Gov. Jerry Brown watched from on high in a booth with the former czar of American professional basketball, David J. Stern. Dusty Baker sat ringside, with his son. The mayor, Kevin Johnson, took a bow. So did Urijah Faber, the soon-to-retire former mixed martial arts champion, and his fellow fighter, Paige VanZant, a star dancer as well as strawweight contender whose purple-tinged hair worked well with the indoor light.
You’ve probably heard they opened a new arena in town Thursday night, and there was a lot to like about it, including the heart of the purple-tinged team that will play its home games there.
No, the Kings did not beat the San Antonio Spurs in Golden 1 Center’s NBA ribbon cutter, but neither did the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena earlier in the week, and there’s no doubt that in the first week of the 2016-17 season, the Kings played the Spurs a helluva lot tougher than the former NBA champs.
The Kings gave an effort on Thursday night worthy of the brilliant new gym, and even though they lost 102-94 – compared with the Warriors’ 29-point setback to the Spurs – the spectators clapped when the Kings walked off the floor at the game’s end.
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You didn’t see anything like it last year, when fans usually left Sleep Train Arena in a hurry, and you probably didn’t see anything like it in Oakland, where the Spurs dismantled the Warriors.
“I think they see the effort,” said hometown guy Matt Barnes of the Kings.
“I was listening to the guys on the bench who were here last year saying, ‘We would have gave up,’ or, ‘This team would have lost by 30’-type things, you know what I mean?” Barnes continued. “So it’s like we’re surely trying to change the culture again, just to be able to compete. You can’t control when the shots go in, but one thing you can control is how hard you play. That’s something we preach every day.”
A laser-light show drove the fans into a pregame frenzy. The flashing ribbon boards that ring the arena sparkled with images of the Tower Bridge and the state Capitol outlined against electric blue skies. The Sacramento Philharmonic starred in a pregame video, knocking out tunes from a bandstand atop the Park Tower at 9th and J, caught on camera by a helicopter. For an encore, the SacPhils got the opening night halftime gig.
Chris Webber, maybe the franchise’s best player in the Sacramento era, was introduced before the game, and so were Darrell Steinberg, the mayor-to-be, and the City Council members who voted for the $557 million arena project. The pregame show included a tribute to DeMarcus Cousins for his gold medal at the Olympics. Cousins was so taken by the moment, he said later, that he nearly lost control of his emotions. We can all say what we want about the principal owner, Vivek Ranadive, but the fans had their say Thursday night, and they cheered him as if he had just won the Super Bowl.
Kings coach Dave Joerger said the moment was not lost on his club. He said he felt the fire burning inside his guys from the night before, on the plane ride home from their season-opening win in Phoenix. Coming into the G1C, “our guys really felt the love,” Joerger said.
For the next 48 minutes, they gave it back.
“I just wish we could have got the win,” Joerger said.
For a few brief moments, it appeared the Kings might make opening night at the arena even more momentous.
With Cousins on his way to 37 points and 16 rebounds and the defense hustling and helping one another, the Kings built an 11-point lead late in the second quarter. They stayed in front, too, until late in the third, when the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard showed why he will challenge the Warriors’ Stephen Curry this season for the league’s MVP award. Leonard is so smooth and athletic, and does so many different things in so many places, that maybe nobody will be able to do much about him for years to come.
There was nothing Ben McLemore could do about him. Leonard ripped the ball out of his hands on back-to-back possessions late in the third quarter and bolted the other way, and McLemore fouled him on both shots. Leonard completed a three-point play after the first steal and sank both free throws after the second to put the Spurs ahead, and they never trailed again.
After San Antonio expanded the lead to double digits in the fourth quarter, the Kings played in the fashion that earned them the ovation at the end.
More than anything, the Kings kept playing and working hard. They even tied the score in the fourth quarter on two shots by Arron Afflalo. But these were the Spurs, and the league’s best franchise for the past 17 years did enough at the end to get out of town with the win. They also left with an appreciation of a nice new building – and an understanding that the team that plays inside it appears to have some grit.