Sacramento writer and longtime Pocket resident R.E. Graswich has written his first book, a definitive history of the Sacramento Kings, “Vagrant Kings: David Stern, Kevin Johnson and the NBA’s Orphan Team.”
Graswich, who covered the Kings during much of his three decades as a reporter and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, worked on the arena project as Special Assistant to Mayor Kevin Johnson. The attempted purchase of the Kings by Seattle moguls Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer convinced Graswich to write “Vagrant Kings.”
“It was back in January, and I had just left the Mayor’s Office and was working on a few consulting projects,” Graswich said. “When news broke that the Kings were being sold to Seattle, my wife said, ‘You’d better write that book. You’ve been talking about it forever. Now the Kings might be leaving.’“
Graswich cautions that Mayor Johnson is not the hero of “Vagrant Kings.” The hero is NBA Commissioner David Stern.
“The only reason the Kings are in Sacramento is Commissioner Stern,” Graswich said. “Kevin was a factor, but Stern called every shot. We owe him big time.”
Despite his knowledge of the Kings, Graswich began to dig back into the team’s history. He tracked the Kings back to Rochester, N.Y., where they began life in the 1930s as a barnstorming team created by a businessman and basketball fanatic named Lester Harrison.
“They were the Rochester Seagram’s, the Rochester Ebers, the Rochester Pros, and finally the Rochester Royals,” Graswich said. “Mr. Harrison kept changing the names to encourage more sponsorship dollars. Then and now, it’s all about selling sponsorships. Some things never change.”
One interesting fact uncovered by Graswich was that the Royals, who were among the original NBA teams when the league began in 1949, played in a former children’s prison drill hall, where juvenile offenders were beaten and forced to work.
“That’s the saddest part of the story,” Graswich said. “The children’s prison drill hall is where the franchise had its greatest success — it’s only NBA championship, in 1951.”
The team moved to Cincinnati, where a secretive owner took control. His name was Lou Jacobs. He ran one of the largest sports concession businesses in the nation, Sportservice. Eventually, the Jacobs organization was convicted in federal court of working with mobsters to control Las Vegas casinos and hotels. The conviction forced the Jacobs family to move the team to Kansas City and sell it.
The book notes that no team in American sports history has moved as often as the Kings, thus the title, “Vagrant Kings.”
“They were always relatively cheap and portable,” Graswich said. “That’s why they were sold and moved so often. Typically, the people who bought the Kings didn’t care much about basketball. They always had other angles.”
In Sacramento, the other angle was real estate, Graswich says. “Vagrant Kings” explores how Gregg Lukenbill and Joe Benvenuti bought the Kings in 1983 to obtain real estate entitlements for thousands of acres in North Natomas, in exchange for bringing the team and building the arena.
“Essentially, the city council made a deal with Gregg and Joe,” Graswich said. “The council granted entitlements, and the Kings built their own arena. Two, in fact.”
Money was always a problem for the team in Sacramento, Graswich reports. Lukenbill and Benvenuti ran out of funds while trying to build a baseball stadium next to the current Sleep Train Arena. The next owner, Jim Thomas, needed a $73 million loan from the city to keep operating. The third owners, the Maloof family, saw fortunes wiped out by questionable business decisions and the recession of 2008.
“The Kings have always been under capitalized,” Graswich said. “The only owner who had unlimited funds was Louie Jacobs in Cincinnati. And he didn’t believe in spending money on the team. All he cared about was selling peanuts.”
Graswich has hopes for the new owners, led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive.
“The new owners aren’t from Sacramento, but they believe in Sacramento,” Graswich said. “They are our best shot at finally getting a new arena built downtown and putting Sacramento back on its feet. We need cranes in the sky downtown, new jobs and new investments.”
Graswich rushed “Vagrant Kings” out as an e-book this month because the topic was ripe for discussion. It’s available at Amazon Kindle and iBooks for $9.18. A hard-copy edition will be available soon, Graswich said.
“I’m proud of the book. I’m proud of our community,” he added. “This is a great story about a team and its town. For the first time, ‘Vagrant Kings’ pulls the pieces together for the community to read and enjoy.”