Friday, April 2, 1999 | 10:20 a.m.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It was in the fourth quarter when Gavin Maloof stuck his head outside an Arco Arena luxury box and peered at his brother seated immediately below.
"Hey, Joe," he shouted wide-eyed. "Wanna go sit down on the floor?"
The question was asked with all the anticipation of a first-time Las Vegas tourist, who immediately after he drops his luggage at the hotel room door, wonders if his buddy is ready to hit the casino.
The Maloof brothers have been compared to children on Christmas morning and kids locked inside a candy store. But they both are successful businessmen in their 40s.
The entire Maloof family is excited because, for the first time in 17 years, it owns a major league sports franchise.
The Maloofs, who own the Fiesta hotel-casino in North Las Vegas and hold several ties to Southern Nevada, bought controlling interest of the NBA's Sacramento Kings on Jan. 15, a year and a day after purchasing a minority ownership in the club.
Brothers Joe and Gavin will run the Kings, which have yet to have a winning season since moving from Kansas City in 1985. But the team now is playing some of the most exciting basketball in the league and is a playoff contender.
"We love the team," Gavin Maloof said. "We're reborn."
The Maloofs formerly owned the Houston Rockets from 1979-82, but chose to sell the team shortly after the death of family patriarch George Maloof Sr.
Realizing there was a void without the Rockets, the Maloofs unsuccessfully tried to buy other NBA franchises as well as NHL and Major League Baseball teams.
"We went a lot of years without any basketball," Gavin Maloof said. "In that time maybe our lives haven't been completely fulfilled.
"We look forward to every game. We get so excited, so emotional. I don't know if we'll make it through the season."
Although the Maloofs basically are calling the shots in Sacramento right now, they don't officially take over Capital Sports Entertainment -- the parent company of the Kings, the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs and Arco Arena -- from current owner Jim Thomas until July 1.
Yet the Maloofs find it hard to fathom being any more excited than they are right now.
Sacramento is as excited about the Maloofs as they are by it. Whether by design or dumb luck, interest in Kings basketball since the Maloofs came onto the scene has risen to new levels.
Joe Maloof passed on his brother's invitation to use their midcourt seats for the game with the San Antonio Spurs last month. But as soon as Gavin Maloof plopped down, a fan gushed, "I love what you're doing with the team! If you run for mayor, I'll vote for you!"
"I've seen a lot of bad basketball over the years," said Gary Gerould, the radio voice of the Kings since their relocation. "But right now it's an exciting time for the Kings. This is an entertaining team to watch, and it's been a lot of years since you could say that about this club."
Tom Peterson also recognizes something special is happening. Peterson, Capital Sports and Entertainment's vice president of food and beverage and merchandising, is a lifetime Sacramento resident and has been with the Kings since they relocated.
"It's like they have the magic touch," Peterson said.
"The Maloof style seems to fit Sacramento and the people have genuinely taken to them."
Peterson recalled in particular one Maloof fan-interaction incident. Before a game with the Minnesota Timberwolves, a group of local schoolgirls were on a tour of Arco Arena when they happened upon the Kings' new owners.
"They were screaming 'There's the Maloofs!' like they were rock stars," Peterson recalled. "They were giggling and came running over. The Maloofs asked, 'So who's your favorite player?' A couple of them said 'You are!' "
But this love affair wasn't a whirlwind romance. It took time to get off the ground.
Last July, less than six months after the Maloofs announced their original Kings deal, the NBA owners locked out the players. The family had waited 17 years to get back in the game, and now it was forced to to keep waiting.
"We knew there was going to be a risk," Gavin Maloof said.
Finally, after seven months of hardball negotiations, roundball resumed in February.
It can be argued the lockout was precisely the right time for the Maloofs to get back into the action. The owners were obvious winners in the final labor agreement with a stricter salary cap, placing the Maloofs on equal footing with the mightiest of NBA owners.
In other words, the Maloofs stepped in the proverbial manure and walked away smelling like the proverbial rose.
"We got in at probably one of the worst times in NBA history," Gavin Maloof said, "but came out in one of the best.
"We believe our franchise value has gone up significantly."
Added Joe Maloof: "We talked to (NBA commissioner) David Stern recently and he said 'Would you sell this team now for what you paid for it?' I said 'No, I don't think so.' "
All in the family
The Maloofs claim their business acumen stems from one root: family values.
"We're a little unusual in that we not only work together, but we also socialize together," Gavin Maloof said. "We're close-knit."
Matriarch Colleen Maloof runs the Albuquerque, N.M.-based Maloof Companies, a corporation founded on the family's exclusive New Mexico Coors beer distributorship. The diversified group now includes business ventures ranging from banking to transportation in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.
Soon to be added to the corporation's portfolio is a hotel-casino slated to open by 2001 on a 32-acre parcel across from the Gold Coast on Flamingo Road.
But this family isn't based on business -- quite the opposite. It bases its business on family.
The Maloofs arguably are the most accommodating of all major-league owners. They even hand out their cellular telephone numbers.
At halftime of the aforementioned Spurs game, Joe and Gavin gladly spent the entire break being interviewed by a couple of kids from a local cable-access show.
It's difficult to picture Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf being that accessible.
"There are certain values we have, and they can be applied to anything," Fiesta president George Maloof Jr. said.
"We're authentic. We're not pretentious -- other than driving some pretty fancy cars. We understand people and we relate, which is a talent my father had and my mother has. We've never thought we were better than anybody."
But when George Maloof Sr. died of a heart attack in 1980, the family found itself overextended with its myriad companies. Gavin Maloof wound up running the Rockets at age 22, and although the 1980-81 team made it to the NBA Finals under his watch, the family decided it should sell the team.
"We had so much fall on us in our businesses at that time," Colleen Maloof said. "We just wanted to focus on our business in New Mexico."
Times were difficult at home, too.
Colleen was a young widow forced to raise five children on her own. While Gavin and Joe had already graduated from college, the other three were adolescents.
"Yes, I had five children to raise," Colleen Maloof said. "But lucky for me they were all together and rallied around each other."
All the Maloof children went on to play collegiate sports. The four boys played football: George Jr. at UNLV, Joe at New Mexico, Phillip at New Mexico State and Gavin at Trinity in San Antonio, Texas. Daughter Adrienne attended New Mexico on a tennis scholarship.
"The love of sports started with George Sr." Colleen Maloof said.
And that is why the Maloofs -- as they do with all their business ventures -- take a family-oriented approach with the Kings.
"The owners have good family values and that translates into business," Kings forward Corliss Williamson said. "They're going to do the right thing."
But opponents shouldn't be fooled by the Maloofs' congeniality.
"We're nice, but we're very competitive," George Maloof Jr. said. "We don't like to lose."
Williamson discovered that for himself before the season.
Care for Corliss
Williamson was a free agent, coming off his best year as a professional. He averaged 17.7 points and 5.6 rebounds for the Kings in 1997-98.
But it was highly doubtful he would be re-signed. It didn't appear the Kings could afford him.
"The picture that had been painted by the entire organization," Gerould said, "was there was no way they were going to be able to keep Corliss Williamson. Well, the Maloofs found a way. It stunned everybody."
Less than two weeks before the season started, general manager Geoff Petrie described the chances of signing Williamson as "remote."
But the Maloofs, having purchased controlling interest days before, wouldn't accept defeat.
After meeting with Petrie late one night at Arco Arena, Joe and Gavin Maloof decided they needed to take one last shot at Williamson, but they needed to do it immediately. They made a few phone calls and chartered a plane to Little Rock, Ark., an hour away from Williamson's hometown of Russellville.
Despite heavy storms and several tornadoes touching down in the area, they arrived around 2 a.m., met with Williamson and his agent, Elbert Crawford, and then waited until the morning to meet Williamson's parents.
The Maloofs, however, didn't bring a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills. After signing center Vlade Divac to a six-year, $62.5 million deal, the most the Kings could offer Williamson under the salary cap was one year at $500,000.
The Maloofs' personal gesture turned out to be worth more than their money.
"There was a lot of comfort in knowing they're family oriented," Williamson said. "That meant a lot, not only to me, but to my entire family, to reassure my mom and dad they wanted to do the best thing for the organization -- that they really wanted me back and wanted to show I was an important piece."
It also demonstrated to the city the Maloofs are committed to making this franchise work.
The king of Kings
The fact Thomas still is the chief executive officer until July 1 has caused some friction at the top. The Maloofs, cognizant this season is Thomas' last hurrah, have tiptoed around Arco Arena so as not to upstage him.
But it hasn't been easy. For example, Thomas admonished the Maloofs for going over his head and meeting with Williamson -- even though Thomas certainly wouldn't have signed the player himself.
Now that the season is under way, however, the Maloofs are content to stand in Thomas' shadow. The Maloofs haven't even felt comfortable enough to introduce themselves to the players.
So Williamson has been giving his teammates the lowdown.
"Some of the guys have asked me 'What are the new owners like?' " Williamson said. "I told them 'They're good guys. I have a lot of trust and a lot of faith in them.' I told them 'I respect them and really like them.' And they will, too, once they get a chance to meet them."
Although the Kings are playing well -- with victories over the Lakers in Los Angeles and the Utah Jazz in the past week -- there is concern in the locker room. Because of the current ownership situation, players are wondering about what's to come.
"These guys need to know they have owners who are going to be there and stand up for them," Williamson said, "but they don't know what the future holds for them here with the ownership."
Laying a foundation
The dramatic Williamson signing was not the only wise move the Maloofs have made during the past few weeks. In fact, some claimed the biggest deal they could close was extending Petrie's contract, which they did last week.
Petrie pieced together the Kings' roster. His biggest moves were signing Divac, trading for Webber and drafting rookie sensation Jason Williams.
"In my mind, Geoff Petrie is the key name in the resurgence and the turnaround of the Sacramento Kings," Gerould said. "I think he has credibility among his peers in the league. Everybody they've drafted since he's been here have been solid finds.
"He's a marvelous success and the Maloofs need him to keep some sense of stability within the organization."
Stability is important to Sacramentans. That's why it was perceived as a major move when both Gavin and Joe, unlike Thomas, purchased homes in the area.
The Maloofs felt living in Sacramento was necessary to turn the franchise around.
"We've always felt you have to be in the community to get the pulse of the community," Joe Maloof said. "You can't get that from 500 miles away."
The Maloofs will attempt to get the players to call Sacramento home, too.
"You gotta get them to want to live here and play here," Joe Maloof said.
That has been a daunting task. The city's remote location and the franchise's poor reputation once led sports pundits to dub it Excremento. Drawing top-flight free agents virtually was impossible.
"The stigma Sacramento has," Williamson said, "is they're not going to take care of the players, they're going to trade people away, that Sacramento is a low-class team.
"But I think if (the Maloofs) come in with the right mind-set and show the guys what they're capable of doing, we can do a lot of things here."
UNLV legend Reggie Theus experienced the Kings' stigma first-hand. He was on the original Sacramento squad that relocated from Kansas City.
While he thoroughly enjoyed the fan support -- the Kings sold out 497 straight games from the time they moved until November 1997 -- his colleagues' perceptions' always seemed negative.
"It's a tough sell," Theus said. "But once they get into Sacramento and see what the city has to offer they find they can have a pretty nice life.
"When you're a first-class organization, word gets around. That's what the Maloofs have to strive for in bringing a championship team to Sacramento."
Everyone associated with the Kings seems confident the Maloofs can pull it off.
"Sacramento is not a bunch of country bumpkins," Peterson said. "This is not like this is the Music Man coming into River City and we're going to believe everything he says.
"The people here can discern a con man, and they accept the Maloofs as genuine."