It's been exactly ten years now, so I'd be remiss if I didn't comment on what was certainly the greatest NBA Playoff Series of the decade, and one of the greatest of all time - the 2002 Western Conference Finals, between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers. They say that the pain of a close loss takes a long time to go away, and for Kings fans, this series was a testament to that notion.
It was the kind of series where you think about individual quarters, even individual plays, and wonder if just that little something had turned out differently, then perhaps the outcome would have been different. And make no bones about it, this was the real NBA Championship Series in 2002. With all due respect to the New Jersey Nets, they would have gotten swept by the Kings as well. That year, the Kings and Lakers were that much better than the rest of the league - and certainly that much better than the Eastern Conference.
Heading into the series, I was skeptical of our chances, even though we had a better record (61-21 vs. 59-23) and therefore held the home court advantage. The Lakers had handled us pretty well in the regular season, winning 3 out of 4, and as the old saying goes, when it gets down to brass tacks you have to BEAT the champ - the champ isn't going to lay down for anyone.
I have clear, distinct memories of all seven games.
The first two games played in Sacramento were almost unbearably tense, but little did we know at the time that they were nothing compared to what was to follow. The Kings lost the opener on a Saturday, which meant that they absolutely had to win Game #2 on the Monday night. They pulled that one off, and then for some reason there was a 4-day break before Game #3. That game was played on a Friday night, and I remember that we were having dinner at my mother-in-law's house, and that I kept pinching myself because very time I checked the score, the Kings' lead grew. At one point they led by 27, and even though the Lakers put up a spirited comeback in the 4th quarter, the Kings won by 13 to reclaim home court advantage.
And then things got really interesting.
I can now say with confidence that Game 4, played on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, is the most painful sports loss I've endured in an entire lifetime of watching sports. And those who know me, know what that means. This one hurt, and it hurt a lot - even more than the Giants falling to the Cardinals in 1987, or the 49ers being tripped up by the Giants in 1991. This game was a dagger in the heart.
In the first half of that game, the Kings picked up right where they left off in Game 3, blowing the Lakers off the court to the point where the fans booed them off of the floor at halftime. And then, the inexorable comeback began, point by point by point until the lead was down to 10 at the start of the fourth quarter, and then to nothing with less than two minutes to play. Final play, Kings up by 1, missed shot, rebound punched way out towards mid-court, Robert Horry picks up the ball...game over, dagger in the heart. For months, and I do mean months, after that game, I'd wake up in the middle of the night and see that play, over and over again. Ball punched out...right to Horry...shot...nothing but net.
But if anything, Game 5 was even more nerve-wracking, and back-and-forth battle that only meant the Kings' season, because after letting Game 4 slip away, you knew darn well that they weren't coming back to Sacramento if they headed down to L.A. down 3-2. And thanks to a brilliantly executed play by Chris Webber (assist) and Mike Bibby (3, nothing but net) off of an inbounds play with less than 10 seconds remaining, the Kings escaped with a one-point win.
And then, the travesty. The less said about Game 6, the better. I don't believe there was a conspiracy, or anything like that. But I will say, and there are plenty of neutral observers out there who will back me up on this one, that Game 6 of this series was the worst-officiated playoff game in the history of the NBA. Bad enough that conspiracy theories became semi-believable. It's a miracle that the Kings came as close as they did to winning the game, given the striped obstacles they faced that night.
And then, Game 7. My dad and I were there, and even though we lost, it was one of my favorite sports memories. The intensity inside Arco Arena that afternoon was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. And unfortunately, the Kings - who had been a great free-throw shooting team all year - picked this game to go 16/30 at the line, far below their season average. Even with that, the game went into overtime, but when Divac fouled out early, there was no way the Kings were going to prevail.
At the time, we thought we'd be back. But it never happened, and now we're looking at what will quite likely be the Kings' final season in Sacramento. If that happens, if nothing else we'll have the memory of having played in one of the greatest series of all time.
And in some alternate universe somewhere, perhaps that Horry shot does hit off the rim.