No matter that the Los Angeles Lakers have arrived for this mid-January game without three of their best players—Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone, all sidelined because of injuries. To the 17,317 spectators sardined into one of the nation's most intimate pro basketball arenas, the short-handed Lakers are still the hated—the dreaded—team that has eliminated Sacramento from the playoffs three of the last four years.
On this night the Kings roll to an easy win. To the locals, the victory is meant to be savored—like strawberries in winter, to paraphrase sportswriter Red Smith. Many fans refuse to go into the chilly Northern California night. Instead, they flock courtside and surround Gavin Maloof, a stubby, boyish-looking man who co-owns the team with his brother Joe. Women who are Saran-wrapped into extra-small T-shirts and powder-blue Von Dutch baseball caps brazenly proffer their cellphone numbers. Teens in oversized Chris Webber jerseys line up to get Maloof's autograph. Others drape themselves around him and pose for photos. Maloof's companions urge him to hustle to the post-game party he is hosting, but he is in no hurry.
"It's always good to beat 'em and get the win," he yells above the din. "Now our fans go home happy, and that's what Kings basketball is all about."
The brothers Maloof—they've become so ubiquitous that their names might as well be "JoeandGavin"—are among the most prominent faces in the state capital, even more popular than a bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-governor named Arnold. Since 1999, when they paid $247 million for majority ownership of the Kings and Arco Arena, they have transformed a moribund franchise that was once the laughingstock of the league into its most exciting team. Couple that with their ownership of the Palms Casino, perhaps the hippest hot spot in Las Vegas, and Sin City sizzle has come Sacramento—and perhaps, next, to Southern California. The Maloofs are in negotiations to buy the Anaheim Mighty Ducks of the National Hockey League.
They did so with two ingredients. First, they peddled something most fans believe sank beneath the waves in the era of sports franchises owned by faceless conglomerates—customer service. They give out their mobile-phone numbers not only to cute women but to every fan who approaches them. They created a new department to field complaints from season ticket-holders. Oh, and those long waits in beer lines? Gone, thanks to new beer stands throughout the arena. The Kings were ranked No. 1 in overall fan experience by a survey conducted for the NBA by J.D. Power and Associates.
Also, they managed to transplant their perpetual adolescent, "boys gone wild" personalities to the marketing image of their team. Joe is 48, Gavin is 47, and both are resolute bachelors. Their jet-set lifestyle includes dating models, driving Ferraris, and high-stakes gambling. While Lakers owner Jerry Buss represents Hugh Hefner and the Playboy generation, the brothers have crafted a public image that personifies the party animal bravado of Maxim magazine and Coors Light commercials.
With appearances on Howard Stern and Oprah and profiles in Cigar Aficionado and elsewhere, the Maloofs have emerged as sports-entertainment's trendiest taste-makers. Fans who go to Kings games feel like they're part of the Maloofs' hip scene—and as far as the Maloofs are concerned, they are.
"The Maloofs very much understand not just marketing and customer service, but the current culture as well," NBA commissioner David Stern says. "They're unique in that approach."
"Business is their game," says Greg Brown, who runs an Albuquerque, N.M., beer distributorship owned by the Maloof family, which includes three other siblings and their mother, Colleen. "If it helps business to have a playboy image, so be it."
It's Saturday afternoon at the family's casino in Las Vegas, and the effects of a late night are apparent. Gavin had dined with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban at the Palms' ultra-chic restaurant, N9ne, watched New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey play blackjack in the high-rollers room, then partied with Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson, Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, 'N Sync's Lance Bass and a bevy of Oakland Raider cheerleaders. Joe had planned an early night, but he eventually joined in.
Looking slightly bedraggled, Joe devours a slice of blueberry pie while Gavin polishes off chicken fillets and mashed potatoes. They occasionally turn to watch the big-screen TV showing an NFL playoff game. (Because of the Maloofs' ownership of the Kings, the casino's sports book does not take bets on NBA games.) Cellphones ring intermittently as the crew makes security preparations for the night's celebrity guests: rappers Eminem and 50 Cent.
The casino is still recovering from the hysteria surrounding Britney Spears' short-lived marriage—and ensuing annulment—that followed a night of drinking at the Palms' Ghost Bar. The boutique hotel is far removed from the old-school Vegas of Sinatra and Rat Pack cool, and even further from the late-'90s Vegas of family-friendly theme casinos. What the Palms offers is the intoxicating aroma of pop celebrity, a place where Paris Hilton can mingle with the cast from MTV's "The Real World" (shot at the Palms' 28th-floor suite).
While the Kings are run by Joe and Gavin, the franchise as well as the Palms and all other holdings are owned by the family. Younger brother George, the brains behind the Palms, runs the casino's day-to-day operations. Brother Phil is a former state senator from New Mexico who helps with promotions and lobbying. Sister Adrienne lives in Beverly Hills with her husband and baby boy; she contributes marketing and philanthropic ideas. Matriarch Colleen, still the glue who holds everyone together, also lives in Beverly Hills.
"We've been through a lot of wars together," says Joe, who, with blond highlights and a weathered, husky voice, resembles actor Gary Busey. "We look toward each other and to mom. When we come up with an idea, we bounce it off each other. When we all agree, there's a good chance that it's going to work."
"The family works together as a team," Kings president John Thomas says, "and they play together as a team. They work through whatever issue is at hand and out of the discussion—sometimes it's arguing, sometimes it's brainstorming—they come to a decision."
Refreshingly, they eschew corporate-speak. They claim not to have a company "vision" or "mission." Rather, Joe likes to say that they are in the "fun business," with holdings in sports, gaming and booze. Combined with their stake in San Francisco-based Wells Fargo—they are reportedly the largest non-institutional shareholders—they're laughing all the way to the bank. Forbes estimates their assets at more than $1 billion.
The origin of their wealth is beer. Grandfather Joe Maloof emigrated from Lebanon at the turn of the 20th Century and landed in the hinterlands of Las Vegas, N.M. There he ran a general store. In the 1930s, he landed the local distribution rights to Colorado-based Coors beer. It launched the family's fortune. When Joe suffered a heart attack in 1944, his oldest son George took over, gaining the Coors distributorship for the entire state. Charismatic and hard-driving, the elder Maloof parlayed that into an empire that featured hotels, a trucking company and majority interest in the First National Bank in Albuquerque. (Through a series of mergers after his death, the family ended up with Wells Fargo shares). He met his wife, Colleen, at a liquor convention when she was 19 and he was 29.
George was chairman of the state racing commission and the New Mexico branch of the U.S. Olympic Committee, as well as a staunch Democratic Party supporter. He encouraged his five children to play sports, and all four brothers played college football, while Adrienne excelled at tennis.