Viewpoints: Once loved by city, Maloofs are now reviled

By Doug Elmets From the Sacramento Bee - May 16, 2013

In the beginning, it was hard to tell which of the lovebirds was more passionate.

Was it Sacramento, giddy over the arrival of a charismatic, deep-pocketed suitor committed to revitalizing the city's beleaguered but still beloved basketball team?

Or was it the Maloofs, whose ardor poured forth as they sunk millions into charitable efforts, signed autographs all over town, purchased local homes, and cheered lustily for their revitalized Kings from courtside seats?

Either way, both partners fell hard, and the relationship seemed to have all the right ingredients. There was love. There was loyalty. There was mutual respect.

And then there wasn't.

Fifteen years after the Fraternal Order of Maloofs entered our midst and became heroic rescuers of our Kings, the city-family partnership has truly run aground. We will survive, hopefully with our basketball team in the hands of a less dysfunctional, more sincere ownership group.

But the Maloofs? Their reputation is in tatters.

Reviled in the town that once embraced them, they are widely mistrusted within NBA circles as well. In the national sports media, they are treated as villains. Even their family name – once associated with a hard-working father who built a fortune from a Coors beer distributorship – is now a joke. The Urban Dictionary defines "maloofed" as the condition of being abused "by a person of low intelligence and/or overinflated sense of importance."

Considering the lofty perch the family once held in these parts, theirs has been a head-spinning fall from grace. So what lessons can be learned from this epic tumble?

Trust is a precious gift, not something to be risked at the craps table.

If the Maloof saga demonstrates nothing else, it proves that Sacramentans are a loyal and forgiving bunch. Through years of arena ups and downs, through multiple seasons of talent-short teams playing dispirited basketball, through perennial episodes of uncertainty about whether the Kings would stay or go, the people remained true to their team.

Sure, the 19 sellout seasons are partly about diehard fans demonstrating their love of the sport. But beyond that, the region displayed unwavering patience and optimism that maybe, just maybe, the billionaire boys would stop leading us on and ditching us at the altar.

As we all know now, that faith was misplaced, and even the truest of true believers have concluded we've been misled. The Maloofs had our trust – year in, year out – and they threw it away. It's no secret why they are persona non grata in town today.

Arrogance is a losing strategy.

As part of the 2006 arena deal to be financed by a sales tax increase, the Maloofs proposed that the surrounding area be dubbed the Maloof Sports and Entertainment District, and suggested that other businesses in the zone pay them a fee to locate there. Really?!

During the same campaign, which asked voters to dig in their pockets to help finance the new arena, the brothers appeared in a Carl's Jr. television ad, shot at their glitzy casino, munching burgers and swilling a $6,000 bottle of wine. The message on screen – "Net worth: $1 billion" – did not go over well, even if subsequent events, including the loss of a controlling interest in their beloved Palms casino, proved the claim may have been overzealous spin.

Those incidents were telling, but by no means the only indications that the Maloofs believe they are different – dare I say better? – than the rest of us.

How about last year, when Mayor Kevin Johnson helped put together a $390 million deal for an arena in the downtown railyard, vetted by the NBA, only to see the Maloofs back out at the 11th hour?

How about the flirtations with Virginia Beach, then the courtship with Seattle, all conducted in secret, giving Sacramento no opportunity to take part?

Or, in this latest schizophrenic dance with the Seattle investment group, how about the Maloof "ultimatums" and threats to sell Hansen 20 percent of the team if the original deal is denied? Arrogance, spite, call it what you want, but it is no way to treat a city that once embraced you like native sons.

Owners of sports franchises are civic leaders.

Owning a sports team is not like owning a tattoo parlor. You don't close at 5 and go into hiding. You don't get to bark a "no comment" when your business affects our economy and is a key feature of our quality of life.

Instead, you act responsibly, as an adult. You run your business to make money and to win. But you keep in mind that you have a place in the community that's akin to being a steward of the opera or symphony, or a cherished museum. As such, you also need to show respect for political leaders who go out on a limb to craft deals to build you arenas, staking their political capital on your behalf again and again and again.

The Maloofs used to be good community citizens. But as their needs changed, they went dark, they turned a cold shoulder, they forgot their duty to the city that kept buying tickets and $10 beers, even during the bleakest years.

In 2003, ESPN The Magazine ranked 121 professional sports teams, concluding that the Kings' ownership was third best, based on "honesty and loyalty to core players and local community." Ten years have passed, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone around here who would praise the honesty and loyalty of the Maloofs.

The magazine's 2012 rankings – the most recent – reflect that sad change. The Kings' ownership now ranks dead last, 122nd out of 122 teams.

What a difference a decade makes when your name is Maloof.

Doug Elmets is president of Elmets Communications, a Sacramento-based public affairs and crisis management firm.

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