On September 16, 2011, a few days after returning home from Tennessee, where he exchanged wedding vows with Michelle Rhee in a rainy outdoor ceremony, Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, was on a speakerphone with David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association. The conversation was similar to many discussions by the two men. The topic was a new arena for Sacramento.
Stern wanted to know how Johnson would pay for the arena, and how much money the city of Sacramento would contribute. Stern was looking for a big number. He was obsessed with taxpayer contributions for arenas. His goal was to maximize the public funding and reduce the dollars expected from the owners of the Sacramento Kings. Stern was an expert in arena financing and Johnson was an amateur. But the commissioner was determined to help the mayor build a new facility in Sacramento, no matter what it cost the city.
In this way, Stern’s position toward Sacramento was paradoxical. He was keen to see the city keep its NBA team. Yet he needed assurance that Sacramento was willing to pay for the privilege. Nobody rides free in the NBA.
There were other cities and easier paths, but Stern was patient. Without a new building, without substantial arena funds from the city, the Kings would move away, leaving California’s capital without a major league sports franchise. David Stern didn’t want that. The commissioner, more than the mayor, more than the people who owned the Kings, more than almost everybody other than the region’s most passionate basketball fans, wanted the Kings to stop their wanderings and find a permanent home in Sacramento.