May 25, 2024
A Decade After Sacramento Showed Up for the Kings, the Kings Return the Favor

A Decade After Sacramento Showed Up for the Kings, the Kings Return the Favor

The long-term fate of the Sacramento Kings was still unclear. In 2013, Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento and N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern persuaded a new owner to buy the team, a last-minute change that kept it from moving to Seattle.

But the Kings’ home was still a dumpy suburban stadium that no longer fit the modern N.B.A. Without a new arena, leaving would always be in the cards.

A year later I flew to Sacramento as the City Council convened for a tense vote on whether the city should pay roughly half the cost, $255 million, for construction of a new downtown arena now known as the Golden 1 Center.

Kings fans showed up in force, as they always do, despite the team having just skidded to its eighth consecutive losing season. They held aloft placards imploring the Council to say yes. Angry critics were also on hand, dead set against spending taxpayer funds on a sports team’s arena.

The Council voted to allocate the money. The Kings stayed put, with the new owner, Vivek Ranadive, promising fans that the team was in it for the long haul. “This is your team, and it is here to stay!” he said.

Nine years later, and after a league-record 16 seasons without being in the playoffs, Sacramento’s team is finally making waves in the N.B.A. postseason. Who knew it would take this long?

And who could have guessed that the young and suddenly transformed Kings would be going toe to toe against dynastic Golden State, which now calls its home San Francisco, a city that has always viewed Sacramento as a cow town.

The Kings of 2023 brim with fast-break speed and precision that conjure memories of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson a decade ago, at the start of a run that brought Golden State four N.B.A. championships and six N.B.A. finals appearances.

Of course, the Kings look like the Warriors’ doppelgängers: They have been molded by Mike Brown, who was Steve Kerr’s consigliere for years at Golden State, poached by Sacramento last May.

In playing the Warriors to a 2-2 series standoff so far, Sacramento has been so competitive and irritating that it pushed Draymond Green into giving a retaliatory stomp to Domantas Sabonis’s chest in a Game 2 loss from which Green was ejected (and for which he was suspended from Game 3, which the Warriors won).

Game 4 — a 126-125 Warriors victory on Sunday that the Kings could have won on their final possession — was so tight that Kerr left Curry in for 43 of the game’s 48 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter. When was the last time Curry was so pressed in the first round?

Kings fans have showed up with a fervor that matched that of Sabonis, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. They rushed to defend home court, purchasing nearly every available seat at Golden 1 Center, then set out to invade on the road. At Chase Center, in San Francisco, the Warriors barred Kings fans from bringing in the clanging cowbells that hark back to Sacramento’s agrarian roots and became a sanctified symbol of the Kings’ success in the early 2000s.

As the series heads back to Sacramento, think about how long Kings fans have waited to show up in the playoffs. Much has been made of the franchise’s streak of 16 seasons without a playoff appearance. But it has been 19 since the Kings came out on top in a playoff series and 21 seasons, since early in the George Bush the Younger administration, when the team was a genuine playoff threat.

Ask Kings die-hards about the loss to the Lakers in seven games in the 2002 Western Conference finals, and you will soon see the bugging of eyes and curses aimed at Robert Horry, who is to Sacramento what Bucky Dent is to Boston. The fans possess two qualities in spades: remarkable loyalty and plenty of pent-up frustration.

The crazy cool part of this Kings season is how stunningly surprising it has been.

In the long, hard seasons after Ranadive saved the team, Sacramento kept journeying into the dark corners of the N.B.A. wilderness.

The team churned through coaches and was run by a revolving door of upper management, which seemingly had no clue. (The decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic with the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2018 characterized the head-scratching moves.)

Critics frothed against Ranadive, claiming he was a meddling owner in over his head. The N.B.A.’s best practice says you hire basketball executives and let them choose the coach. The Kings did it the other way around.

Among all the hoopla about the upstarts from California’s capital city, remember this: It was just last year when the Kings won only 30 games while losing 52, yet another season of frustration, and one that prompted the city’s largest newspaper to run an article with a headline that blared:

Basketball Hell: How Vivek Ranadive Turned Sacramento Kings Into N.B.A.’s Biggest Losers.”

Now, the series heads back to the Kings’ home arena for what promises to be a madhouse Game 5 on Wednesday night, the vision conjured at that City Council meeting all those years ago finally fulfilled.

Now, the only hell connected to the Kings is the one they are giving the Warriors.

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