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Updated Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 03:24 PM

Sacramento fans sour on once-revered owners of Kings

By Ken Armstrong
Seattle Times staff reporter

Members of the Maloof family — owners of the Sacramento Kings, the NBA team that might (or might not) be sold and moved to Seattle — used to be an accessible bunch.

They gave fans their cellphone numbers. They went on Oprah. They went on Howard Stern. They went on Larry King, who couldn't gush enough, talking them up like a circus act, calling them "the amazing Maloofs," "the incredible Maloofs," "the mega-successful Maloofs."

The Maloofs — four brothers, one sister and their mother — also used to be revered in the city where their team plays. In 2003, ESPN The Magazine ranked 121 professional sports franchises in the United States, and concluded the Kings' ownership was third best, based on "honesty and loyalty to core players and local community."

A lot has changed in 10 years. In the magazine's 2012 rankings — the most recent — the Kings' ownership was no longer top 5. It wasn't even top 50. The magazine ranked the Kings' ownership dead last, 122nd out of 122 teams. Marcos Breton, a columnist for The Sacramento Bee newspaper, wrote last week of the Maloofs: "They're like some of the slumlords Sacramento has known: They cash their checks and look the other way; they smile with their mouths, not their eyes; and you can't find them to save your life."

If Seattle lands the Kings, as recent reports suggest, the city will be the beneficiary of a colorful and controversial ownership family that, in Sacramento, has met with a reversal of fortune, committing public-relations blunders and rupturing the trust of the community and the team's fans.

The Maloof siblings — Lebanese on their father's side, Irish on their mother's — inherited a fortune that can be traced to beer. Their grandfather secured the distributorship rights for Coors in New Mexico, and their father expanded the business from there. George Maloof Sr. owned the Houston Rockets when he died of a heart attack at 57.

The four brothers and their sister have diversified the family portfolio, moving into gambling (The Palms, in Las Vegas); banking (lots of stock in Wells Fargo); and various entertainment ventures, from music to TV to skateboarding. The sister, Adrienne Maloof, stars on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." The brothers — bachelors, all — hobnob with such pop-culture icons as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

But the economic downturn hit Vegas and the Maloofs hard. The family's interest in The Palms has dwindled to about 2 percent, according to various reports. The value of their bank stock eroded. They sold their beer distributorship. And the Kings, bought by the family in the late 1990s, went from exciting contenders to chronic also-rans, now playing in what might be the most unfortunately named venue in sports: Sleep Train Arena. In 2007, Forbes valued the Kings at $385 million. Last year, the publication valued the franchise at $300 million.

Doug Elmets, president of a political consulting firm in Sacramento, says of the Maloofs: "There's no question it's a love-hate relationship with the fan base and the community of Sacramento. Certainly in the early years the Maloofs were the golden boys. They had everything going for them — personally, professionally, financially. And the team was playing well. But the economy slowed, and they kind of became the poor boys of the Billionaires' Club."

In 2006, Elmets served as point person for a ballot measure to build a new arena in an old rail yard, to be funded through a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax. At a kickoff event, Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo spoke in support of the public-funding proposal, as did assorted other local leaders. Joe Maloof also showed up. But, according to Elmets, when Elmets handed Maloof some talking points, Maloof pulled out a different set and approached the microphone.

A TV reporter said to Elmets: "You are about to get screwed," only he didn't say screwed.

To Elmets' dismay, Maloof proceeded to question the proposed location. To make matters worse, Maloof and his brothers cut a commercial for Carl's Jr., a burger chain (bit.ly/XzD3B8), flaunting their wealth. Introduced as the owners of The Palms — "Net Worth: $1 Billion" — the four brothers enter their hotel-casino, all glamour and glitz, and chow down. After a brief voice-over — "Burger. Fries. And a 24-year-old bottle of French Bordeaux" — the commercial flashes to the words: "The Carl's Jr. $6,000 Combo Meal."

Voters were not amused. The measure did not pass. "It was a comedy of errors," Elmets says.

Last year, the Maloofs, the NBA and Sacramento appeared to have reached a deal on a new arena — there were cheers, there were hands raised in triumph — only to have the Maloofs back out.

Roger Dickinson, a member of the California State Assembly from Sacramento, said of the arena negotiations over the years: "They almost all have the same storyline. They begin with expressions of hope and trust and mutual admiration, and they end with the Maloofs walking away."

He added: "If you took the temperature of the community now, the reading would be: We want to keep the team and have the owners leave."

As visible as the Maloofs once were in Sacramento, they now tend to shy away. Elmets said brothers Joe and Gavin show up for fewer games, and when they do appear, the Kings tend to be hosting a marquee opponent.

A spokesman for the family sent an email saying: "The Maloofs are not giving any interviews at this time."

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com


JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS / JVILLEGAS@SACBEE.COM
In Sacramento, the Maloofs have seen a reversal of fortune, committed public-relations blunders and ruptured trust. Pictured, from left, are George, Gavin and Phil Maloof.




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