Ailene Voisin

Opinion: George Karl’s arrival ranks as one of Kings’ biggest moments

Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl bring the players together on Wednesday evening, February 18, 2015 following practice at the Sacramento Kings training facility.
Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl bring the players together on Wednesday evening, February 18, 2015 following practice at the Sacramento Kings training facility. jvillegas@sacbee.com

When George Karl walks into Sleep Train Arena on Friday for his Kings coaching debut, this will be the time to seize the day and record the moment. Videos, photos, tweets, anything, everything. That first nervous smile. That first emotional wave to the crowd. The words from public address announcer Scott Moak, introducing one of the most accomplished and charismatic coaches in the game.

Watch. Listen. Enjoy.

Similar moments have been few, and fleeting.

The list of transformative developments in the Kings’ 30-year history in Sacramento is thin, barely more than a handful, and it includes almost as many off-court victories as on-court wins. But Karl’s hiring already ranks near the top of the list for one obvious and immensely important reason: Elite franchises hire elite coaches. And while the league consists of 30 teams, there are only a few coaches who consistently and repeatedly turn losers into winners, who turn talent into a team, thereby altering the course of a franchise’s history.

“I get chills just thinking about it,” said longtime Kings radio announcer Gary Gerould. “Other than the franchise being saved, I don’t know that the fans have had this kind of opportunity to be this excited in the last decade. You can feel the buzz. To me, this is a win-win deal, and we haven’t had many of those in a long, long time.”

In no particular order, the short list of seminal moments these past three decades includes the following:

▪ The Nov. 1, 1991, trade that sent unsigned first-round draft pick Billy Owens to Golden State for future Hall of Fame guard Mitch Richmond. A powerful scorer and excellent defender, Richmond enjoyed his best seasons in Sacramento despite a mostly woeful supporting cast.

In somewhat of an ironic twist, he led the Kings into the postseason for only their second time in 1996, and against a Seattle SuperSonics team coached by Karl.

▪ The May 14, 1998, swap for Chris Webber. This was nothing short of a palace coup. Former team president Geoff Petrie somehow persuaded Washington Wizards general manager Wes Unseld to trade his troublesome but talented power forward for the aging, unhappy Richmond. Without Webber, the Kings don’t make the famous cover of Sports Illustrated. Without Webber, they don’t get close enough to the Lakers to blow the 2002 conference finals. And if Webber had remained healthy? If he hadn’t suffered the devastating knee injury that effectively ended his career in the 2003 series against Dallas? Well, at least the Kings are finally showing signs of a recovery.

▪ The Jan. 22, 1999, signing of free agent Vlade Divac. Long before the affable Serb center became a Kings icon, he was the first coveted free agent successfully lured to Sacramento. His addition punctuated a lockout-lengthened, transformative 1998-99 offseason that included the signing of rookie Peja Stojakovic, the drafting of point guard Jason Williams, the hiring of veteran coach Rick Adelman and, of course, the presence of Webber.

▪ Three other crucial moves during the Kings’ best era (1999-2004). Williams was traded to Vancouver for Mike Bibby, Corliss Williamson went to Toronto for Doug Christie, and free agent Bobby Jackson signed a multiyear deal.

▪ Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s impassioned plea to the NBA board of governors. The day after the 2011-12 season finale and sobfest against the Lakers, the former NBA All-Star addressed the owners and introduced a hefty lineup of deep-pocketed prospective buyers. The owners were impressed; theyrejected the Maloof family’s request to relocate the franchise to Anaheim and gave Johnson the time and opportunity to finalize an arena deal.

▪ Two years later, after the Maloofs withdrew support for a downtown arena and Seattle resident Steve Ballmer offered $525 million for the franchise, Silicon Valley tycoon Vivek Ranadive headed an ownership group that trumped Ballmer’s offer by $9 million. As part of the negotiation, he agreed to partner with the city on a downtown sports and entertainment center. Again, Johnson’s persistence and former Commissioner David Stern’s relentless desire to protect his small markets proved pivotal.

So finally, back to Karl, and what his hiring by Ranadive and Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro means for the franchise. How about instant credibility? Innovative coaching? An ideal and demanding mentor to DeMarcus Cousins? An aversion to losing?

In 25 years of NBA head-coaching experience, Karl has done everything except win a championship. His 1996 Sonics of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf came close – and how ironic is that? – but similar to other teams of that era, could not quite match the brilliance of the Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson.

A two-time cancer survivor, Karl nonetheless guided his teams in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver into the postseason except once; the 2000-01 Bucks went 41-41 and finished fifth in the Central Division. The Kings’ playoff drought, by contrast, is inching toward a decade.

“This is unchartered waters for us,” Gerould added. “To have a coach of George Karl’s caliber … I don’t know if we’ve ever had that.”

Besides all of the numbers and the winning percentage, Karl has a dynamic personality. He is smart and engaging, refreshingly unscripted and unfailingly human. Kings fans are openly invited along for the ride, for the bumps, the bruises, the victories, the defeats. It all starts Friday night, this new era, this bold new Kings world. And it all starts, as it most often does, with an elite coach.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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