Friday, April 15, 2011

Until the last cowbell rings...

“Purple and silver day” was one of the best non-uniform days of my elementary school experience, because it wasn’t just a day to shed those polo shirts and plaid skirts; it was a day to celebrate our hometown pride: though the Sacramento Kings have long since fallen from their once-epic spotlight, their fans still remain some of the most loyal – and loudest (oh, the cowbells!) – of the NBA.

Yes, I will probably get shit for writing this nostalgic piece – hell, I get shit even now for still being a Kings fan.

“Don’t you mean the ‘Anaheim Royals’?” my snide, but well-meaning (I hope), colleagues ask.

It’s heartbreaking. I won’t even pretend to not be devastated by the Maloofs’ attempt to take the team south. Southern California already has two NBA teams … do they need a third? I think not. Lakers owner Jerry Buss thinks not. I’m certain they don’t. But it’s all about the money, I suppose and, unfortunately, the fans are always the ones who get jilted in these deals. Seattle Sonics fans: you know what I mean.

For a decade, despite my 300-mile move to southern California, I’ve remained a Kings fan. Through the glory, the frustrations and the heart-wrenching losses, I’ve stayed loyal to the team that began my love affair with basketball. My No. 16 Peja Stojakovic jersey still hangs in my old bedroom closet and there’s still a Kings poster of the ol’ “dream team” (Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac) on the wall; a Kings pennant hangs above my bedroom door and there’s still a t-shirt or two commemorating that 2002 Western Conference Finals series against the Lakers in a drawer … the mementos are scattered throughout my Sacramento home, and how could they not be? We were a Kings-loving family, like many Sactown residents.

Sports Illustrated, February 2001
The early 2000s were truly the golden years for the Kings. Their starters graced the cover of “Sports Illustrated” (the “dream team” pre-Bibby, when Jason Williams was still a King) and the team won its first playoff series in 20 years in 2001. The building momentum led to the now-infamous 2002 conference finals, which many young fans cite as the source of the Kings/Lakers rivalry that still has Kings fans hissing over biased calls (particularly now that Tim Donaghy’s confessions are out in print) and Lakers fans re-enacting Robert Horry’s Game 4-winning three-pointer at the buzzer (sigh!).

“We respected them, but the way we showed them the ultimate respect was by showing them no respect at all,” assistant Lakers coach Brian Shaw told them LA Times after last Wednesday’s win against the Kings to end their regular season.

As the decade wore on, the Kings slowly lost their momentum and by the time I left Sacramento in 2007, Head Coach Rick Adelman was gone, 4/5 of the “dream team” had been traded (and, even then, Bibby was gone barely two months into ’08) and their season ended with little fanfare. Coaching woes and player shenanigans caused Kings fans to shake their heads as their beloved team landed at the bottom of the standings by 2009, but it was no time to abandon ship. Say what you will, but Kings fans were nothing if not loyal.

And loud.

Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson, who once called Sacramento a “cow town,” ignited a surge of trademark cowbells that would ring so loud during Kings games, there were rumors of banning the bells in outside arenas (particularly Staples Center). Those cowbells rival the annoyance of vuvuzelas, but fans never tired of them: they wanted to be loud, to shake the roof of Arco and let the country know how damn proud they were to have the Kings in Sacramento.

Because if there’s one thing Kings fans know, it’s that this unpredictable team could always pull out the strangest surprises – surprises that reminded fans why the team was once called “The Greatest Show on Court.” In December 2009, the Kings came back from a 35-point deficit against the Chicago Bulls, the biggest comeback in franchise history, and last December, Tyreke Evans made a game-winning shot from half-court at the buzzer to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies. Even in their final game against the Lakers last Wednesday, the Kings overcame a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter that eventually led to a 116-108 loss in overtime, as well as an hour-long sit-in after the game by fans who wanted to show their love.

The Kings say a prayer with Derek Fisher, Lakers point 
guard and National Basketball Players Association 
president, after their Apr. 13 game.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, as we all know,” longtime Kings announcer Grant Napear said at the end of last Wednesday’s loss, “but the one thing that we do know is the love affair between this team and this city, and tonight, we say so long…”

Uprooting the Kings is more than just a change of location. It’s taking away a team that gave the capitol city something to be excited about for 26 years, the longest time period the Kings have spent in one city – something that bonded us in that unique way that only sports can provide.

“Maybe the Maloofs don't feel the passion, but as an L.A.-based journalist, I traveled to Sacramento for the beginning,” wrote Ailene Voison of the Sacramento Bee. “I heard stories about cows in nearby pastures. I heard about a temporary arena and a second arena on the drawing board. I was introduced to a loud, loving, homespun crowd. The NBA still doesn't have many places like this.”

Soon, it will be gone: no more fourth quarter thrills. No more Slamson in his oversized Kings jersey, running around midtown Target during the holidays. No more retired No. 6 Kings jersey in honor of the fans. No more shops at the Sacramento International Airport packed with purple and silver. No more Grant Napear shouting, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like NBA basketball!”

Even if the move is rejected by the head of the NBA relocation committee (which is doubtful since the head is Clay Bennett, who okayed the move of the Sonics from Seattle) and even if the majority of the NBA’s 29 teams’ owners vote against it (several owners have already expressed skepticism), the Maloofs have said they’re not interested in selling the team, despite billionaire Ron Burkle’s bid to buy them. NBA Commissioner David Stern thinks that southern California can support three teams, but Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (a former NBA point guard himself) isn’t giving in without a fight. The Maloofs have until May 2 to formally request approval to move the Kings.

Once again: these kinds of moves aren’t about the fans; it’s about money. Politics and arena-building arguments aside, it is more than likely that the Kings will no longer belong to Sacramento.

As heartbreaking as my love affair with the Kings have been at times, I think that’s the beauty of the narrative of sports: the ups, the downs, the jumping-out-of-your-seat-with-excitement feeling and the heartbreaking losses that bring tears to your eyes. It gives you something to invest in and it brings fans together as they cheer and cry in unison as their team’s season progresses.

And what’s the appeal of rooting for the Kings, a team that’s provided fans with more tears than cheers lately? As Michael Lewis wrote in “Moneyball,” his baseball narrative starring the Oakland A’s, “The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.”

Arco Arena--I mean, the Power Balance Pavilion--empties out, one last time.
And it was inspiring – the wins, the losses, the fights to the finish – even until the end. We can’t always be a part of a team or organization or group that will never struggle, so if this is the last struggle for the Sacramento Kings, it’ll at least have been one for the books.

1 comment:

  1. Definitely well-written, Traci!! Today as I was filling up my Kings glass, I was thinking (sadly) that it would soon be outdated. At that point, I was also afraid what would happen if I one day, accidentally, dropped the cup and had no where else to buy a replacement. :( I hate that this is all about money; and, more so, I hate the idea of the Kings moving to SoCal. That's plain insulting.

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