Email exchange: Tom Ziller on the Kings, relocation, and secular churches

Tom Ziller is the NBA Editor at SB Nation as well as the editor of Sacramento Kings blog Sactown Royalty. He joined me for a discussion about his beloved Kings, the threat of relocation, and the use of public funds and government intervention to support private sports franchises.

Beckley: Well Tom, I’m not sure whether you’ve heard anything about this, but Sacramento is on the NBA city chopping block. As the Maloofs drunkenly wield the razor-sharp cleaver above their heads, I wonder if they can pull it together enough to bring down the blade and abruptly sever the city from the franchise (without first lopping off their own noggins). Because that’s what they want, right? To cut their losses and their connection to the league’s 21st smallest media market (by TV eyeballs).

I don’t mean to be cruel. Well, maybe a little. As you know my fanhood was irreparably maimed three years ago when, Clay Bennett– with assistance from David Stern (loving), from Howard Schultz (perhaps unwitting) and the City of Seattle– clear cut the 41 year old franchise leaving us all with dead roots rotting in our deep, dark, dank, souls. A little melodramatic? I’m the old guy in the corner with a peg leg and a belly full of salt water and moonshine, assuring you that you don’t want this life, son.

But as you may be finding out, it’s not up to you, the whipped fan. As a long-term decision, there’s no way the NBA will be a more prosperous league with a team in Oklahoma City rather than Seattle. Seattle has more, wealthier fans, a rich tradition, and me. The NBA could have bought the team to prevent it from moving, as they did in New Orleans, but my sob story is the result of a power play to inform cities that if they wouldn’t pay for stadiums in which millionaires and billionaires could make big money, teams would vanish. In that sense, perhaps it was a worthwhile business decision.

In your case, it seems the only thing holding this move back is the owners own incompetence. If they hadn’t blown all their cash in Vegas, wouldn’t the team already be in Orange County?

I suppose there’s the small issue of the Lakers and Clippers, but those are all outside factors. I guess my question, at the end of this, is: why have you put so many fervent posts into pumping up the fan base, the Here We Stay campaign, all of it? I’m breathing proof that even diehard fans are powerless to impose their will on machinery of NBA ownership (here’s where you note that the people of Seattle voted not to use public funds for a new stadium).

Why are you fighting so hard, don’t you know we’re all, ultimately, rather meaningless?

Vote Johnson!

Vote Kevin Johnson!

Tom: I think the key difference between Sacramento 2011 and Seattle 2006-08, and the reason our fans’ voice has been heard and worth hearing, is that we have a political leader in place who not only cares about being an NBA city but is passionate about being an NBA city. Kevin Johnson grew up in a minor-league Sacramento, where there were no Kings. KJ remembers Sacramento as cultural backwater, and jokes aside, the Kings and the NBA have given this city more prestige than anything else. That’s a funny way to look at it, especially considering the best Kings player ever to actually be from Sacramento is Matt Barnes; it’s not like the city itself has created the basketball genius that was for a period the Kings.

But we did create a certain segment of the Kings basketball machine of the glory era (1998-2004); that era is synonymous with cowbells and a raucous ARCO Arena. As such, we helped create and fuel the monster, and as fans we’ve received commendation from across the globe. That commendation means something to an otherwise globally anonymous city better known for crooked railroad politics than substance.

KJ understands that, that having a major sports team helps Sacramento beyond dollars and cents. He understands what it means to kids to be able to go see LeBron and Kobe and Dirk and D-Rose once a year, or once every couple years. He went without, and he realizes the value of keeping them, and he joined with fans to fight the move. It was an impossible struggle for all of us — David Stern sounded pretty resolute at All-Star Weekend, right? — but thanks to his leadership and the fans’ relentless passion, we won a stay of execution.

Seattle’s Sonics fans had the passion, but the mayor’s office not only failed to help the cause, but in the end actively sold out the cause. Huge difference, one that could make the difference.

Beckley: All true. Having legislative support that isn’t focused solely on the cost of building a stadium will be huge. If the Kings survive in Sacramento, Kevin Johnson should be mayor for life. By the way, is he good at the other parts of mayoring? Would keeping the Kings keep him elected? The Seattle politicians who helped vote down any movement to pay to keep the team (at the behest, at least in part, of their constituency), got the boot pretty shortly after it all went down.

You talk about the sense of pride that Sacramento derives from being in the elite company of cities that have a professional sports team. That there’s a sense of community, and even nostalgia built into rooting for the Kings. For many, sports come to replace other temples of worship. There’s a ritualistic quality to the walk from the parking lot to the stadium, standing in line with other people wearing the same colors, invested in the same purpose. There’s an communal worship of a power beyond our understanding (like DeMarcus Cousins’ drop step), the sense that everyone is on the same side, the right side.

Some people don’t understand what that’s worth. I don’t either, but I know it’s worth something. Losing the Sonics wasn’t like finding out Santa is a desperate guy in a rented suit, it’s like finding out Jesus actually kneed Judas in the nads at the Last Supper.

From where I sit, I’m jealous of your hope, but also all too aware that your city will survive without an NBA team, and I don’t like the continued precedent of the NBA can strong-arming Cali’s capital into forking over the public cash for a private business. But religions aren’t supposed to be rational, right?

Tom: That’s a good point I hadn’t considered, that just as we have human interests and place emotional values on various things in our world, having major league sports can be applied that rationale. I’m a numbers guy when it comes to sports, so I always cringe when reading about how arenas may not actually help local economies thrive. But I do think they do something for the psyche of a people; consider a new Kings arena my David Eckstein. It’s got heart, it’s a grinder. Intangibles galore.

KJ’s mayorship has been interesting in that he is so completely divisive. He pushed for a “strong mayor” system that would give him and future mayors more decision-making latitude and decrease the importance of the city council; that bid failed spectacularly, and while he’s helped remake the council through the endorsement process, it doesn’t look like it’ll be on the ballot any time soon. He’s also struggled to fulfill promises to pump up downtown, but the awful economy can be blamed there. If this thing gets built, he’ll be more popular than ever and I think the momentum will keep him in office for another term at least (he’s up in 2012). Even if it doesn’t, it won’t be owned as his failure; I think he’s built a lot of goodwill already.

Beckley: Tom! You’re a self-proclaimed rationalist, yet you can’t resist the power of the Kings. It occurs to me that politicians use emotional issues and arguments that overwhelm even thoughtful, reasonable people like yourself. I’m not saying that phenomenon is at work here, or comparing loving the Kings with hating evolution, but I do find it interesting that KJ’s signature movement, from what I gather, probably won’t bring the city a much needed economic boost. Is this a bit of bread and circuses?

Ach! Don’t let me too big of a downer. People find their temples in many forms, and for me and you and millions of other people, NBA basketball is just that. But aren’t church and state separated for a reason?

I’m ambivalent about whether cities can be said to “need” or “deserve” teams. If the Kings franchise someday ends up in Seattle, I’m not going to feel bad…or that bad.

But for now, good luck. It may not make financial sense, but I don’t begrudge you hoping your city hangs on to its team, even if it’s at the cost of education, or roads, or whatever. Who needs those when you’re watching Vlade dropping backdoor bounce passes to a cutting Doug Christie? Or you at least own those memories in perpetuity. They can take those, too.

Tom: That’s a gross misconception I’m learning it’s difficult to fight, that money that goes to an arena is money being taken from schools or roads. It’s not, at least in Sacramento’s case, because the funding is being created with user fees at the new arena, increasing parking revenue, maybe a tax increment district for the surrounding businesses that will most benefit. I mean, AEG doesn’t go around funding and operating high schools, you know? Completely different galaxies of money at work.

Overcoming misconceptions like that is one of the harder aspects of arena-building, and another reason why having a passionate politician in place is so vital. KJ has a helluva bully pulpit to explain his plan. All I know is that getting an arena and keeping the Kings is important to me and a lot of other people in this city, and if it can be funded privately and with fee mechanisms that won’t touch the uninterested public that never uses the arena or benefits from its impact on downtown? I’m on board 100 percent.

Twitter: @TeamZiller / @BeckleyMason

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