This is the first weekend of the final season, and how unbelievable is that?
Sleep Train Arena is going to bed. In a matter of months, the doors will close, the lights will dim, the water will be shut off. The Kings will pack up and move into the Golden 1 Center, the shiny sports and entertainment complex that took more than a decade to build and is transforming downtown.
Goodbye. Good night. Good riddance.
For what has to be the zillionth time, the scoreboard died during Thursday’s preseason game against the San Antonio Spurs. The visitors’ clubhouse also is a crowded steam room, the concourses are cramped, the wireless is erratic, and the parking lot is gridlock after games.
So, OK, with that little snippet of reality out of the way, there have been far worse places to spend an evening. The pinch-me moments during the upcoming season will be plentiful. After a decadelong tussle over politics, economics, logistics and ownership, 2015-16 will be the season of firsts and lasts, of nostalgia, sentiment and memories, along with the occasional (Game 7 loss in 2002 to the Lakers) nightmare.
“I think it’s on everybody’s mind,” Kings radio analyst Gary Gerould said late Thursday. “My son came up to me at halftime, and we started reminiscing. He reminded me that he was on the sound crew when the arena was first built, which I had forgotten. We’ve spent 28 years in this venerable old barn, and it’s coming to an end. And it’s time. But as excited as I am to get into that new building, I still feel a pang. We saw a lot of really bad basketball and some really good basketball.”
Preseason home games already are history. The regular-season opener – Oct. 28 at home against the Los Angeles Clippers – will be the last time the Kings tip off the regular season in a facility that, in the best and some of the worst of times, was one of the loudest arenas in the league.
Who can forget Jerry Sloan complaining about the cowbells? Donnie Nelson consulting team physicians about possible damage to his eardrums? A bemused Phil Jackson revealing that he suffered from ringing in his ears days after his Lakers visited? Opposing coaches have a theory: Many believe the tight confines and lusty crowds contributed to a handful of home victories each season.
“Some nights guys may not have the energy, but playing at home, with the way these fans got behind us, even when we were bad, it really helps,” said Corliss Williamson, the former longtime King and current assistant. “The connection you have with the fans in this building is special. I hope we can keep that feeling, that sense of intimacy, in the new building.”
That’s the plan, anyway. Positioning fans close to the action is a priority.
The franchise also hopes to retain a comforting sense of familiarity. Kings icon Vlade Divac, whose jersey hangs from the rafters, now oversees basketball operations. Peja Stojakovic, his No. 16 uniform also to be relocated to the downtown arena, works in player personnel. Bobby Jackson and Doug Christie analyze games for Comcast. The organization’s utility player – Jerry Reynolds – and partner Grant Napear are broadcasting fixtures.
Reynolds, who was hired by Gregg Lukenbill when the Kings relocated from Kansas City in 1985, has seen it all and served in every capacity except chief dishwasher. Assistant coach. Head coach. General manager. Player personnel director. Never to be forgotten, he assembled the Monarchs roster that captured the 2005 WNBA championship.
Of course, he also is known for blubbering all over the television screen during the Kings-Lakers 2011 season finale – the famous sobfest – that most assumed would be the team’s last appearance in Sacramento. Instead, Mayor Kevin Johnson and former NBA Commissioner David Stern galvanized the league’s 29 other owners and resisted the Maloofs’ attempts to relocate to Anaheim.
“I didn’t mean to get like that,” Reynolds recalled, with a chuckle. “I knew I would get emotional when I got home, but I didn’t want to be a big baby on the air. I had prepared myself knowing the team would change its name and everything. But that wasn’t the lowest point. Game 7 (against the Lakers) to me was worse because, selfishly, I saw the Kings as a championship team. And then in terms of life events, when Ricky Berry took his life (August 1989) was terrible. I remember getting the message. Nothing compares to that. Bobby Hurley getting into the (automobile) accident that ruined his body and destroyed any chance of a career was another low point.”
The Reynolds highlight segment is topped by two developments: Mike Bibby’s right-side jumper that clinched Game 5 of the 2002 conference finals and the Game 2 upset in the 1996 opening round against the Seattle SuperSonics.
“It had been a 10-year span since we had reached the playoffs,” Reynolds noted of the 1996 series, “so that was a very special moment.”
The coach of that Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp Sonics squad that reached the NBA Finals? That happens to be current Kings coach George Karl. In yet another intriguing element to what surely will be a season-long drama, Karl was one of Sacramento’s most vocal advocates when the Maloofs shifted their relocation efforts from Anaheim to Seattle. Now, he is being asked to transform a team that has missed the playoffs for a decade and improve the product before it debuts in the new arena.
“It would be nice to let the old barn go out on a positive note, for a lot of reasons,” added Gerould. “And the sense I get is that for the first time in 10 years, it’s starting to build a little bit. Because it’s Vlade and it’s Peja, and they’re putting the pieces together. Let them continue to build. These fans deserve it. We all deserve it.”