"There's going to be a beacon of light shining bright in 2015 — a brand new arena," a teary eyed Gavin Maloof told a raucous crowd during a timeout in a win over the Utah Jazz on Feb. 28, 2012. "We still love you. We always loved you, and we always will love you."
Hugs and handshakes followed, and the relocation chatter that had surrounded the Kings for years finally seemed to be silenced. Instead, barely a month passed before the Maloof brothers backed out of the handshake deal — which NBA Commissioner David Stern had negotiated, and the Sacramento City Council approved — and both sides declared the franchise's future uncertain again.
"It was shocking. But this story every step of the way has been shocking, and I think that's something that can't be lost," said James Ham, who covers the team for the website Cowbell Kingdom and was a producer of the documentary "Small Market, Big Heart," which chronicled Sacramento's fight to keep the Kings from moving to Anaheim.
"This story never goes the way you think it's going to go," Ham said. "It may start one way, but then it switches so quickly and you have no idea that the next move was coming. And then it zigzags. It's something that has made this story so laughable and so dramatic. It's unpredictable. And here we are again, in possibly the most unpredictable setting of all-time."
Leave it to the bright lights of Broadway to stage such a show.
For the second time in three years, Johnson will make a presentation to NBA owners in New York on Wednesday to keep the Kings from leaving California's capital city, complete with an ownership group ready to buy the team and a newly approved arena financing plan. The goal is to block a bid by investor Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who have a pending deal with the Maloofs to buy the Kings, move the team to Seattle and restore the SuperSonics name.
A joint committee of league owners, assembled from the sale and relocation committees, will made a recommendation for the full NBA Board of Governors to consider when it votes at its annual meeting April 18-19 in New York. If the league blocks the Seattle bid, the Maloofs would still have to agree to sell the team to the Sacramento group.
And that's where things get tricky.
Once the toast of the town, the Maloofs have become perhaps Sacramento's most-reviled villains. They have been absent from their courtside seats for months and their luxury suite is often empty or occupied by others.
Whether the family would sell to the Sacramento group, or how the NBA could force their hand without triggering lawsuits, is unclear. The Maloofs have been asked by the NBA not to comment publicly on the pending purchase agreement.
In the meantime, fans in Sacramento are upset the Maloofs never gave the city a chance to find a group to buy the team.
"The Maloofs are a four-letter word in Sacramento," said Carmichael Dave, a sports radio commentator who is driving an RV to NBA cities across the country to campaign for his city's cause. "Maloofed is now a synonym for mistreated or mishandled. It's a descriptive that's not in any way complimentary."
There was a time not so long ago that the Maloofs made Sacramento the NBA's model of success.
A smaller-market franchise that thrived on being the town's only team, fans turned out in mass even when the Kings were terrible. The team had 19 seasons of complete sellouts.
Chris Webber, Jason Williams, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac and Doug Christie even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2001 with the headline, "The Greatest Show on Court. Sacramento Kings: Basketball the way it oughta be."
Joe and Gavin Maloof still remained the faces of the franchise — signing autographs, making appearances, spending money on the team, pouring millions into charitable causes and even crying foul with fans following that heartbreaking loss to the rival Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals.
"The Maloofs could've run for mayor of Sacramento in 2002 and they would have won with 95 percent of the vote," Dave said. "They are good guys. They are passionate fans. Joe and Gavin, they truly wanted the team to succeed, and they truly loved the city of Sacramento. They will never be heroes in Sacramento now, but I think there's still a window for there to be a happy ending."
That window is closing fast.
Sacramento's decline has been tied almost directly to the recession. The Maloofs have since sold their Coors beer distributorship, and the crushing debt on the Palms forced the family to turn over controlling interests of the Las Vegas casino to creditors.
Some also have criticized the Maloofs for public relations blunders.
In 2006, voters crushed a measure that would have raised sales taxes by a quarter cent to help finance a new arena with a resounding 80 percent in opposition. Many in Sacramento still believe the deal would've passed had it not been for a commercial that aired just before that showed the Maloofs eating a $6,000 meal at the Palms from Carl's Jr. The ad also touted the family's net worth as a billion dollars.
After another arena deal collapsed last year, Johnson's advisers let it be known how the Maloofs had treated the city. Chris Lehane, a political strategist and then-chair of Johnson's arena task force, said "dealing with the Maloofs is like dealing with the North Koreans — except they are less competent."
As strained as the relationship between Sacramento and the Maloofs appears, the past is actually what gives the city hope: that maybe the Maloofs could change course again.
Johnson has been on a public relations offensive, extending olive branches to the Maloofs in the past week. The mayor has assembled a potential ownership group that includes Silicon Valley software tycoon Vivek Ranadive, 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, billionaire investor Ron Burkle and Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs.
Johnson believes the Sacramento group is good enough to compete with the Hansen-Ballmer bid, which has a signed deal to buy 65 percent of the team for $341 million — a figure reached from a total franchise valuation of $525 million, an NBA record. Johnson has not released financial details of the Sacramento plan.
"We think at the end of the day, if the price that they were going to get is similar to Sacramento, they would probably prefer to have the team in Sacramento," Johnson told NBA.com. "They certainly can't say that. But I know they have an affinity for Sacramento and I believe very strongly that this is the way the story is supposed to end at the end of the day."
The real answers will start coming in a New York boardroom this week. Given all the twists and turns of the past few years, forgive those in Sacramento if they are left guessing about the outcome.
"Nobody knows if this story will last until the 18th and 19th, if it will end this week, if it will go to Seattle or if it will go to Sacramento," Ham said. "There's no rhyme or reason to this story. It goes where it wants to go, and there's no stopping it. There is no end. And I think that's something that people should be concerned about when it comes to the Maloofs.
"There is no end to this story yet. Their last chapter hasn't been told yet. And until it is told, I think a lot of people aren't sleeping well, be it Seattle, be it Sacramento, be it at the NBA offices."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP