Recently, the History cable TV channel aired a documentary series about the late 19th-century and early 20th-century tycoons who – spurred by ambition, greed and personal rivalries – made the nation an industrial powerhouse.
Oilman John D. Rockefeller, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, railroader Cornelius Vanderbilt, banker J.P. Morgan, automaker Henry Ford and others are now engraved in history for both their accomplishments in business and philanthropy and their human failings.
Fast forward a century and shift 3,000 miles westward to the Pacific Coast, and a not-dissimilar phenomenon has developed in the high-tech industry. Multibillionaire techno-tycoons not only fiercely compete in the marketplace but dabble in philanthropy and pursue personal feuds.
Which brings us to the high-stakes chess game being played over the Sacramento Kings basketball team. The Kings may not be very good on the court, but as the team's owners, the Maloof family, seek to climb out of a financial hole, a potential bidding war is emerging.
The Maloofs apparently have a handshake deal with two very wealthy men who would move the team to Seattle, hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer, who runs the Microsoft empire now that founder Bill Gates has segued into philanthropy.
Sacramento officials want to keep the team in the state capital and have been seeking "whales" to compete with Hansen and Ballmer. Grocery store tycoon Ron Burkle and Bay Area investor Mark Mastrov are interested, and one of the team's minority owners has brought Larry Ellison, the fabulously rich head of the Oracle software firm, into the picture.
And that's where it gets really interesting, because Ellison and Ballmer have history. Not only do Microsoft and Oracle compete in the business software field, but the two routinely trash each other's products and each other during appearances before technology conferences.
Ellison, ranked No. 3 in the pantheon of wealthy Americans, once attempted to buy the Golden State Warriors, and even at a half-billion dollars or more, buying the Kings would be just pocket lint.
Given their history, one could see Ellison joining the bidding war just to stick a thumb in Ballmer's eye.
Another angle to the story is Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's hint that Microsoft's contracts with the state might be a pawn in the game.
Steinberg, who represents the Sacramento area and once worked for the Kings, could just be posturing for the home audience. The irony of his play, however, is that a decade ago, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that an Oracle lobbyist had delivered a $25,000 check to then-Gov. Gray Davis' campaign fund just a few days after a $95 million no-bid software contract was rushed through the bureaucracy.