Saturday, March 05, 2011

Farewell Kings?

It now seems inevitable that the Sacramento Kings will be finding their way to Anaheim, sooner rather than later. Sacramento will join the likes of cities like Baltimore, Brooklyn and Seattle, all of whom have had sports franchises ripped from their midst for no particular reason other than avarice and greed. And even though I’ve held a share of a season ticket since the very first season, I’m close to the point of not really caring.

I’ve probably seen an average of 7 games per season since the beginning, which amounts to almost 200 games over the course of 26 years. In that time, I’ve had the honor of watching in person such great players as Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin MacHale, Kareem, Magic, Kobe, Shaq, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan…the list goes on an on.

It’s been a fun ride, full of memorable moments. If you’ve paid any attention at all to the NBA over the past quarter-century, you know that for years, the Kings were among the laughingstocks of the league. But even then, every game was an event, every game was a sellout. There was a brief period of respectability in the mid-1990s, led by the great Mitch Richmond (and I’m glad he got a ring, even if it was for the Lakers). But then they got awful again, and when the strike hit in 1999, our little group was on the verge on just giving up completely.

And then something wonderful happened. They signed Chris Webber, they drafted Peja Stojakovic, they signed Vlade Divac, they traded for Mike Bibby, and they gathered a supporting cast whose overall talent far exceeded the sum of their individual parts. I’ll never forget how much fun it was in the spring of 1999, attending a playoff game against the Utah Jazz. I remember saying to my dad, as we were having a little tailgate party in the parking lot, “It’s May, and we’re still playing!” And even though they lost that series, it was clear a new day had dawned. And that moment climaxed with the wonderful 2001-02 season. Since they did not win the championship I know I have no right to say this, but almost ten years later, there is still no doubt in my mind that they were the best team in the NBA that season.

But they couldn’t prove it, falling painfully short in an epic 7-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers. I think it was the single greatest NBA series of my lifetime. Every game was dramatic. The seventh game went to overtime, and it was only the fourth best game of the series. You had Game 6, which will forever live in infamy in Sacramento, where the Lakers mauled the Kings with impunity and were never called for it, and the Kings got whistled every time they breathed on the Lakers. You had Game 5, where Mike Bibby drained an unlikely three near the end of the game to send an entire region into a frenzy. And yes, you had Game 4, a game I had nightmares about for years, a dagger to the heart from Robert Horry that one could now say forever altered the course of a franchise. And so we lost.

And even though the next few years were great, it was never quite the same. They were always in the playoffs, but they never again advanced as far as they did during that magical season of 01-02. And in those seasons, they priced an entire generation of potential fans out of the arena. We have good tickets, and before you knew it, those $19.50 tickets were over $90 apiece. We could afford it, although we dropped down to 4 or 5 games a year, but I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of others could not. And the atmosphere inside the arena was never quite the same.

And when they got bad again, those fans never came back. Ticket prices have dropped quite a bit, but the arena is never full, and on many nights the fans appear disinterested. The magic is long gone. And the Maloof Brothers, whose primary talent appears to have had the luck to be born into a family with a lot of money, are ready to cash out, and move on to a city that has a nice arena.

The Maloofs deserve credit for what they achieved in Sacramento – they built a great team. But they did not build a great franchise, because that was already here. Essentially, they’ve ruined a great franchise, and when (if?) they leave, they will deserve the disdain directed at them by the fans of Sacramento, who have really done nothing wrong.

If they leave, I will shed no tears. I'll be sad, but I'll always have the memories. Memories of 26 years of games, sitting there with my dad, or my mom, or my brothers, or my wife, or my uncle, or my cousin, or my sons.

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