Game of Kings

King Joffrey and King George

(Disclaimer: this article assumes you have a working knowledge of Game of Thrones, and attempts to be mostly spoiler free. If you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, you can get caught up here, but really—do yourself a favor and watch the show. For all of us, baby.)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’re a fan of Game of Thrones. Or if you’re not a fan, you’re at least tangentially aware of its existence, if for no other reason than because your family, friends, coworkers, mailman, the lady at the grocery checkout aisle, the chubby kid sitting next to you on the bus, and your hair stylist are all talking about HBO’s hit show. The hype is, of course, well deserved.

Every week, Game of Thrones serves up a tasty, 60-minute morsel of Machiavellian goodness. Themes of power, love, honor, duty, and deception are interwoven into an overarching narrative (adapted from the popular novels by George R.R. Martin) that propels several lordly families towards the goal of claiming the Iron Throne of Kings Landing and ruling all the land of Westeros. Game of Thrones may be high fantasy, but Martin and the writers for HBO’s adaptation, are not averse to dragging their characters—both royal and low-born—through the mud. Indeed, very early on in the series, readers and viewers alike learn that the rules of this ‘game of thrones’ can change at a moment’s notice, and if you don’t adapt quickly, even walking the righteous path can lead you straight to the executioner’s block.

In short, Game of Thrones is a zero sum game. As the Lannisters cling to the Iron Throne, and the Stark, Baratheon, and Targaryen families all attempt to wrest control of it from them, the only certainty seems to be that there can only be one winner, and the prize for runner up is the honor of having your head adorn the business end of a pike.

With such high stakes, it may then seem a tad melodramatic to equate the malevolent machinations of Game of Thrones and its colorful cast to the on-going saga of the Sacramento Kings. However, the conflicts and conquests of the fictional characters of Westeros throw into sharp relief the very real life struggle between the Maloof family; the Seattle- and Sacramento-based groups vying to buy the Kings off the Maloofs; the NBA and Commissioner David Stern who are attempting to control the mayhem; and the common citizens of the cities of Sacramento and Seattle who are stuck in the middle.

Like Joffrey, the petulant boy king who’s well girthed in sadistic narcissism but less endowed with all the qualities necessary to be a good leader, the Maloofs are an impotent ownership group that loves the prestige that comes with owning an NBA franchise, but grasp little of what it actually takes to successfully manage one. All their lives they’ve been propped up by more able men; first their father, a Robert Baratheon-esque man who knew how to actually run a business, and then David Stern, a commissioner who, like Tywin Lannister, commands not with the slash of a sword, but with the stroke of his pen. David Stern has tolerated the antics of the boy kings for years, partly because he works for them as the NBA’s commissioner, but also, as we learn in Game of Thrones, because victory is often awarded to the patient. For both Tywin and Stern, the end game is their legacy, and they will do anything to protect it and ensure that the power of their respective familial enterprises remain intact, despite the nuisance of insurrection or a revolting ownership group.

Patience, however, is not a virtue shared by everyone in either Game of Thrones or this relocation saga. Enter the Seattle-based group led by hedge funder Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Like the Wildlings beyond The Wall, Seattle has been forced to roam the backwoods of the NBA-less north for six years. During that time, a strong contempt and distrust of the NBA has festered, as Seattle (justifiably) believes the Sonics were wrongly taken from them in 2008. It is partly because of this distrust that the Hansen group has sought to storm The Wall, working around Stern and the NBA league office, to bring NBA basketball back to the north. However, as Jon Snow warned Ygritte in last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, no Wildling army has successfully conquered The Wall and the armies of Westeros. Patience, and perhaps a touch of diplomacy, would likely do the Wildlings and the Hansen-group a lot of good. In order to get a seat in the big game, you have to be willing to play by its rules, and thus far Hansen and Ballmer haven’t shown much interest. This doesn’t mean that either the Wildlings or Hansen won’t wind up getting what they want, but it may come at a higher cost than necessary.

This brings us to the Sacramento-based group led by Mayor Kevin Johnson and Silicon Valley business leader Vivek Ranadive. While some may be inclined to liken the Sacramento group to Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter of the late Mad King who is seeking to reclaim what she feels is rightfully hers (this analogy could also apply to Seattle if you live in the Pacific Northwest), or Rob Stark, the young king of the north who seeks revenge for his slain father, it’s perhaps more intellectually honest to equate Johnson and Ranadive to the Tyrell family. Think about it, House Tyrell “plays to win.” They were allied with the Baratheons in their war against the Lannisters, but once that cause looked lost, Lady Tyrell did her best “let’s make a deal” impression and secured the marriage of her granddaughter Margaery Tyrell to Joffrey and Loras Tyrell to Cersei Lannister, which illustrates that they don’t want to be on the losing team when time runs out on the clock. Johnson knows that his best shot at keeping the Kings in Sacramento is to give Commissioner Stern and the NBA what they want: strong civic support and a publicly subsidized arena. Yes, the NBA wants wealthy owners, but they also want cities to pay homage. For his part, Johnson has been willing to give Stern the pound of flesh demanded, and whether or not this will be to the benefit or detriment of the citizens of Sacramento is up for debate and remains to be seen. We only know what happens when you don’t play ball with Stern and the NBA (see: Seattle Super Sonics, 2008).

Lost, of course, in the fray of this game of thrones between the “high-borns” of Westeros and the moneyed elite of the NBA are the little people. Fans in both Sacramento and Seattle have loudly voiced their opinions on the matter, but are mainly left to hunker down and see who wins a fight that they can’t join, but whose outcome will affect them the most. There is only one Iron Thron just as there is only one NBA team up for sale, thus resulting in the zero sum game we find ourselves in now. By tomorrow afternoon, when the NBA’s board of governors votes on whether to approve or deny the relocation of the Kings franchise to Seattle, the fate of one city may be sealed.

No matter the result, the major players in this game—yes, even the Maloofs—will be able to go home, lick their wounds, and enjoy their riches. The same cannot be said for the many fans in Seattle and Sacramento who have long desired to have a team they can confidently root for well into their retirement years. Some still retain hope that the league will capitulate and grant the expansion team that will make everyone happy, but as one particularly sinister character from Game of Thrones reminds his victim (and us viewers), “…if you think this will have a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Fairy tale endings, it would seem, are not a reality for the inhabitants of Westeros… or small market NBA fanbases.

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