Sacramento’s Fight to Keep Kings Is About More Than One City Trying to Keep Team From Moving Away

Kevin JohnsonKevin Johnson is not fighting a losing battle. He is fighting a lost battle, from the looks of it. Despite the best efforts by Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, the Kings look increasingly likely to bid farewell to California’s state capital this year and rob the city of its only major league sports team.

That inevitability became apparent this week when the Kings formally filed for permission from the league to relocate. The filing puts the organization just one up-and-down vote by the league’s owners away from moving to Seattle, where an investment group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wish to transfer the team once their purchase from the Maloof family is complete. Johnson will be given an opportunity to present a counterproposal to the NBA, but the league’s board of governors has never blocked a relocation petition.

Ladies and gentlemen, your (future) Seattle Supersonics.

The futility of Johnson’s exercise doesn’t mean that this is a battle not worth fighting, however. Even if Sacramento’s last-ditch efforts to save its beloved NBA franchise fails, the quest is a noble one to which all sports fans should pay attention.

For fans of teams from non-glamour markets, relocation is a constant threat that can be wielded by unscrupulous owners. No matter what Utahns may have thought of the late Larry H. Miller or his son Greg Miller personally, there has to be a very real appreciation for the elder Miller’s efforts to keep a professional franchise in Salt Lake City, arguably the most unglamorous market of them all.

When Greg Miller and Karl Malone got into a minor tiff last year over how the organization has treated the Hall of Fame forward in his retirement, fans’ hearts might have sided with the two-time league Most Valuable Player they cheered for 18 years. Their heads, though, had to back Miller. He is the boss, and he holds ultimate power — even, if he so desired, to sell or move the team at his leisure. So far he has not, and Jazz fans must be thankful for that.

Debating whether this is right or wrong is useless. This is no morality play. In a world of golden parachutes and slaps on the hand after major financial violations, the Maloofs have not surprisingly found a way to compensate themselves for some of their boneheaded business decisions while screwing over the people of Sacramento.

Rather than roll over and let it happen, though, Johnson is doing his best to keep hope alive for Sacramentans. He came out swiftly after the news last month that the Kings had been sold, declaring that this was not the end of the story even though everyone else assumed it was. Numerous economic studies have shown that professional sports have no tangible benefit for a city. Yet an emotional feature aired on NBA TV earlier this week profiling a pair of blind sisters, who regularly pass through the turnstiles at Sleep Train Arena despite never having “seen” a Kings game, served as a reminder that sports can have an impact in other ways.

Full disclosure: There is no professional athlete I have ever admired as much as Johnson. He was the reason my bedroom in Weymouth was adorned with Phoenix Suns paraphernalia, and his baseline dunk on Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 4 of the 1994 Western Conference Semifinals will forever be one of the top sports moments I have witnessed. Has was basically the first professional athlete to actually found a school, St. HOPE Academy, which was a noble endeavor in spite of some controversies surrounding it.

I have no personal connection to Sacramento or the Kings, but I have never rooted for Johnson harder than I am now, because he is not just fighting for his city’s team. He is showing any other owner who dreams of moving to greener pastures that a beloved sports team is more than business venture to legions of fans who have agonized and exulted through the team’s fortunes over the years. He is fighting for anyone who has ever paid way more than they should have to for a ticket and a hot dog, and all they expected in return was a few hours in which they and thousands of strangers around them could share some hometown pride.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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