Standing at center court in Sleep Train Arena on Wednesday night amid smoke from exploding fireworks, new Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, microphone in hand, uttered a few words.
“Sacramento, I have just one thing to say to you,” he said, pausing, his face a mask of seriousness. “This is your team. And it is here to stay.”
A standing-room-only crowd in Sleep Train Arena exploded in cheers. It was a moment many here thought just six months ago would never happen. And yet, the Kings hosted a noisy, purple-hued celebration Wednesday in Natomas, launching their 29th and most improbable season in Sacramento.
The game, which the Kings won 90-88 over the Denver Nuggets, capped a triumphant night.
Many in the crowd said they had come to bask in the fact that Sacramento had somehow, over the last three years, fended off serious attempts by two cities to take the team – both of which seemed, at points, to be done deals.
In 2011, it was Anaheim that had a deal to take the Kings. Earlier this year, Seattle investors had a deal to take the team north. Instead, a deep-pocketed group of investors led by Ranadive bought the team at the last moment with the promise to join the city in building a new downtown arena.
Wednesday night, the energy, relief, defiance and joy were palpable.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, who championed Sacramento’s cause, drew shouts of “David, David, thank you David,” from fans as he strolled a purple carpet into the arena before the game. He called the night a “retention party.”
“This is a very important opening night,” Stern said. “This is a new beginning.”
Stern, who attended the first game at the original Arco Arena – and then the revamped Arco – in the 1980s, said he plans to return, in retirement, for opening night at a planned new arena in Downtown Plaza.
Mayor Kevin Johnson, who offered his thanks to Stern in an on-court ceremony during a break in the game, said he was emotional. “It’s overwhelming. Last night felt like Christmas Eve. The tenacity of this community ... we played to win, and here we are.”
Mark Mastrov, who joined with Ranadive and nearly three dozen others to buy the team just months ago, took it a step further on the emotional scale.
Speaking to fans outside the arena before the game, the Bay Area resident and founder of 24 Hour Fitness spoke of a private moment he had just shared with Ranadive.
“Five minutes ago, Vivek and I were practically crying,” he said. “It’s been a lot of hard work.”
Even the Kings’ new team president acknowledged it was hard to imagine this winter that the team would open another season in Sacramento.
“I was nervous,” Chris Granger said. “I think when the deal with Seattle went through and Sacramento was faced with coming up with $525 million and coming up with an arena plan – all before April – it seemed like a tall order. But I would never count out Sacramento.”
The night was a mix of Hollywood and Bollywood on the hardwood, providing solid evidence that the team has already moved well past its most recent era under the ownership of the Maloof family, when it habitually lost games amid dwindling crowds.
As team owners strolled a purple carpet into the arena before game time, slapping hands with fans, Ranadive and others played cricket in a netted area outside the southwest entrance to cheers.
Joining him was new co-owner and former Kings nemesis, retired NBA All-Star Shaquille O’Neal.
The game was broadcast live in Ranadive’s native India, where the new owner says he intends to make basketball the No. 2 sport.
“We hope in the near future to actually take the team to India, which has never been done,” he said.
Ranadive’s influence was seen throughout the night. During game timeouts, Kings dancers performed an Indian dance and a few fans waved Indian flags in the stands.
Even the state Capitol served as a backdrop for a colorful opening night. The Kings arranged for it, as well as for the Tower Bridge, old City Hall, and other buildings to be bathed for the night in purple light.
Speaking to the press before the game, Ranadive, whose group in May paid a record NBA valuation for the team, talked little about the opening game, or the upcoming season, focusing instead on building for the future.
“We said we did not want to be judged on wins and losses (this year); we wanted to be judged on whether we had a system in place, a culture, we just wanted to show forward progress,” he said.
His goal, he said, is to turn the Kings into a model franchise, and the most technologically advanced. That included, he said, a new team app for smartphones that ultimately will recognize its users, showing fans the shortest path to their seats, or to the nearest bathroom. The app includes a cowbell that clangs loudly when the user shakes a cellphone.
Opening night was not without its glitches, however. Although the Kings installed numerous Wi-Fi pods in the arena as part of a recent million-dollar-plus upgrade of Sleep Train Arena, fans said the Wi-Fi connection and cellphone reception were glitchy.
That barely dimmed the enthusiasm for many fans who say Sleep Train has been like a second home, and the team a part of their lives.
Barbara Rust, best known in Sleep Train Arena as Sign Lady for her collection of banners and posters, arrived early in Kings colors from her purple shoes to a customized jersey that includes, “Long Live the Kings” on the back with “1985 to Forever.”
Rust is undergoing treatments for breast cancer, and she navigated slowly around her seat beyond the home-side baseline. She wasn’t going to miss this night.
“This isn’t just about basketball – it’s about the people, the fans, the employees, and it’s like a family, a way of life,” Rust said. “I know it’s been our way of life for 28 years here. I’ve had this same seat since Day 1, and I’m not going anywhere. None of us are.”
Debi Stevens, a season-ticket holder for seven years, was dancing in her seat an hour before the Kings came out for warm-ups.
“This is so special, and this is Sacramento’s team,” she said. “Let’s face it. Had we lost the Kings, it would have been wrong, like a kick to the shins, and (former Lakers coach) Phil Jackson would’ve been correct. We’d be nothing but a cow town.”