saying to them.

In the ensuing weeks, the Maloofs abandoned Sacramento ... truly. They treated Sacramento media like paparazzi. They angrily responded to any mention of the possibility of selling the team to owners who'd keep the Kings in Sacramento. They went forward with their Anaheim plan while KJ took their lunch in the court of NBA opinion. How the Maloofs engaged with Sacramento during that painful period was by not engaging at all. They tortured us with indecision, waiting until the last moment in May to make a decision on whether to file for relocation.

In the end, they decided to stay. The obvious read was that they didn't want to test Stern's resolve to give Sacramento one more chance. But the Maloofs played it differently: as a great gift given to the Kings' fans in Sacramento, as proof that the Maloofs cared more about Sacramento than money, as proof that despite just basically working out a deal to leave immediately, the Kings were in Sacramento to stay. It was bizarre how vigilant the Maloofs were about insisting that this meant they still loved Sacramento and we should love them, too. We're not babies. We'd responded to previous developments maturely. We're not idiots. We understood the concept of self-interest ... hell, of self-preservation. But the Maloofs insisted on selling us wolf tickets. As if they had done us a favor ...

... while, in the press release announcing the decision, they had included a threat to move the following year if Sacramento didn't present a viable arena plan. The rest of the history is so fresh as to not need recounting: the city presented a viable plan (with the NBA in full agreement), the Maloofs dragged it out over All-Star Weekend to earn some last-minute concessions from AEG, the city and the NBA, the Maloofs agreed to the deal in some fashion, talked about how much they love Sacramento, raised their arms in victory at center court with KJ and preceded to tank the deal with what has been shown to be nothing other than ridiculous demands. The coup de grace was George Maloof's stunning decision to hold a press conference attacking Sacramento as a sports market, destroying the city's plan and telling the world that it should trust him, because he's a developer.

A developer who lost all but 2 percent of the family's ownership in The Palms. A developer whose mistakes forced the family to sell their patriarch's cornerstone business, the New Mexico beer and spirits distributorship. "Trust me, I'm a developer." When I look at George Maloof's face, trust is the last thing I want to offer. (By a country mile.) He preceded to tell Sacramento that the Maloofs are committed to staying here. To renovating ARCO. (They have not moved an inch on that idea, according to reports.) Committed to Sacramento. So committed that it's ridiculous to ask them to actually commit on paper. So committed that you might as well stop asking if they're committed, because dammit they have said they are committed. Trust them.

I don't trust that because I remember what the Maloofs didn't do on April 13, 2011, and I don't trust that because I remember what the Maloofs did do on April 13, 2012. I don't believe a word George said about the Sacramento market -- we know what he said about Sacramento is wrong. Not a word he said about the arena plan, because if he felt how he did about the arena's viability all along, he never would have shook hands on the blueprint. The trust I had in the Maloof family and its intentions cracked for good when they forgot about their customers on April 13, 2011, and it shattered forever when they tore down their customers on April 13, 2012.

And the Maloofs still act as if everything should be rosy. They don't acknowledge our right to be upset, offended or skeptical. The Kings (owners or staff) can't address the remarkable difficulty this season will pose for the team's customers, one where disgust and entertainment meet, inevitably set to "Gangnam Style." For the first decade of the Maloofs' ownership of the Kings, we could reasonably say that the owners and the fans were moving in the same direction, with the same goal. That's not plausible any longer. It can't be true.

That's why FTM is such a common refrain, and that's why FTM Night will be held on November 7. My role in all of this is my acknowledgment that I can no longer trust the Maloofs, that I won't be writing open letters reminding them of our similarities, that the damage is basically irreparable not by choice, but by the exact circumstances we find ourselves in. I don't want to dislike the family, and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt -- the two old posts I link above should prove that. But it's impossible. And a normal, healthy relationship between Sacramento and the Kings is impossible until the Maloofs are out of the picture.

I don't pretend to think I have any role in what happens next -- that's why I find every comment indicating that this thing or that thing will lead to relocation absolutely baffling and hilarious. As if that train needs help getting down the tracks. As if six people and six people only -- George, Joe, Gavin, Adrienne, Phil and Colleen -- don't control the team's fate. If we are individually helpless, we can only make progress together. FTM Night is my attempt to preserve community in the face of Sacramento's fracturing on this topic, on how we as a fan base and a city respond to this unbelievably weird situation. We have Team Boycott and Team Sellouts, and we have lots of folks in between, and FTM Night is meant to bridge those factions and let the people in the middle hold hands with partisans and scream out to the world, "HEY, WORLD. LOOK AT US. WE ARE SACRAMENTO KINGS FANS, AND THIS S--T IS NOT OKAY. IT'S NOT OKAY." That's the goal.

And that's why we're where we are.

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