Sacramento Kings

Sacramento Kings had the No. 1 pick once — and airballed. ‘That draft crushed us.’

The Kings' No. 1 draft choice, Pervis Ellison, adjusts his new cap in New York on June 28, 1989, as Kings representative Jim Kerman smiles.
The Kings' No. 1 draft choice, Pervis Ellison, adjusts his new cap in New York on June 28, 1989, as Kings representative Jim Kerman smiles. Associated Press file

The Kings have had their moments in the NBA draft, including some rare gems.

And the Kings have endured equal parts bad timing, bad decisions and bad luck.

Pervis Ellison embodied all three.

Jerry Reynolds has experienced each of the Kings drafts since the franchise relocated from Kansas City to Sacramento in 1985 in a variety of roles. And no one better understands the relationship between his beloved franchise and the twists of misfortune.

The Kings have had the No. 1 overall pick once in the lottery era dating to 1985. Their turn came in 1989, an unlucky year. On Thursday, they have their highest pick since then, No. 2 overall, and they can ill afford to put up another airball.

In 1989, there was no clear-cut franchise saviors. The Kings decided on Ellison weeks after then-owner Gregg Lukenbill beamed after landing the top selection: "This is the greatest thing that could have happened to this team."

It turned out to be quite the opposite. Ellison's slight frame wasn't able to carry the burden of the expectations and hopes of a franchise in desperate need of a boost. He was booed by Sacramento fans when he was drafted, booed when he played, booed when he didn't.

Injuries and lack of motivation limited the 6-foot-9 Louisville product to 34 games as a rookie. He went from "Never Nervous Pervis" from his college days to "Out of Service Pervis."

Ellison was traded for what amounted to spare parts to Washington in the off-season — Bobby Hansen, Eric Leckner and a first-round pick that turned out to be Anthony Bonner. Nice guys, but none remotely close to a franchise cornerstone. Ellison was ushered out of town to a chorus of good riddance. The Kings were left to wipe the tar and feathers off their hands and faces.

Never before had a team given up on a No. 1 overall pick after just one season.

Reynolds this week reflected on that draft. He was the Kings' coach in 1989 and has in recent years done TV commentary.

"We found out, as did other teams that had Pervis, that he didn't love the game," Reynolds said. "Good guy, easy to be around, but he didn't have that competitive spirit, that drive, and that's why he had the career he had. We were not lucky in a bad draft.

"We needed a great player, but there wasn't a David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James. Not even close."

We break down the five biggest booms and five biggest busts at the No. 2 overall pick in NBA Draft history. The Sacramento Kings have that spot for the 2018 draft.

Kings fans groused for years about Ellison. Reynolds heard plenty of it.

"I never got blamed by the fans for the Pervis pick, because it wasn't my call, but fans did question it for years," Reynolds said. "They had every right to. The pick was a mistake."

Ellison averaged 8.0 points and 5.8 rebounds in Sacramento, and 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds over 11 underwhelming seasons. He now coaches high school basketball for Life Center Academy in New Jersey, where his teams have won six games in three seasons, including none this past season.

Ellison has declined to talk about his Kings experiences over the decades. He could not be reached for this story.

The Kings limped home at 23-59 in 1989-90, their poorest showing in 30 years. The Kings touted Ellison as "the right guy for the franchise for the next decade," but it took six more seasons before the Kings reached the playoffs and three more after that before they produced their first winning record in Sacramento.

Life Center head coach Pervis Ellison is seen on the sidelines against MacDuffie during their Big Apple Basketball Classic high school basketball game in Manhattan, N.Y., on Jan. 17, 2015. Gregory Payan AP file

Bill Russell influence

Ellison was purely a Bill Russell pick. Russell had been a game-changing center for the Boston Celtics dynasty a generation earlier who was brought out of retirement by the Kings in 1987 to serve first as head coach and later in a front-office role.

He was replaced as coach by Reynolds after one year and made the call on the Ellison selection. Russell thought Ellison had a little bit of his game. The only similarity turned out to be height.

The Kings did not bring Ellison in for interviews or to work him out before the draft, an unheard-of practice then and especially now.

"Russell was unique like that, and he was convinced Pervis was the best player," Reynolds said. "Fans in a Bee poll wanted Stacey King, and he didn't do much either. It was that kind of draft. The best player was Tim Hardaway at No. 14, or Sean Elliott at 3, but no one was going to take either at No. 1.

"I asked Bill, 'Don't you think it'd be a good idea to bring Pervis in to talk to him, get to know him?' Bill didn't think so. That draft crushed us. We needed a major star. We need a major star in this draft, too. There will be guys who make it and are stars, and there will be guys who don't. That's the reality of it. ... (Ellison) had talent and, if he was healthy and wanted to compete and work on his game, he could have been something."

The 1989 draft shifted the Kings' fortunes.

"If the Kings were able to draft a David Robinson or a Tim Duncan-type player with the first pick, things would have been completely different for them," Bob Weiss said years later while coaching Seattle. "It would have changed their entire franchise. Sometimes there's a great player at No. 1, and sometimes there's nothing."

Dick Motta was the Kings coach when the franchise traded him. He questioned the draft and Ellison's heart.

"When you're making that kind of investment, you'd better turn over every rock in his past," Motta said then. "The Kings talked to Pervis for a half-hour on the telephone (before the draft). You're going to make a $12 million decision based on a phone call?"

The Sacramento Kings' Pervis Ellison (42) drives past Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer (40) of the Detroit Pistons for a layup during his rookie season of 1989-90. Richard Gilmore Sacramento Bee file

Warning signs

Russell also ignored a glaring red flag on Ellison. Bill Jones, the Kings trainer then, attended a league-wide scouting combine in Chicago, where teams administered strength testing of draft prospects.

"We did all the physicals on Pervis," Jones said years later (he died in 2005). "He checked out the weakest person of all the players that came to that combine. Of 70 to 80 rookies, he was the weakest one."

Ellison got off on the wrong foot from the start in Sacramento. Days before camp opened in 1989, Ellison underwent surgery to remove bone spurs on his right foot and ankle. He missed camp to heal and held out amid contract negotiations. By November, Ellison developed tendinitis in his right toe, the result of the center changing his running gait to compensate for his surgically repaired foot.

In December, more issues: Ellison took a Christmas holiday break to visit family in Kentucky, leaving the Kings for two weeks. Russell approved of the getaway. Russell was fired days later.

The Kings shot and missed on two bigs in short order. Russell was plucked out of 15-year basketball coaching retirement in 1987 to coach and later run the team. He was fired after going 17-41 as coach, leading to Reynolds' second tour as Kings head coach in a pinch.

Peter Falk of "Columbo" TV fame was a rare celebrity who attended Kings games at Arco Arena in the late 1980s. The old detective could sniff a problem, telling The Bee then, "Bill Russell was the greatest player there ever was. But he can't coach."

Or draft.

Here's a ranking of the Sacramento Kings best and worst NBA draft decisions in the lottery since 2007, according to the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones.

NBA draft

When: Thursday, 4 p.m.

Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.


Kings’ picks: First round, No. 2 overall; second round, No. 36 overall

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