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Kings Arena Update: Kevin Johnson working with Ron Burkle’s right hand man

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The Sacramento Kings arena saga took an interesting turn on Wednesday when it was announced that the Maloof family had given up majority ownership of the Palms Casino after a “recapitalization agreement” with their main creditors, TPG Capital and Leonard Green and Partners. The deal reduces the Maloof’s ownership from about 80 percent to 10-20 percent, but the Maloofs will continue to operate the casino.

The recapitalization agreement doesn’t come out of nowhere, however, as Bloomberg News and many Las Vegas outlets reported in January that there was a strong chance that this would happen, though the Maloofs refused to acknowledge that they would sell or that the Palms was in trouble.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Mayor Kevin Johnson announced the identities of the 70-person Here We Build committee, named after the grassroots movements created by Blake Ellington of #HereWeStay, and modified into #HereWeBuild when local radio personality Carmichael Dave created a pledge drive for the ages.

And if you’re a fan of political and financial All Star teams, you probably want to stand in line to get your briefcase autographed.

Headlining the committee as co-chairs are California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg and California State Senator Ted Gaines, though the big heavy hitters here include the guy whose feasibility study is being used as Sacramento’s blueprint, David Taylor, and political heavyweight Darius Anderson, who presented to the NBA Board of Governors back in April when the Maloofs applied their full court press to move the Kings down to Anaheim.

As for Taylor, his ICON Venue Group is partially owned by sports facility giant Anschultz Entertainment Group (AEG), who has the money and wherewithal to quickly implement a time-sensitive, politically driven arena project, though there have been no public statements made to the effect that they are on board in an official capacity for now.

Anderson’s inclusion is the largest elephant in the room, however, since he is a close advisor to none other than billionaire Ron Burkle, who was reportedly interested in buying the Kings back in April.

It was this interest that created the most quotable moment in the saga to date, when NBA insider Sam Amick reported that Commissioner David Stern made a wise crack saying K.J. was bringing him a “used car dealer,” but upon learning that the billionaire was interested in buying the Kings he grew quiet and then said, “You’ve got Burkle?”

Burkle was recently ranked No. 347 by Forbes among the world’s richest billionaires, and he built his empire in the grocery industry, parlaying several successful deals into a massive financial empire across many industries.

When the Maloofs were confronted with news of Burkle’s interest in buying the Kings at the NBA Board of Governors meetings in April (a move they claimed to have rebuffed a month earlier), they were outwardly angry and they insisted that their team was not for sale. Stern would eventually echo those sentiments by downplaying a potential purchase by Burkle, and since then Burkle’s name has fallen out of the Kings’ news cycle.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has stopped flirting with professional sports. Burkle, also a part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has reportedly joined up with Dodger great Steve Garvey to form a group interested in purchasing the struggling Dodgers franchise. This follows his attempts to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals, and if you go back to 1999, his failed attempt to bring football to L.A. with, wait for it, AEG’s Tom Leiweke.

Incidentally (or not), AEG attempted to lure Burkle’s Penguins from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, and after that failed, AEG would later help Kansas City pass a public-private ballot measure to build the now-thriving Sprint Center that returns the city significant revenue based solely on concerts and events.

And just when it appeared that Burkle was falling off the Kings’ radar, a May 18 report came out of Las Vegas from none other than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host Robin Leach, who wrote that Burkle “insists on re-entering the Las Vegas market.” After the company Burkle bought shares in, the Morgan Hotel Group (MHG), failed to turn around their struggling Hard Rock Café property – it was sold off to creditors in March, much to the chagrin of Burkle, apparently.

Afterward, Burkle upped his ownership stake in MHB to approximately 30 percent and installed his guy, Michael Gross, as CEO.

At least one investment banking group, Jeffries, believes they intend to grow the company rather than sell it. Leach, who may not appear on the outset to be the best source of financial news, has spent the last 10 years on the Las Vegas industry news beat, and goes on to write that Burkle and his Morgan Hotel Group have “been actively kicking the tires, examining facilities and asking tough questions of a hotel group (in Las Vegas) willing to sell off one of its properties.”

Wait. Didn’t the Maloofs just sell? Yes they did – to two separate private equity firms in Leonard Green and TPG Capital. TPG owns Caesars Entertainment and would theoretically take over the Palms, but Leonard Green has also been trying to buy up gambling entities while the gambling industry is bottoming out – so it’s still anybody’s guess what the end-game is over at the Palms.

Let’s be clear – Leonard Green isn’t Burkle, and Burkle isn’t Leonard Green, but maybe Burkle is Finkle and Einhorn is a man.

Leonard Green and Burkle’s investment firm, Yucaipa Companies, both bought large portions of the grocer Whole Foods in 2009. And in 1991, Burkle sold his Almac’s grocery stores to Leonard Green for $75 million. All the while, both have been extremely active investing funds for the California Public Employees Retirement System over the last two decades. Surely it’s possible that in the elite rungs of society, where the billionaires play Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of Separation game with themselves all the time, that any interaction between the two entities is purely coincidental.

But just to be sure, I may have to go down to the Palms this Wednesday when Burkle will reportedly be there to celebrate the NHL awards and ask him about it myself.

The Maloofs, for their part, are not publicly tipping their hand regarding the involvement of Darius Anderson. George Maloof recently told Dale Kasler (via Ryan Lillis) of the Sacramento Bee that Anderson’s involvement in the committee “doesn’t give me any thoughts or concerns.”

As for the state of the funding hunt taking place in Sacramento, the jury is still out whether the $400 million wiped off the books at the Palms will allow the Maloofs to bring more money to the table for a new Entertainment and Sports Complex (ESC), though that doesn’t mean they should have to. After all, as reported yesterday, Anaheim is going forward with improvements on the Honda Center and is welcoming the Kings with a shiny new credit card. Besides, it’s entirely possible the new financial flexibility could be funneled back into the Palms, though pumping up your newly divested asset with freed up funds doesn’t sound like ‘Plan A’ for cash-strapped NBA owners looking to fund an arena.

Regardless, the Maloofs have said that they would contribute toward funding the ESC, so this would appear on the surface to give them better flexibility in doing so.

The 70-person Here We Build committee, meanwhile, consists of every expert, partner, planner, lawyer, community leader, and politician that would be needed to complete an endeavor of such magnitude. According to a source close to the situation, the NBA has also “firmly planted their feet in Sacramento,” and has “sent their best lieutenants to work day and night to get an arena built.”

Numbers-wise, the commission has enlisted the services of at least three well-respected consultancies to review the economic impact of the undertaking, which according to well-placed sources will show enough tax revenue and job creation to not just justify the new Entertainment and Sports Center – but also give political cover to the various bodies that will need to approve the proposal.

What this means, the source says, is that the tenor of the discussion in Sacramento has changed from ‘we don’t want to pay for this’ to ‘we need to pay for this, as it may very well be the difference between economic revival and economic disaster.’ And while there will certainly be skeptics and opposition groups that may choose to latch onto the issue, they could be committing political suicide as the Here We Build committee continues to release positive economic findings.

What does it all mean? It’s hard to say anything definitive right now. But while Kevin Johnson orchestrates his regional dream team, the powerful triad of Darius Anderson, the ICON-David Taylor group, and the NBA are knee deep in the fight to keep the team in Sacramento. And whether or not AEG or Ron Burkle can come along for the ride, the amount of firepower in Sacramento right now is big news for Kings fans.

Update (Saturday, June 18, 2011): The Sacramento Bee reports that the Maloofs will own just two percent of the Palms, according to regulatory documents.  They could have the option to buy back a significant share, up to 20 percent, and in the meantime TPG and Leonard Green will each own a 49 percent of the company.

On the surface, this would strengthen the chance that the Maloofs are freeing up funds to contribute toward Sacramento’s proposed Entertainment and Sports Center.  As for TPG and Leonard Green, the fact that the pair would have matching 49 percent shares creates an interesting dynamic, whereby each company could have the same voting rights (with the Maloofs holding a tie-breaking vote).

Glenn Robinson III does his best to salvage Dunk Contest, gets victory in process

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NEW ORLEANS — This year’s NBA All-Star Dunk Contest was doomed to disappoint, it was never going to match last year’s epic battle. It started in a hole.

It never climbed out. Don’t take my word for it, check out what JaVale McGee thought.

Saturday was an underwhelming night of dunks punctuated by a couple of moments of brilliance.

The Pacers’ Glenn Robinson III had the most of those moments — which is why he won the event. His strong night started with his first dunk, which may well have been the best of the contest.

The final one from Robinson, the one that sealed the victory, may be the other best dunk of the competition — dunking over Paul George, the Pacers mascot, and a Pacers dancer.

“I originally planned for it just to be PG (Paul George),” Robinson said afterward. “I knew I had to bring out something special. We added the mascot and the cheerleader. I really just wanted to get up high and dunk that thing hard, man. My adrenaline was going. It felt like I was looking at the rim. All I knew was the crowd go crazy. I pointed like this because, man, everybody seemed to sleep on me, didn’t really think I was going to win this thing.”

Event favorite Aaron Gordon, who should have won a year ago, opened the contest with an innovative idea — a drone dunk — but he couldn’t execute it and there were a few attempts before he nailed it.

Gordon didn’t advance out of the first round, and his first dunk summed up the 2017 Dunk Contest — interesting ideas that didn’t quite pan out like planned. (To be fair, Gordon has been battling injuries recently, that may have thrown him off).

If it wasn’t going to be Gordon, a lot of people expected it to be the bouncy Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. who won, and he reached the Finals in part thanks to this spectacular dunk that woke the Smoothie King Center up.

DeAndre Jordan was okay, but without Chris Paul throwing him lobs it didn’t quite feel the same. Jordan can dunk with such power in game, but we didn’t see that Saturday.

In the end, it was Gordon who was making the plays.

“I’m not really a known dunker,” Robinson said. “I practiced. I prepared. I know I’m a jumper. And like I said, I’m a guy that stays out of the way. But when it’s time to shine, that’s my thing. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew all along I had some things planned, and I just wanted to show the world.”

Glenn Robinson III wins underwhelming dunk contest on over-people, below-rim dunk (video)

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NEW ORLEANS — Glenn Robinson III won the dunk contest with the second-best dunk of the night, going over a few people and under the rim — a narrow path to slamming victory.

It would’ve rated as the event’s best dunk if he were truly under the rim rather than somewhat in front of it. And he did have the best body of work to win the contest.

But the best single dunk was still by runner-up Derrick Jones Jr., who went between the legs on a pass off the side of the backboard.

NBA stars shoot threes to raise $500,000 for Sager Strong Foundation in touching moment

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NEW ORLEANS — The spirit of Craig Sager is strong during All-Star weekend in The Big Easy and he’s going to get a spot in the Hall of Fame, deservedly so.

After Eric Gordon won the Three-Point Contest, he and the other finalists Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker stayed on the court to shoot threes to raise money for the Sager Strong Foundation — they would shoot threes for a minute and for each make the foundation would get $10,000. Then they brought out help — Reggie Miller, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, DJ Khaled, and others to knock down shots. That raised $130,000.

Stephen Curry tried to push that to $500,000, but it was Sager’s son that actually did it (with an assist from Shaquille O’Neal).

It was a touching moment for a great cause.

Derrick Jones Jr. catches pass off side of backboard, jams between-legs dunk (video)

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NEW ORLEANS — With defending runner-up Aaron Gordon eliminated in the first round, Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. might be our best hope to save the dunk contest.