So after all these years, almost three decades of enough drama to win an Oscar lifetime achievement award, this was it, the honest-to-goodness, tell-me-no-more-lies, final kiss at Sleep Train Arena.
The last time the tears flowed. The last time Kings fans screamed and stomped their feet with the fervor of those crazies down in Durham and Chapel Hill and any high school with a Hoosiers zip code. The last time opposing players and coaches complained about cowbells clanging within inches of their ears, cold water streaming out of the showers or the stench of food inside a stinky, overcrowded visitors locker room.
This was a purely Sacramento spectacle, respectful of the past, yet mindful of the future. That Golden 1 Center is a stunner. Time to get moving. The new sports and entertainment complex is transforming the region, changing the look and feel of downtown, and altering the image of the community. And who knew? Who truly believed this was possible? That fans would turn out, en masse, season after season, in good times and in bad? That Rick Adelman, Geoff Petrie, Vlade Divac, Yolanda Griffith, Reggie Theus, LaSalle Thompson, Pete Carril, to name just a few, would be back in town Saturday night, celebrating the end of an era, and hopefully, better days ahead?
Sacramento surprised us again and again. When former Bee columnist Joe Hamelin informed several of his Southern California colleagues in the early 1980s that a young Sacramento entrepreneur named Gregg Lukenbill was working on acquiring an NBA franchise for his hometown, the idea was considered so preposterous, he was mocked throughout dinner. His wife, Sondra, became so enraged, she threatened to punch one persistent naysayer.
Well, the world turns. Commissioner David Stern signed off on the deal. Lukenbill and sidekick Greg Van Dusen brought the Kings to town and housed them in 10,333-seat Arco Arena I for the start of the 1985-86 season. Opening night was a curiosity, and a party that lasted into the wee hours.
Moments before tipoff against the Clippers, I asked Theus, a fellow UNLV alum and Los Angeles native, how it felt to be back in California. The flamboyant guard paused. He looked around the closet-sized locker room. He mentioned the cows grazing in the pasture outside the arena. “Sacramento is not California,” he said with a grin.
Turns out, Reggie was wrong, too. As the capital city grew and the 17,317-seat Arco Arena II that opened in 1988 became outdated, arena locations and incarnations were discussed until the cows came home. Except, finally, the cows went away, the skies cleared, the ownership changed, threats of relocation to Anaheim and Seattle were quashed, and Sacramento’s three-headed attack ultimately prevailed.
Sacramento is not California.
Kings guard Reggie Theus before the team’s first game in the Sacramento era in 1985
Stern stubbornly pushed back from New York. Mayor Kevin Johnson and his City Council collaborated in his hometown. Grassroots save-the-Kings movements pushed and pulled the community together just in time for Vivek Ranadive to assemble an ownership group with the financial resources to purchase the team from the Maloofs and partner with the city on a new facility in the perfect location.
The only blemish on this wonderful story is the 2015-16 season, a year fraught with disappointing results, another appearance in the NBA lottery and an unembraceable roster anchored by the immensely talented but moody, immature DeMarcus Cousins.
“To be honest with you, I think the fans spoiled us,” a reflective Kings coach George Karl said late Thursday. “We don’t deserve the love they give us in a lot of ways, and they still come out. (Sleep Train) is historically a part of my career. (Portland coach) Terry Stotts and I were talking about Game 3 (of the 1996 first-round playoff series, when Karl coached the SuperSonics), when Hersey Hawkins made a three with about 1:15 to go that saved our season, really. We went on to the Finals, and that was the best season I’ve ever had.
“And of course the fans here, the great years … when they were close to winning the championship, coach Adelman and that team … I don’t know how they lost to the Lakers (in 2002). But the city is always going to have those memories, and the Arco building might not be the prettiest building in the NBA, but it’s definitely one of those buildings you don’t want to come into when you’re an opposing coach.”
While the Kings plan to take the high road to their new digs, bringing the banners hanging from the rafters and the Monarchs’ 2005 WNBA championship flag, all the memories should be included, even the most painful ones.
Lucrative paychecks and prodigious individual stats do not guarantee championships. Teams win titles, healthy players win titles, the right decisions and the right play-calling win titles, as proven by the best of the Kings and the Monarchs.
The Kings reached the playoffs in all eight of Adelman’s seasons, and with president Geoff Petrie at the top of his personnel game, the 2001-02 Kings of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie, Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu, Gerald Wallace and Scot Pollard – not the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe – were the most talented club in the league.
They were robbed by the refs in a potential series-clinching Game 6 of the conference finals. No debating that. But they came home for Game 7 and a second chance at the NBA Finals, and instead of seizing the moment, left their poise back in Los Angeles. A year later, Webber’s knee buckled during the playoffs in Dallas, severely diminishing his abilities, forcing him to undergo microfracture surgery and thrusting Brad Miller into the starting lineup for most of 2003-04.
But things got better before they got worse. To the surprise of an entire league, this was the top-ranked team for most of the 2003-04 season, the one that put on nightly clinics with exquisite passing, movement, backdoor cuts, defense, chemistry. The Kings were like a married couple still madly in love after 50 years, reading each other’s thoughts, anticipating each other’s moves, finishing each other’s sentences.
“Sometimes the ball has eyes,” Divac said after the Kings eviscerated the Spurs in late January, leading San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich to later reveal, “That was the Kings team we did not want to face in the playoffs.”
But then a limping, willful Webber returned for the final weeks, insisted on returning to the starting lineup, and neither he nor the Kings recovered. After Sacramento lost in the conference semifinals, Divac signed with the Lakers, Stojakovic asked to be traded, the Miller-Bibby-Stojakovic connection frayed. The acquisition of Ron Artest (for Stojakovic) gave the Kings a final blip, driving them to the playoffs for the last time in 2006, in the final months of Adelman’s tenure.
Sometimes the ball has eyes.
Kings center Vlade Divac after the Kings eviscerated the Spurs in 2004
That same season? Ten long years ago? John Whisenant’s Monarchs of Griffith, Ticha Penicheiro, Kara Lawson, Nicole Powell and DeMya Walker were the defending WNBA champs and a mirror image of the early 2003-04 Kings, competitive and unselfish, collaborative and entertaining, and as one-time general manager Jerry Reynolds often says, his pride and joy. They lost to the Detroit Shock in the ensuing WNBA Finals and unfortunately a year later, were disbanded by the cash-strapped Maloofs.
But they left their mark, on boys and girls, and on a community that remembers. One final personal aside: When Griffith walked into my brother’s economics classroom for parent-teacher night at McClatchy High School to discuss her daughter, Candace, my 9-year-old nephew was seated quietly in one of the desks. As my brother, Chris, tells it, Matthew’s jaw dropped at the sight of his favorite Monarchs star. He asked Yo to sign his T-shirt, which she did, and he swore he would keep it forever, unwashed, tucked away in a drawer.
So one era ends, another era begins. Sacramento is ready – more than ready – for a return to the good times, for the fun to begin again.