We were waiting for a mid-December Sacramento Kings game and saw the the lower level concourse at Golden 1 Center suddenly resemble a giddy courtyard at Disneyland. Fans were waiting in line to have their pictures taken, but not with Minnie Mouse.
They were sidling up to Jerry Reynolds, the flesh-and-blood embodiment of affection for Sacramento’s only major sports franchise. With a group of my buddies, I joined the line. We were like eager fan-boys, waiting to take a picture with a senior citizen who never played in the NBA and who presided over some of the most talent-challenged Kings teams in the history of a franchise with only eight winning seasons in 34 NBA campaigns in Sacramento.
It shouldn’t make sense, but it does. If you love Sacramento and the Kings, then you love Jerry Reynolds – the Kings in Sacramento have never existed without him. The Kings have always been about believing in the players who wore Sacramento across their chests. No one loves these players and this franchise more than Reynolds, so Sacramento people love Reynolds.
Like the rides and attractions of Disney, Kings players and the NBA experience of elite athletes are the draws that inspire people to invest significantly in their seats at Golden 1, the fancy arena food, beer, gear, parking – and more beer.
Reynolds transcends all that. Kings fans see Reynolds at the show, and the fervor of fandom meets the walking reminder of why they fell in love with the Kings in the first place. Reynolds has been with the Kings since their first day in Sacramento in 1985. He is the longest tenured Kings employee and his well-worn face, bright eyes and Indiana charm have marked the years.
The level of recognition among Kings fans that Reynolds can inspire is a sight to behold, especially now that the team is suddenly a legitimate playoff contender for the first time since 2006.
This past week has been especially meaningful because it marked Reynolds’ 75th birthday and his temporary return to his seat as the homespun TV analyst and irrepressible foil to Grant Napear’s New York-honed intensity as the Kings TV play-by-play man.
That Reynolds would be broadcasting the six-game homestand which, concludes Sunday against Phoenix, was arranged last September. Reynolds had voluntarily yielded his analyst job to former Kings great Doug Christie last season because Reynolds didn’t want to travel with the team anymore.
He has lived with Type 2 Diabetes for almost 20 years and thought, for health reasons, he should trade a court-side seat at 82 regular seasons games for a spot on the Kings pre- and post-game shows that don’t require him getting on a plane.
He’ll do another handful of home games as the TV analyst in March and then, who knows?
“I take it year to year, day to day,” Reynolds said when asked how much longer he will work. “I don’t need wake-up calls. I’m just happy to wake up.”
More than ever before, because of his age and because of all the years he’s been here, Reynolds projects to fans joy. He appreciates every day like never before.
“I appreciated when the Kings were really good (for eight seasons between 1999 and 2006) but I didn’t appreciate them enough,” Reynolds said. “I always thought, if it happens again (if the Kings got good again) I was going to enjoy them.”
And so he is.
Part of Reynolds bond with Sacramento is that, like many of us, he came from somewhere else and fell in love with the city. It was not love at first sight.
“I remember when my wife and I moved out (from his native Indiana) I saw nothing but TV antennas,” he said. “Even French Lick, Indiana, had cable for five years when we arrived in Sacramento. I thought we were stepping back into the 1950s.”
It actually staggers the imagination to consider the sheer volume of mind-numbing, spirit-crushing Kings basketball losses that Reynolds has cheerfully witnessed as an assistant coach, a head coach, a general manager, adviser, and homespun TV color analyst.
Despite long stretches of losing seasons book-ending the Kings glory years, Reynolds has remained through four different ownership groups. Aside from him, the Kings have had 16 head coaches since Reynolds came to town. Aside from him, the team has had five GMs or executives to run the basketball operations. Hundreds of Kings players and employees have come and gone while Reynolds has remained.
His last season as Kings GM was 1993-94 and ever since, others have held the most influential job in basketball operations while Reynolds has been a jack-of-all-trades. He was OK with that. And owners were OK with keeping Reynolds around because he always he brought a stable, big-hearted perspective to any task he was assigned.
“When they asked me to run the WNBA Sacramento Monarchs (in 1997) I didn’t particularly want to do it but I wanted to keep my job,” he said.
So he ran the Monarchs. At about the same time, though he had no experience, Reynolds was asked to do the color commentary on Kings TV games with Napear. That meant years of doing multiple jobs for then-cash-strapped ownership groups. No problem, Reynolds said.
He found a way to be valuable. He became close to Geoff Petrie, who succeeded Reynolds as GM. Napear had been very close to the late Derrek Dickey, his beloved broadcast partner before Reynolds. But then he grew to love Reynolds.
“He is so comfortable to talk to, so easy to talk to,” Napear said. “There are no false pretenses. No BS. Once you talk to Jerry Reynolds for two minutes, you understand that is not a guy you want to get rid of. Once you talk to Jerry, I don’t think you would come to to the conclusion that you would improve your business by getting rid of him.”
People forget that Reynolds, as the Kings GM, made the trade that brought shooting guard Mitch Richmond to the Kings in 1991. Richmond became the first true star player to wear a Sacramento Kings uniform. That uniform hangs from the rafters at Golden 1 Center.
“That trade basically turned around the entire fortunes of our franchise,” Napear said.
As the years went by and the Kings owners changed hands, each succeeding owner realized Reynolds was someone worth keeping around. By the time the current ownership group led by Vivek Ranadive took over in 2013, Reynolds was a beloved figure for his work on Kings broadcast and his history with the team.
His penchant for giving nicknames to players, no matter how goofy sounding, has always been endearing. When current shooting guard Buddy Hield is rolling, Reynolds says he’s in a “Hield of dreams.”
When a player is particularly smooth in execution, Reynolds likens it to “snot on a rock.”
When newly acquired small forward Harrison Barnes hit one of his first shots on Friday night, Reynolds said, “The Barnes door is open.”
Somehow, when Reynolds says it, it’s hilarious. Somehow, when Reynolds and Napear are calling a game, Napear displays a warmth and affection he generally reserves for his private life.
So when Reynolds stepped down as a full-time broadcaster in the in the spring of 2018, it was a thing. The clock was ticking on the Kings mainstay.
A region was reminded that old friendships, no matter how cherished, always have an end date. It’s coming for Reynolds. It’s coming for all of us. So the old man of the Kings is gong to love the people who love him.
Reynolds is a guy who gets hugged unabashedly by people who don’t really know him, but think they do.
On that night in December, Reynolds caused a big human traffic jam of goodwill. Fans wanted to share a moment with, and pose with, a 75-year-old man in an off-the-rack jacket and sensible shoes.
Younger people who probably weren’t conceived when Reynolds and the Kings moved to Sacramento joined the crowd pushing toward him . “I had these two 16-year-old girls tell me they grew up with me,” he said. “I told them, ‘so did your parents.’ ”
And plenty of Reynolds fans are – how to put this delicately? – of the same vintage as the man himself.
When my buddies and I advanced to the front of the Reynolds picture line, he knew all of us and greeted us with great warmth and that was reciprocated.
We put our arms around each as friends do. We said cheese to the camera and meant it. The smiles on our faces were genuine and without reservation. They said: We love this guy.