LeBron was here. Steph, AD, KD, The Beard and Luka, too.
Over the past three days, the most luminous stars in the world’s most star-driven sport converged on Charlotte for NBA All-Star Weekend along with 1,800 members of the media who came from all over the world to record every soundbite. And you know who people keep asking about?
Your Sacramento Kings.
It’s true. They call this place Buzz City — home of the Charlotte Hornets — and the fun, young, run-and-gun Kings have managed to capture some of that buzz.
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Sacramento sent four players to participate in All-Star festivities. De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III impressed in the Rising Stars game. Fox competed in the Skills Challenge. Buddy Hield reached the finals in the 3-Point Contest, proving he is one of the best shooters in the league.
Only one other time in franchise history have the Kings sent four players to All-Star Weekend. That was 2002, when Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic were selected for the All-Star Game, Stojakovic won the 3-Point Contest, Hedo Turkoglu appeared in the Rising Stars game and Gerald Wallace competed in the Slam Dunk contest.
“It says a lot about what we have on our team, the talent we have,” Bagley said. “We have a lot of pieces that we’re putting together.”
So what are other people saying about the Kings (30-27), who are coming out of the All-Star break in the thick of a playoff race after 12 losing seasons?
“Love ‘em,” said TNT analyst Reggie Miller, who was a five-time All-Star with the Indiana Pacers. “... I think this is a scary team that is on the uprise, a lot like the Brooklyn Nets, because of how they play. They play so hard and they’re not afraid and they’re not intimidated. Before, you could go into Sacramento, and (players) would be asking for your autograph after the game. Those days are over now. They are a legitimate Western Conference playoff team, in my opinion.”
Imagine that. Now, imagine you’re Kyrie Irving, a six-time All-Star who won an NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and someone approaches your podium to ask what it was like to meet Fox.
“He’s an awesome player,” said Irving, who served as an honorary coach for the Rising Stars game. “... I was happy I got a chance to be in the locker room with those young guys, but especially De’Aaron.”
One reporter asked Fox about the similarities between the Kings and the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Another asked Bagley a series of questions about the team’s surprising success, its enormous potential and its push to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. If you looked down at the media credential hanging from the reporter’s neck, you would have noticed he’s from a little publication called Sports Illustrated.
“Once you win, everybody’s talking about you, everybody respects you,” Hield said. “... So you see a lot of people come up and shake your hand, tell you you’re having a hell of a season, just encouraging us to keep it up, asking, ‘Are you guys going to make the playoffs?’ It just shows that they’re watching and they care.”
Oh, they’re watching, all right. More and more people from other markets are telling me the Kings have become one of their favorite teams to watch on NBA League Pass. Over the holidays, managers at several sports apparel stores in the Sacramento area told me they were selling out of Kings hats, jerseys and sweatshirts for the first time in a long time.
Webber, who now works alongside Miller as a TNT analyst, has seen this happen in Sacramento once before. Webber was the king of Kings when they first made Sacramento proud, taking the league by storm with a beautiful, rhythmic brand of basketball under the tutelage of former coach Rick Adelman.
In 1998-99, the Kings made the first of eight consecutive playoff appearances during an era that featured Jason Williams, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, Stojakovic, Webber and Vlade Divac. They were on the verge of winning an NBA championship until hearts broke all over the city with a Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the infamous 2002 Western Conference finals.
Webber remembers what it was like then. He knows what it could be like now with Divac serving as the general manager, Stojakovic working in the front office and Jackson working in player development, all trying to take care of some unfinished business.
“During that time, I remember that was the most passionate basketball experience, professionally, that I ever witnessed, from the city shutting down for the playoffs to the first playoff series we had (when) J-Will and myself took pizzas out to the fans who were out there tailgating before the games,” Webber said. “From the fans and how passionate they were to the cowbells to Sign Lady and just everyone there, from the vendors all the way to the owners, you knew it was a feeling of community. Vlade is trying to recapture that.”
He’s certainly capturing people’s attention.
Two years ago, Divac made a deal with New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps, putting his job and his reputation on the line with a trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans and brought Hield to Sacramento. Well, Demps was fired on Friday while people in Charlotte were praising Divac.
“Vlade has believed in these guys, especially Fox and Buddy, telling me a long time ago they were going to change the trajectory of the team,” Webber said. “The great part about it as a Sacramento fan is, I know Vlade, he doesn’t just work for the organization, but he is a fan of the city. He wants it to be great, not only on the court but in the community as well.
“And, yeah, he’s going to (turn) it around. He already has. He said, ‘Give me two years.’ He’s done that. Just wait till we give him a little bit more time.”
Whether it’s this year or next year, this buzz will become a boom, and a city that has waited far too long will burst with civic pride.
“They’ve been craving this for 13 years,” Hield said. “I can’t wait to put them back on the map.”
It happened once. Now, it’s happening again.