As Kings' season -- and possibly Sacramento run -- ends, a look at fan royalty
04/15/2013 12:00 AM
10/01/2014 2:14 PM
Above all else, the Kings are still their team.
The civic tug of war over the NBA franchise may conclude this week, and through all the uncertainty and fourth-quarter machinations, die-hard Sacramento fans have shown unwavering loyalty.
That abiding love will resound. It'll be loud and proud at Wednesday's season finale against the Los Angeles Clippers at Sleep Train Arena.
Then, come Thursday or Friday, the NBA could decide if the Kings stay in the Capital City or split for Seattle.
Depending on the outcome, Wednesday night could be the Kings' last game ever in Sacramento. Or it could simply be another footnote in a love affair that's nearly 30 years strong.
However, for the moment, the team still belongs to the black-and-purple bleeders, the Sacramento sixth men (and women), the more-cowbell crew.
These loyalists have been through this last-chance drill before. (Remember the move to Anaheim? That farewell two years ago?) And they've refused to give up, give in or stop believing that their cheers will uplift the five out on the floor.
Here are few standout Sacramento fans – some well known, others less so – who have remained steadfast by their team. They remember the victories and mourn the losses, but mostly, they yearn for more highlights – hopefully for decades to come.
By tipoff Wednesday night, a purple, signature-covered motorhome will have rolled into the Sleep Train Arena parking lot, ending its 9,000-mile journey.
"What we've learned from this whole trip: Kings fans are everywhere," said Dave Weiglein, a.k.a. "Carmichael Dave," perhaps the Kings' most vocal fan. "In Phoenix, Washington (D.C.), New York. This is Kings nation."
An Internet radio personality, Weiglein took "a month off from life" to campaign for saving his team.
Accompanied by co-host Sean Thomas and videographer Elliot Sisson, Weiglein crossed the country on his "Playing to Win" RV tour of more than a dozen NBA cities, bringing attention to the widespread support for keeping the Kings in Sacramento as the league weighs the franchise's future.
"Born and raised in Sacramento, I've been a Kings fan since they came here in 1985, since I was 9 years old," said Weig- lein when reached by cellphone on his way back to California. "This is a trip of a lifetime, but I don't like to travel. I had to do it.
"To say I'm a Kings fan is an understatement," he said. "The Kings are part of my lifeblood."
At every tour stop, he said, people wanted to sign the 32-foot-long RV with messages of encouragement.
"We had to buy a stepladder in Cleveland so people could reach higher up," Weiglein said. "We were running out of room."
When their motorhome pulled up to New York City's St. Regis Hotel, site of the NBA meetings earlier this month, "there must have been 40, 50 Kings fans, holding signs," Weiglein said. "We didn't see a single (Seattle) Sonics fan. It's amazing."
Two years ago, he "thought that final game might be it."
He responded to that 2010 relocation threat by organizing a sit-in outside an arena entrance.
"Officially, we had 30 minutes before we were supposed to break it up," he said. "Ninety minutes later, there were still 5,000 people crowded around the porch. These were crying, loving, passionate Kings fans."
Weiglein spoke to the crowd and shared in that deep emotion.
"Other than the birth of my children, that was the most intense moment I ever felt," he said. "It shows how much this team means to this city."
As the finale edges closer, Weiglein refuses to consider any other option than the Kings staying put.
"Is this truthfully the last game in Sacramento?" he said. "I don't let that thought creep into my head. We've already made our commitment, jumped off that bridge. We're either going to splat or triumph. There's no in between."
He's been calling the play-by-play since the Kings came to Sacramento.
That's more than 2,100 games over 28 seasons for the silver-haired radio broadcaster ubiquitously and affectionately known as "The G Man."
In the years that Gary Gerould has become synonymous with the team – essentially the voice of the franchise – his Kings associates have become his extended family.
"(The job) becomes an existence," Gerould said in the Sleep Train media dining room before a recent game against New Orleans. "You can't help but be a family. You all get on that charter aircraft, you stay in the same hotels, sometimes you go out and eat together. There's a tremendous overlap."
Two years ago when the team was on the verge of moving to Anaheim, Gerould thought "this great ride" was over.
This time, he's remained cautiously optimistic that a deal keeping the team in town can be reached.
"If you let it, (the uncertainty) will eat you up, consume you and drive you crazy," Gerould said.
"I have to go in with the realization that it could, in fact, be the last time," he said of Wednesday's game.
And if it is the end, the time to sign off has come too soon for the respected broadcaster.
"I don't like to toot my own horn, but that being said, even in my advancing years, I think I can do the job, and I think I can do it very well," Gerould said. "I take a lot of pride in that."
Where to start listing the memorable on-court moments during his tenure? A few instantly spring to mind. The early '90s contests when the Kings "dominated two consecutive home games, winning by 58 and 56 points respectively." Or the game in Chicago when they were "down 35 in the third quarter and came back to win in a building that's been notoriously difficult to win in."
The rosters of the past are also etched in his memory, especially the playoff teams of a decade ago.
"I think about how close the team and the organization came to getting to battle for an NBA championship and how special those times are," Gerould said.
For Gerould, the good times and the more difficult ones can only be taken as a whole.
That's part of being a true fan.
"There were teams that struggled to win 25 games a season but had some wonderful, wonderful people to be associated with," he said. "You look back and it makes you smile inside. I hate to think any of that could go away."
Margaret Bakalian and Martha Reitz
Twin sisters Margaret Bakalian and Martha Reitz know more about the Kings than most fans, even though they've never seen a game.
Both sisters are blind. They are also season ticket holders who obsessively follow the team at home and on the road.
The sisters were born prematurely in Missouri and suffered retinopathy from oxygen toxicity in their incubators, which caused blindness. Their father moved the family to Sacramento when the girls were 5 years old so they could attend schools that included them in classes with sighted students.
Bakalian said Kings fandom crept up on her when, as an adult, she started listening to games on the radio, gradually developing an understanding of the game.
"I'd hear the crowd yelling 'defense' and I thought 'What's that? Why are they doing that?' " Bakalian said by phone from her home in the Arden area.
"Slowly but surely, I figured out how basketball works, and it just sort of entrapped me," Bakalian said.
Bakalian and Reitz began attending more and more games until they finally bought season tickets (second level, Section 212) with Reitz's daughter and her husband. They call themselves the Kings Four.
They attend games adorned in Kings accessories, ringing cowbells during opponents' free throws and chanting "defense" when the Kings don't have the ball.
Bakalian and Reitz listen intently to Gerould's radio broadcast through their headphones, but respond almost instinctively to the game's ebb and flow.
"I know where the players are and I can hear them running the floor," Bakalian said.
The Kings once presented the sisters with courtside seats, which Bakalian said was a revelation.
"I felt like I could see them," she explained. "I know I can't but I felt like I could. When they were going to the other side of the floor I totally understood it like I never did before."
Bakalian said she would be devastated if the Kings left Sacramento. "I wouldn't know what to do," she said. "Part of me says I would hate Seattle for taking the team, and part of me says I would still follow them because of the players."
Both sisters said the energy and the community are what they enjoy most about attending games.
"It's the crowd," Reitz said. "Otherwise I could just stay at home. It's being here with all your other fellow fans."
"Some people might wonder why you would go to a game when you can't see it," Bakalian said. "But it's all about sharing it and just knowing that you're here with everyone else and the Kings are on the floor. It's just fun."
Sign Lady and Mr. Sign Lady
When Barbara Rust first saw their aisle seats at then-Arco Arena in 1989, she got an idea. Section 120, Row 3: Close enough to the court so that even the players could see them.
So the now-retired kindergarten teacher and husband Niko Rust, an elementary school physical education instructor, started making signs.
Thousands of placards later, they're known throughout Sacramento and the NBA as the Sign Lady and Mr. Sign Lady.
The Folsom couple – both members of the Kings Sixth Man Hall of Fame – have become a constant source of inspiration with their block-letter messages.
"Respect Our Kingdom!" "U-Knighted!" And more recently, "Stand Up for Our Team, Our Fans, Our City."
Players look forward to the clever courtside messages such as "Marcus down as Thornton fanatics" and "Isaiah (Thomas) Rocks the Purple!"
Or this nod to coach Keith Smart: "Team Hustle and Heart, Kings Play Smart."
According to the Rusts, the most memorable reaction came from "Drivin', Dishin', Dazzling Darrick" Martin.
"The night we held (that sign) up, he went absolutely ballistic," Barbara Rust told Kings.com. "He started running all over the court. He was yelling up at his wife, 'Look, look – I got a sign!' I'll never forget that. It's an example of how sometimes you don't realize how much you're affecting somebody.
"I'm a big believer that what you put out in the world is going to come back to you," she added. "The positive love and passion that we have put out, it does come back. People are really, really nice to us and very supportive – even from other teams. It's a real feeling of connection."
The Rusts together make each sign, a process that takes three to four hours in addition to the initial brainstorming. Using bulletin-board stencils from her teaching days, Barbara lays out the letters. Niko paints or inks them in. Then, Barbara applies glitter.
They bring more than 30 signs to every home game.
During this round of sale speculation, they've tried to stay positive, "refusing to put any energy toward the Seattle aspect," Niko Rust said.
The couple will bring their signs with them on Wednesday, as well as their unflagging optimism.
"Attending games and making signs to support our team is a big part of our lives," he said. "We plan on continuing that tradition for a long time in the future."
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. On Twitter, @debarrington.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that twin sisters Margaret Bakalian and Martha Reitz bought season tickets with Bakalian's daughter and her husband. They bought tickets with Reitz's daughter and her husband. Story corrected at 11:22 a.m. April 17.
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