Shaquille O’Neal’s Ownership Stake in Kings Far From Biggest Reason Franchise Has Hope for Future

ShaqHe will cannonball into Sacramento, dubbing himself something like “The Big Investor” and promising to reform DeMarcus Cousins. People will laugh and jokes about Charles Barkley‘s weight will be made and much merriment will be had by all.

Once the dust settles, though, the real work on turning around the Kings will have very little to do with Shaquille O’Neal.

O’Neal said all the right, entertaining things in talking with USA Today about his new minority ownership stake in the Sacramento Kings, the NBA franchise that came so close to becoming the new Seattle Supersonics. He called himself “Dr. O’Neal” because he has a doctorate — which he earned — and noted that the worst-ranked franchise in sports “can’t get no worser.” He was entertaining, as he often is, and if nothing else the news of his involvement gave the Kings free publicity in the pages of a national newspaper in the middle of September.

Make no mistake, there is real promise for the Kings in Sacramento, but not because of O’Neal. Oh, maybe he has a small role in that hope. The fact that there is even an NBA team in the city for him in which to invest is a start. Still, the people at the top of the ownership ledger are the ones who should give the local fans the greatest sense of confidence.

Vivek Ranadive, Ron Burkle and Mark Mastrov each has more impressive business chops than the Maloof family, without the obvious misguided sense of entitlement. Ranadive is a Wall Street tech guru who develops and manages a bunch of software that sounds like it was used on SeaQuest DSV. Burkle is at the top of the food chain, literally, at a number of large food stores and suppliers. Mastrov assured that legions of bros around the country can sculpt their guns any time of day at his 24-Hour Fitness locations, and for that our bi’s and tri’s thank him.

With that trio at the helm, the Kings were surprised to see ESPN recently rank them as the worst franchise in sports. It was not a tongue-in-cheek characterization, like Keith Olbermann‘s “Worst Person in Sports,” either. Ranadive dismissively called it a dated list, quipping “who wants to read yesterday’s newspaper?” but the ranking clearly burned. After all the speeches and rallies by Sacramentans to save their team, exuberance has been slower to catch on outside the area.

What ESPN actually had to say about the Kings’ new ownership group, however, was not nearly so damning.

“The Sacramento Kings landed at No. 122 overall in our rankings — and deservedly so,” Peter Keating wrote. “On May 31, however, software magnate Vivek Ranadive bought the club (in a deal that valued the Kings at an NBA-record $534 million), liberating the franchise from the Maloof family, which had let it rot for years while plotting to relocate the franchise to Vegas, Anaheim or Seattle.

“Now Ranadive, with help from Sactown mayor (and former star NBA point guard) Kevin Johnson, will keep the team in California’s state capital. He’s got nowhere to go but up, and we say: Good luck.”

In other words, ESPN likes what it sees from the new ownership group, too — and those rankings were made before the extent of O’Neal’s involvement was known. Whether O’Neal stomps through the door, works with Cousins and buries the hatchet with fans who grew up hating him will be extremely minor, on balance, than what Ranadive and company claim to have in store for the organization.

Of course, Ranadive, Burkle and Mastrov do not come without their critics. A vocal group of residents is trying to force a vote on the $448 million arena plan that would include a reported $258 million public subsidy, and it is tough not to side with that group. Given the choice between not having a professional sports team and having one that costs a city millions, the latter seems sort of attractive.

This is where O’Neal’s value comes into focus. No matter how much the Lakers’ three straight playoff series victories over the Kings from 2000 to 2002 may sting Kings fans, O’Neal remains well-liked among the general public. A shocking percentage of young, American adult males recognize O’Neal more than the average celebrity — 70 percent to 29 percent, according to USA Today — so when he speaks, even without substance, they listen. His presence could come in handy when the debate starts heating up. Who are viewers more likely to side with, the angry voter wielding a picket sign or the lovable former All-Star quoting his new slogan for Sacramento’s arena: “Woo-Wee!”?

Big things are ahead for the Kings in Sacramento, and wherever big things have happened in the past, O’Neal has not been far away. This time, he won’t be leading the way, just going along for the ride. But he’ll be right there where everyone can see him, larger than life and louder than any of his supporters or detractors. He still is Shaq, after all.

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

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