Life without hoops
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – The trademark cowbells are just a faint echo.
A faithful following once considered among the best in American professional sports has only one thing left to cheer for now. They bring signs that read: “Save our Kings” and “Please Don’t Go.”
If this isn’t the end of Sacramento’s run, it sure feels like it.
All indications are the Kings are moving south to Anaheim after 26 seasons in California’s capital. Anaheim’s City Council issued the bonds needed to entice the franchise, new federal trademark rights have been requested and about everything else needed to put a simple majority vote before NBA owners is in motion.
Suddenly, Sacramento is on the verge of being wiped off the NBA map.
“It’s a sad and sorry state,” fan Nick Guero said at a recent Kings game with his 6-year-old son, Christopher, sitting next to him in a matching Tyreke Evans jersey. “I was hoping to share the Kings with my son for years to come. Now? I almost want to cry. Every game we go to might be our last.”
There was a time not so long ago that Sacramento was the NBA’s model of success.
A smaller-market franchise that thrived on being the town’s only team, fans turned out in masses even when the Kings were terrible. The team sold out its first 497 games in Sacramento, still the fourth-longest streak in league history, and they had another run of 354 straight sellouts when the franchise peaked.
Chris Webber, Jason Williams, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac and Doug Christie even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2001 with the headline, “The Greatest Show on Court. Sacramento Kings: Basketball the way it oughta be.”
Fans only added to the lore by clanking cowbells to deafening levels, especially behind the visitors’ bench. Those bells were never louder than when Sacramento won an NBA-best 61 games in the 2001-02 season, losing to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals at home in a decisive Game 7.
“When we were winning, the place was unbelievable,” said Rick Adelman, the coach of those great Kings teams who’s now at the helm for the Houston Rockets. “Now, for me, it’s just really sad.”
Even with success, the need for an updated arena was always there.
The building formerly known as Arco Arena lacks the moneymaking luxury suites that are in so many new facilities, the sightlines are poor and the 17,317-seat capacity is small by NBA standards. Cash-strapped Sacramento has refused for years to contribute public dollars to a new arena, which Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof argue is critical for the franchise to be profitable.
Some also have criticized the Maloofs for not pushing hard enough for a new arena when the Kings were in their prime and they had the chance. In 2006, voters crushed a measure that would have raised sales taxes by a quarter cent to help finance a new arena with a resounding 80 percent in opposition.
Now a new, different type of vote approaches.
And Sacramento won’t be able to decide this one.
The NBA granted the Kings an extension until April 18 to file a relocation request, and a simple majority approval by owners would be all that’s needed for the team to become the Anaheim Royals, one of the federal trademarks an attorney for the Maloofs filed for with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The team was previously the Royals in stops in Rochester and Cincinnati.
Tuesday night, Anaheim’s City Council unanimously approved a $75 million bond deal to entice the Kings to relocate to Orange County. And Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, is already preparing his hometown for the worst.
“It feels like a slow death,” Johnson said of the Kings’ possible move.
He has vowed that Sacramento will work to build a new arena with or without the Kings in hopes of luring another NBA franchise, a tough task for any city, let alone one out in the Central Valley of Northern California with enough budget issues to worry about.
“I can’t imagine the team leaving,” Adelman said, “because the likelihood of them getting anything back is not very good.”
Some residents have increased efforts to push for a new arena, although even the most loyal fans have come to grips with the reality that Sacramento will likely join Seattle – whose SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008 – as the latest town to lose its team.
The Glass Agency, an advertising company in Sacramento, launched a billboard and social media campaign to generate awareness of the issue. One billboard on Interstate 5 had a deflated basketball with a sign: “Game Over. If the Kings leave, we all lose.”
“You don’t have to care about basketball to appreciate how a professional sports team impacts a city’s ability to thrive, prosper and, frankly, be relevant,” said Amber Williams, the agency’s president. “It is a part of what makes Sacramento a great place to live.”
Added former Kings standout Brad Miller: “I came to Sac because I knew how great of a place it was to play,” he said. “It drew me in just because the team was so good. It would be really sad to see them go.”
Kings fans have, perhaps unsurprisingly, stayed steadfastly loyal.
While crowds have been sparse for the past few seasons, the attendance of late has swelled. In a Feb. 28 game against the Clippers, efforts to keep the Kings in town created a rare sellout with fans even jeering at the Maloofs – sitting courtside – not to relocate the franchise.
The Maloofs, except for firing back at Sacramento officials who were trying to sway Anaheim not to issue bonds for the Kings, have remained publicly silent on relocation. The current players and coaches also are reluctant to say much about a possible move.
“(Fans) still love us,” Kings forward Donte Greene said. “They want to keep this team here. They keep coming to the games and showing that they want the team to stay here.”
Fans might not have the chance much longer.
Sacramento’s season finale is April 13 at home against the Los Angeles Lakers, and days later the franchise’s future could become official.
“It’s an empty feeling,” Guero said. “Who will we cheer for if the Kings are gone?”