Have the Maloofs threatened the NBA’s billion dollar arena subsidy industry?

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What do Faye Vincent, George Steinbrenner, and David Stern have in common?

They’re each relevant characters in the relocation saga of the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings, who are increasingly becoming a liability for the NBA.

That’s because Chris Lehane, executive director of arena group Think Big Sacramento and big-time political consultant to be played by Rob Lowe in the upcoming film Knife Fight – mashed those characters together when he sent a scathing letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday. In that letter, he described the Maloofs’ harassment of at least one Sacramento business owner using an ex-FBI agent and asks for a federal investigation into the matter.

On Friday night, CBS13, the local CBS News affiliate, reported that the Maloof Family is employing a former FBI Agent whose purported activities appear designed to intimidate citizens of the Sacramento region who in recent weeks have expressed their concerns about the Maloof Family’s ownership of the Sacramento Kings.

If accurate, the report that the Maloof Family is potentially party to such unscrupulous conduct shocks the conscience at any number of levels.

First, in an era where professional sports organizations have been heavily punished for engaging in “spying” on opposing teams and putting “bounties” on opposing players – the idea that a professional sports team’s ownership group would target its own fans, including prominent and respected local business leaders who are financial supporters of the team, is simply unconscionable.

Lehane then goes in on what happened when Steinbrenner got caught paying Howie Spira, a man with an extremely questionable background, $40,000 to dig up dirt on then Yankee Dave Winfield.

Second, given the history of professional sports owners being severely sanctioned for the use of private detectives involved in comparable activities, it would appear that the Maloofs are possibly exposing themselves to sanctions. Former New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was permanently suspended by Major League Baseball for hiring a private detective to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield.

And for the cherry on top, Lehane asks for the federal investigation:

And, third, in deploying a former FBI Agent to engage in what was reported to be acts of intimidation and harassment, various federal criminal statutes are potentially implicated.

The complete text of the letter can be found here. It goes on to identify federal harassment statutes that could apply to the use of a private investigator, it poses the question of whether or not a federal law enforcement official was impersonated, and to tie a bow on things Lehane points out that the act occurred in Sacramento and the Maloofs reside in Las Vegas – creating a jurisdictional argument to be made in favor of federal prosecution.

Even though this seems jarring when taken at face value, unless there is a real smoking gun that could translate into serious charges against the Maloofs this is just a way to shine a light on their behavior. It’s more likely the audience here was really Stern and the other 29 NBA owners.

Furthermore, the real reason why Lehane brought the Steinbrenner incident into focus is the “best interest of the league” clause found in each of the major sports’ constitutions and by-laws. Vincent used the clause to give Steinbrenner a lifetime ban for the Spira incident (among other factors), though Steinbrenner later exerted enough pressure to be reinstated after two years of riding the pine.

There has already been some talk, some published and most of it unpublished, that Stern could or should use the NBA’s version of the best interest clause to force the sale of the team or nicely encourage ‘the boys’ to negotiate in good faith with Sacramento. The motivation is simple. The Maloofs don’t appear to have the money to run an NBA team, the NBA doesn’t need another Sonicsgate, and the NBA itself has gone to great lengths to preserve the Sacramento market.

The questions (in order) are, however, can he do it, will he do it, and at some point does he have to do it?

According to the Marquette Sports Law Review, the commissioner’s office is installed within the framework of a “monopolistic business association,” shielding the NBA from being bogged down by litigation so long as the commissioner’s office provides “due process” for disputes between players, owners, and the league itself. The office is supposed to act as a disinterested reviewing body with the power and independence to sanction players and owners alike. This body gives the owners the ability to ‘obviate judicial interference,’ which is a fancy way of saying the courts stay out of their business on a multitude of legal issues. From the league and owners’ perspectives, a commissioner can resolve certain conflicts faster and more effectively (read: cheaper) than the courts can.

This “due process” is also an important mechanism required for the league to avoid antitrust suits in relocation disputes. If you recall during Stern’s press conference just hours after George Maloof and his antitrust attorneys torched the Sacramento deal, he said “I am very sensitive of the rights of the Maloofs to do what they did.” That’s because in past relocation disputes, leagues have lost cases because they did not give owners, such as Al Davis and Donald Sterling, an appropriate forum and process to apply for their relocation requests. As distasteful as the Maloof’s actions were, honoring the application and due process of a relocation request is paramount and the likely motivation behind Stern’s comments.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the Maloofs get to unilaterally hurt other NBA owners or the league as it considers their relocation request. Moreover, the ‘best interest’ clause sits side by side with antitrust law to determine how much, if at all, the Maloofs can hurt the NBA and its other owners with their relocation activities. While all of this gets fleshed out inside of Stern’s due process, not to mention outside of the due process with all of the various arm-twisting that goes on behind the scenes, it’s the due process itself that upholds the commissioner’s office as a viable mechanism to obviate judicial interference.

And none of that interference may be as important to obviate as the monopolistic protection the NBA receives as it leverages limited supply (teams) against tremendous demand when it threatens to leave cities if public subsidies are not provided for owners.

These subsidies are a billion dollar item on the balance sheet over multiple years, and it is in the best interest of the league to ensure that it places its best foot forward in how it markets its product to municipalities and their taxpayers.

Should any NBA owners be found to be negotiating in bad faith during arena discussions, as it appears the Maloofs may have, the association could be found liable for losses derived from a failed negotiation – in this case over $500,000 for Sacramento and thousands of hours of time by its city staff and representatives. And because of the tax dollars at play nationwide, both lawmakers and the courts will look to the commissioner’s office to see that due process is being carried out on behalf of all parties, from owner to taxpayer.

As if the overall issue of the Maloof’s relocation wasn’t enough, it was learned earlier this week that the proprietor of a Sacramento website called Ransacked Media both personally met with the Maloof’s private detective and later released confidential emails between NBA attorney Harvey Benjamin and George Maloof. While all leaks are not created equally, if it is found that the Maloofs materially harmed the league’s ability to negotiate with future municipalities because they leaked this information it is just more trouble for Stern and the 29 other owners to consider right now. And it can’t reflect well that discussion of the team’s television deal with Comcast was made available for the masses, as Benjamin put it “We agree regarding Comcast, but no one thought it would be wise as a public matter to put this in a public document.”

Well, it’s public now.

Clearly, there are questions surrounding the Maloofs’ end-game strategy and why they would want to own a basketball team amidst serious concerns about their finances. The NBA’s owners told us repeatedly over the summer that very few teams are making money. As the Kings have been among the league’s lowest spending teams for years, they’ve shown that they can’t or won’t spend the money needed to be a title contender. By some reports the Kings are enjoying an approximate $10 million revenue sharing stream and while ticket sales and sponsorships may hold steady for now, the chance for another PR blunder to destroy whatever goodwill is left in Sacramento remains high. As for that revenue sharing, Stern alluded to the fact that the owners could always vote to change their mind about the Maloofs’ continued receipt of their share.

Politically, the Maloofs have all-but destroyed any chance of getting a publicly-funded arena in Sacramento that would meet the needs of the NBA and the city. Their solution to renovate the current arena is an obvious attempt to produce evidence in an antitrust lawsuit, as they will likely seek public funds that will be denied because the current arena is nearing the end of its useful life. Putting any money into it, let alone public money, has been decried as ludicrous by every third-party that’s not a puppet for the Kings. But the family will say they did all they could to make a deal work in Sacramento and that everybody else let them down.

So after burning every bridge in California’s capitol, the only option on the table for the Maloofs that doesn’t include them financing their own facility is to move and/or sell the team. And none of the options to keep the team present the Maloofs with a tremendous financial advantage over this last deal that the NBA negotiated alongside them.

Moving a team to Anaheim, for example, will return at least a $300 million relocation fee as the result of infringing upon the Lakers and Clippers’ markets and render the family upside-down in their investment without some serious help. Seattle just reached a Memorandum of Understanding agreement on Wednesday with investor Chris Hansen that is pending, and the city’s investment of up to $120 million for an NBA-only arena will need to clear all the red tape that Sacramento’s did. Regardless, Hansen isn’t spending over $500 million to roll out the red carpet for the Maloofs. Otherwise, you can add Vancouver, Louisville, Columbus, and Kansas City to the list of cities whose names have landed on the radar, and none of them provide the Maloofs a path to improve their financial standing or support their entertainment holdings. All they provide is a lukewarm bidding war to raise the sales price of the team.

Talking with sources close to the negotiations, it’s clear that many of them are done trying to understand what the Maloofs are doing right now. Exasperated would be the appropriate word. Did the Maloofs threaten an antitrust suit and did the NBA respond by threatening a relocation fee in Orlando? Did the Maloofs leave Orlando with an agreement in principal only to decide days later to leverage their antitrust rights? Are they buying time in hopes that a game-changer comes through the pipeline? Has all of this simply been an exercise in selling the team? Does it even matter at this point? The damage is done. Sacramento has spun its wheels for a family with all questions and no answers, and could very well be left without a team if nothing is done about it.

Now, in their apparent pursuit of evidence for an antitrust case, it appears they may have crossed more lines and bitten off more than they can chew. Whatever their motives may be – they continue to encumber the league’s standing with customers, cities, its own owners, and eventually with lawmakers and the courts.

The appropriate question for the league and its owners is – at what point does the behavior become a recognized liability and at what point do they figure out that holding the line isn’t the smartest play.

Ultimately, it’s in the best interest of the league that they figure this out quickly. Billion dollar subsidies don’t grow on trees.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.