Dave Lack arrived at Sleep Train Arena on Friday night carrying a plastic bag holding three cowbells. On the cowbells, which Lack said he’d bought earlier in the day, the 50-year-old Elk Grove resident had pasted Kings logos and pictures, including one of the team’s new coach, George Karl.
“At the end of one of his interviews, he said he wanted this place to become wild again,” Lack said of Karl. “He said bring the cowbells and he’ll wear earplugs if he has to. So this is my contribution.”
The Kings, who have not had a winning season since 2005-06, rang in what they billed during a pregame movie montage as a “new era” with Karl, the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history, making his debut on the Sacramento bench. Fans around Sleep Train Arena made it clear before the game they’re ready for a change.
On the railing in front of her seat in section 208, Suzanne Hooper hung a banner spanning nearly the entire row that read: “Kings Got Karl! Yes!” Hooper said Kings fans in recent years have “had our ups and downs, and I think this is a really high ‘up’ for us, and we’re going to head in a higher direction.”
Lack, wearing a custom jersey with his fan-message-board nickname of “Fireplug” on the back, said hiring Karl makes the final 30 games “like a new season” – and makes a statement for the team’s direction as it plans its move to a new downtown arena.
“It’s basically showing that we’re going to have this bright, new, beautiful building, and we’re going to put a diamond in it,” Lack said. “We’re not going to have coal in there; we’re going to have diamonds.”
Addressing a crowd of about two dozen media members before the game, Karl said there was “no question I’m overwhelmed a little, being back – overwhelmed by the reception I have gotten.”
Karl looked cool and collected, however, when he walked onto the court at 7:01 p.m., to a loud ovation. Fans rose to their feet and continued to applaud as Karl, wearing a gray suit and red tie, first motioned for the crowd to settle down, then gave up and waved instead, rubbing his hands together and smiling.
Karl received another standing ovation in pregame introductions, as his career numbers were read over the public address system. Three and a half minutes after tipoff, he called his first timeout, with the Kings trailing the Boston Celtics, 13-2. The pregame energy seemed to linger, though, and when guard Ben McLemore made a three-pointer that cut the Celtics’ lead to 27-26, fans erupted, with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, sitting courtside, reaching out to slap McLemore’s back as he ran up the floor.
In her usual seat near the Kings’ bench, Barbara Rust, the so-called “Sign Lady,” debuted a new sign: “Karl’s Kingdom, Where Purple Reigns!” Her mood was hopeful.
“My concern is always about the team, the players, whatever’s best for them, that’s the bottom line,” she said. “Everything I’ve heard about Coach Karl is he’s really great with our players. If that comes to be true, I’ll love him.”
In January, shortly after the Kings had fired coach Michael Malone, Steve Thurm of Roseville told The Bee he saw little positive about the direction the team was taking. As of Friday, Thurm said, “I see a little light.” In fact, Thurm said that shortly after the team announced the hiring of Karl, he decided to renew his season tickets for next season.
“I probably wasn’t gong to renew. This is $8,000,” said Thurm, 65, indicating his two seats in the arena’s lower level. “What turned the corner for me was George Karl’s (introductory) press conference – 40 minutes of talking. And I buy into this guy, because I’ve been following his career for 26 years.
“Right now, I’m going to spend another $8,000, and I’m happy. And I’m excited about tonight.”
Sitting in section 207, George Peacher of Sacramento said he, too, felt excited – a far cry from what he felt during the Kings’ first-half coaching turmoil.
“It was a disaster,” said Peacher. “We were totally mystified why they got rid of Malone, then it was an interim period of, what’s going on? I was glad they made this decision to move forward.”
Peacher said he won’t judge progress by the team’s record this season.
“(Karl) has the opportunity to use this next 30 games as the start of training camp, figure out what works, what doesn’t work,” Peacher said. “I don’t look for (much) in terms of wins and losses. I just need to see the players playing with passion and having fun out there.”
Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewkawahara.