Ownership. (Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic)
During his eight seasons as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal feasted on the Sacramento Kings. He averaged 28.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.1 blocks per game in 26 regular-season contests against the Kings, leading L.A. to a 17-9 record against their in-state rivals, and raised his play even more during the teams' three postseason meetings — just a shade under 31 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks per game in 16 meetings, an 11-5 overall record and three straight years of ending the Kings' season. In the parlance of the game, you might say that while he wore forum blue and gold, the surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer owned his neighbors to the north. And now, in a truth-is-stranger-than-the-fiction turn of fate, you can also say it literally.
As first reported by Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports, the Kings announced Monday that the 41-year-old TNT analyst (or, y'know, "analyst") has joined Sacramento's new Vivek Ranadivé-led ownership group as "a minority owner."
"What interested me in this deal is the new vision, the new Kings, the new everything," O'Neal, who so famously deemed the Kings the "Queens" at the start of the 2002-03 season, said. "I've always wanted to be part of something like this … It's going to be great." [...]
"I wanted to find somebody to add to the ownership group who truly represented 21st century basketball, who represented my vision of NBA 3.0, which is having an understanding of technology, wanting to build a global brand and being global in their thinking, and really being committed to having an impact in the community," Ranadive, the former Golden State Warriors minority owner who heads the group that bought the team for a league-record valuation of $535 million, told USA TODAY Sports. "The most iconic person on the planet was Dr. O'Neal. So Mark Mastrov is good friends with Dr. O'Neal, and Dr. O'Neal and I spent a day at my house shooting hoops, hanging out with my kids, and just talking about how to create the franchise of the 21st century.
"We talked about what the forces were that were shaping the 21st century, we talked about technology, we talked about new companies that we were looking at, and based on that we came to a conclusion that we could — what my [late] friend Steve Jobs likes to say — put a dent in the universe if Dr. O'Neal became my partner."
("Dr. O'Neal" comes from the doctorate Shaq received last summer; he's been referring to himself with the full title for a year now. Earned though it may be, it still feels weird to see/hear him call himself that, so much so that Amick suggested O'Neal "jokingly referred to himself" as such throughout their interview. I don't think he's kidding around, Sam.)
As Amick notes, O'Neal's relationship with fellow Kings owner/24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov stretches back to his playing days in L.A. Their longstanding connection opened the door to a June meeting first thought to be aimed at securing the legendary center's services in mentoring mercurial but talented Sacramento big man DeMarcus Cousins. When we learned a month later that O'Neal had never even contacted Cousins, it sounded like the intended linkage was a big ol' swing and a miss; now, though, it seems like there was something bigger in the works. (For what it's worth, O'Neal told Amick his first orders of business on Monday will be "to meet with Kings players and coaches in Sacramento before having dinner with" Cousins, "his new protégé.")
It's not clear how much cash O'Neal has plunked down to move into ownership, but in doing so, he follows in the footsteps of fellow former players like Magic Johnson, who owned a piece of the Lakers before switching sports to join a group purchasing the Los Angeles Dodgers; Michael Jordan, who owned part of the Washington Wizards before buying a controlling interest in the Charlotte Bobcats; and Jason Kidd, who will reportedly purchase hip-hop star Jay Z's stake in the Brooklyn Nets team he'll coach this coming season. He also joins several other former players with prominent roles in the Kings organization, including fellow part-owner Mitch Richmond, recent front-office acquisition Chris Mullin and assistant general manager Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who this summer was named GM of the Kings' D-League affiliate.
There's a bit of a difference, though. Richmond and Abdur-Rahim are former Kings players; Mullin never played in Sacramento, but he starred for the Golden State Warriors as a player, worked in the Dubs' front office with new Kings GM Pete D'Alessandro, and isn't considered a villain for fans in California's capital. Shaq, though, is the guy who said this:
... and sang this:
... and generally tortured Kings backers over the years. He swears now that all the mean-spirited comments all came in the interest of promotion: "[...] fans need to understand that those comments that I made and all that stuff, it was for them. I've always been an expert at marketing, so a Laker-vs. Sacramento Kings, I wanted it to be the most watched game ever."
Somehow, I doubt Kings fans are going to be so willing to wipe the years of Shaq hatred away and come to love his marketing expertise, but his undeniable talent for promotion of both brands and himself — especially via social media — apparently helped interest Ranadivé and the rest of the ownership group in adding O'Neal to the fold. Whether he'll be part of the braintrust entrusted with coming up with more eye-catching, fan-focused promotions like a commercial-free home opener remains to be seen, but it's clear that he'll be a vocal promoter of the team's arena efforts ("Woo-wee. That's all I can say: woo-wee. Oh, you know what, that's our new slogan: Sacramento — woo-wee") and ongoing attempts to turn the page from years of soul-deadening Maloofdom ("You're going to be like, 'Sacramento is doing what?' That's what we want people to say").
How successful those attempts will be will depend far more on D'Alessandro's ability to build a more talented roster, and new head coach Mike Malone's ability to mold the pieces on hand into a cohesive whole capable of returning to the playoff picture for the first time since 2006, than on the Q ratings of the folks who own relatively small pieces of the franchise. Still, though, when undergoing a franchise makeover as complete as what needs to be done in Sacramento, every bit of excitement matters, and Ranadivé, Mastrov and company have opted for an infusion of new blood from a source of long-held bad blood. It's an odd day for the Kings and their fans, to be sure, but also perhaps the clearest sign yet that it's the dawn of a new day in Sacramento.
Doesn't make it any less weird, though.