Jake Reinolds and Marcus Peeples were among the first fans inside Sleep Train Arena on Wednesday evening. Standing courtside to watch the Kings and Oklahoma City Thunder go through warmups, they said it was the second game they attended this season.
The first was the Kings’ win over the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 5, a 131-109 blowout that was part of a 5-1 start to the season. The collective mood as the arena emptied that night, they recalled, was one of heady optimism.
“Last time we were here, we were excited,” said Reinolds, 23, of Chico. “Now it’s a whole different feeling.”
The shift could be traced to several factors, among them the firing of coach Michael Malone in mid-December, the team’s subsequent 3-7 record entering Wednesday and the apparent uncertainty shared by players and fans alike over the Kings’ future direction.
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As fans filtered into Sleep Train Arena before tipoff, roughly a dozen used words such as “confused,” “frustrated” and “disappointed” to describe their attitude toward the hometown team, which entered Wednesday with a 14-20 record and seemingly still trying to regain its footing after Malone was abruptly fired and replaced by Ty Corbin.
Energy in the building picked up in the first quarter, as the Kings jumped out to a 28-16 lead and the fans responded in kind. But before the game, a common refrain from fans was one of not knowing quite how to feel.
“We’ve seen the bad times and the good times,” said Bob Smartt, 60, a season-ticket holder with his wife, Trudy, 67. “But these are the confusing times.”
Why so? Smartt said that he “really didn’t care for Malone” as a coach. “For him to be gone is fine. But they have to have a plan, and it didn’t seem like they had a plan.” After the move, Kings officials expressed a preference for a higher-tempo offense than Malone was running. “But,” Smartt said, “they don’t have the horses for an up-tempo game.”
Trudy Smartt said she started the season with “great hopes.”
“Now they’re not playing together,” she said. “They were at the beginning of the year.”
Steve Thurm of Roseville said the body language he observes on the court from his seat a handful of rows behind the Kings’ bench is disheartening. Thurm said he, too, had no qualms about seeing Malone fired – at first.
“I saw a direction he was taking the team that was focusing on defense, no offense,” said Thurm, 65. “Now I’m reversing my call and saying I want Malone back. Because at least there were some positive things going on.”
There were some breaks in the gloom. James Griffin of Stockton said he thinks the Kings are “doing really good.” Griffin said he didn’t get swept up in the team’s record out of the gate – rather, he “expected them to be just where they are now.” Any real improvement, Griffin said, has to start with the brass.
“I personally believe for a team to be good it takes money,” said Griffin, 69. “You have to have a couple of superstars. … They have to decide that, ‘We don’t want to be at the bottom. We want to spend the money to get the guys that we need.’ ”
Team turmoil wasn’t enough to keep Louie Ventura of Elk Grove from bringing his son, Christian, to the game for Christian’s seventh birthday. Ventura said he feels Corbin has been put in a “bad position” taking over at midstream. He said he realizes “transitions have to happen,” but he feels this one was incomplete.
“It was a jab, but there was no punch,” Ventura said. “When you make a move like that, have a bigger move to back it up.”
Fans floated several names of coaches they’d like to see the Kings pursue: George Karl, Mark Jackson and Alvin Gentry included. The Kings, though, have committed to Corbin for the rest of the season. So for now, the Kings and their fans must try to thrive with Corbin in charge.
“I was upset about Malone,” said Peeples, 24, as he stood courtside before the game. “But when are we going to stop talking about Malone? Every single call I hear (on sports talk radio) is about Mike Malone. We need to move forward.
“It’s like your ex-girlfriend. You keep thinking about her, you’re never going to get over her.”
Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015.