Positive and negative ions bombarded the Sacramento sports landscape this week, from a downtown soccer block party to a basketball sacking in North Natomas. Sunshine splashed a celebration Thursday on L Street with the Major League Soccer commissioner’s announcement that he expects Sacramento to join his league by 2020. Minutes later and a few miles up the freeway, gloom engulfed the Kings’ practice gym, where it was proclaimed a future Hall of Fame coach wasn’t good enough for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade.
In midtown, mayor Kevin Johnson led the cheers and swung an air baseball bat to signify a ball being knocked out of the park when MLS Commissioner Don Garber told a crowd estimated by the mayor at 2,000 to 3,000, “We are making the announcement today: We will go to 28 teams, and we hope and we totally expect that Sacramento is one of the next four.” The crowd roared.
At the practice courts next to Sleep Train Arena, Kings general manager Vlade Divac sat on a stool surrounded by reporters holding microphones and cameras. He announced to the world that he was firing George Karl, the fifth-winningest coach in NBA history – and the fifth one dispatched by the Kings in six years. Somebody had to answer for the team’s failed 33-49 season, and Divac couldn’t fire the owner – or the ill-tempered center in whom the owner has invested $60 million. The joyless Kings finished the season looking as if they were trying to lose games to save a conditional draft pick – an abomination of the athletic spirit of competition.
In a town on the rise, sports has become a very important part of the municipal symphony, both economically and culturally. The Kings are building a palace just a few blocks down L Street from where the Tower Bridge Battalion drank beer Thursday in the late-morning sun, in a serenade to Garber and the soccer kings. The arena has fueled an explosion of food and drink and music and art and entrepreneurship and engineering at Sacramento’s core. The soccer phenomenon appears poised to launch a similar boom several blocks to the north, with the construction of a stadium for Republic FC in what are now the open fields of the railyard.
Synergistically, the two organizations have breathed fire into the region. Operationally, they look to be going in different directions, one guided by the promise of a major-league future, the other mired in a past and present of failure and firings.
One of them feels organic, farm to fork. The energy of Republic FC springs from the yearnings of its fans, who love soccer and Sacramento. More than 9,000 have purchased season tickets to watch a third-division version of the world sport. With handcrafted beer in hand, they patiently wait to become part of MLS, while the managers of their franchise move forward with professionalism and confidence.
The other team, which nearly left town three years ago, screams desperation as it grasps for a way out of its mess. In doing so, the Kings have pressed the delete button on a coach who led them to their most wins in eight years. Even worse, at the end of the season, the Kings kept their most talented players away from games they apparently hoped to lose. If anything signified dysfunction, it was this perception of failed effort. The draft pick wasn’t worth the disgrace it cost to keep it.
On L Street, Garber looked over a cheering, chanting crowd, many holding huge placards of his smiling likeness high above their heads. He thanked the fans for their support “for everything that we care so much about, which is to show the world that the United States is a great soccer nation.” He said it was “never in our wildest dreams” to see a street blocked off downtown in the middle of a business day to celebrate soccer. He commended the connections he saw between public and private partners and fans to create a market, he said, that has “punched above its weight,” toward a heavier division.
At Sleep Train Arena, Divac spoke of disconnection, and there was plenty of that. Upper management, the coach and the players were not on the same page, he said. The team “underachieved” under a “great coach.” Divac said he wanted “a new voice” and a new direction but couldn’t say if it was east, west, north or south. As for the new coach, the Kings’ goal is “to make sure that we bring in somebody who is going to be here more than one year.” It wasn’t exactly an I-Have-A-Dream kind of vision.
It’s a funny sports town, Sacramento, where minor-league soccer is a sense of pride and hope, and big-league basketball is a source of civic embarrassment.