If Nobody Else Loves You, Sacramento Will

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Since their blistering 5-1 start, the Sacramento Kings have cooled to the tune of 6-5. But, if there has ever been a young, unproven team that deserves unconditional love, it is this one. They are no longer a sulking, amorphous mass of isolation basketball, rather they are a collection of the spare parts of the league that nobody else wanted, that somehow, has become decently entertaining to watch.

The “everybody is against us” trope is as old as when Og got Ugh and Oogh psyched for their big game of CaveBall against the rather imposing rival village in 10,000 B.C., but for the Sacramento Kings, the cliche is true.

Demarcus Cousins

Boogie Cousins is the unquestioned leader, spirit animal, and cornerstone of the Sacramento Franchise, but it took him a while to ripen into the burgeoning star he is now. During the 2010 draft, questions stuck to him about his maturity that he is just now resolving finally. These questions dropped him into Sacramento’s welcoming arms at the number five pick. But, Demarcus has been a handful these past couple of years.

He butted heads with Paul Westphal, yelled at Sean Elliot, and lead the league in technical fouls. Everyone was fixing to write off Big Cuz as an intriguing talent that never got his act together.

But could you blame him? Cousins has a passion for basketball like Guy Fieri has a passion for fat-filled fusion food. Testifying to this, there’s a new stat called the Boogie Board for how many times a player fights off foes to successfully put back his own shot, and Cousins leads the league.

His burning desire for winning was stifled by the tire fire that was the rest of the team. If you ever need a reason to vomit, just look at some Kings rosters from the past few seasons and you’ll have all the motivation you need.

Demarcus’s outbursts were not the actions of a deranged lunatic with a basketball body, they were the desperate cries for help from a man that only wanted to compete.

But then, Boogie started to channel that passion. The new owner committed to Cousins with a plump extension. He feasted on opponents in the low post and was a critical member of Team USA.

The stage was set for his coming out party and he has not disappointed, throwing up a nasty 18-10 stat line for the beginning of the season. Boogie has finally become the player that the Sacramento faithful fantasized about when he was first added to the squad. It is easy to see how this step forward took place as for the first time in his career Big Cuz has a complimentary second banana in…

Rudy Gay

In the the last half decade, Rudy Gay dropped from a borderline all-star to the lightning rod of mockery for the analytics crowd. Rudy was regarded around the league like he had leprosy. But, the truth is he just got put in a tight spot.

Rudy’s major crime was his massive contract that will pay him around 19 million this season. With such a hefty price tag, Rudy was expected to play at a superstar level. Only one problem, Rudy Gay is absurdly good at basketball, but he’s no superstar.

Frustrated, the Grizzlies sent him to Toronto. With the pressure of his contract, Rudy tried to do too much and captained the Raptors to misery. He jacked way too many contested midrange jumpers that he didn’t make. He didn’t pass enough. He played porous defense.

But, it wasn’t his fault. He was blamed for failing to perform up to our false expectations for a position that he never should have occupied in the first place, kinda like George W. Bush.

The Raptors became desperate to unload him, and the Kings tossed four rotation cogs their way in exchange for a player who had once subjectively belonged among the top-five small forwards in the league. His contract was shudder-worthy, but Sacramento recognized that potentially great players do not fall to them often. The new GM, Pete D’Alessandro committed to taking on good players with bad contracts in the hope that maligned players would turn things around and accept a more reasonable salary.

And that is exactly what has happened. Rudy signed a modest extension and has been throwing up 21 ppg at a solid 44% shooting percentage. He rarely forces shots. He uses his condor wingspan to drop in the most buttery finger rolls in the league. He has reinvented himself from an overmatched top option to a potent beta dog that gives the Kings some necessary star power to navigate the thick unforgiving death jungle that is the Western Conference.

Darren Collison

The Kings’ starting point guard stayed plenty cool over the summer with the tremendous amount of shade that was thrown his way. When Isaiah Thomas left the Kings, critics believed it was another example of #JustKingsThings. The talking heads thought Sacramento had yet again sabotaged itself into staying at the bottom of the Pacific Division.

The critics did have a point. Collison had never proven himself at the professional level as he struggled in stints with Indiana, and Dallas. He’s only shined as Chris Paul’s back-up in New Orleans and Los Angeles. He hadn’t shown he could replace Thomas’s 20 ppg.

But, the Kings didn’t need scoring. Isaiah had captained the squad into mediocrity with his unwillingness to feed our main scorers. The Kings needed someone to initiate and facilitate on offense, and frustrate on defense. Collison has done both marvelously. He may be a slightly worse player than Isaiah, but he has allowed the Kings to gel into a state of cohesion not seen in years.

The Rest of the Team

Ben McLemore was labeled a bust in a historically weak draft, but he has gotten his act together by knocking down a few clutch buckets this season and generally looking more like a competent basketball player. He has still only cooked off the surface level of rawness, but he is stupid athletic and may be the heir to the Ray Allen throne of most gorgeous jump shot in the league.

Jason Thompson, the starting power forward, has been wildly inconsistent his entire career, but in his sixth year, he has developed into an acceptable defensive foil for Demarcus.

Carl Landry has become a solid second-rotation scorer after last season was marred with injury. Ray McCallum parlayed a late second round draft pick into the Summer League MVP trophy and a spot in the rotation.

Derrick Williams has become an energetic role player in the process of slowly shaking off his mega-bust status. Reggie Evans is devouring rebounds and throwing his weight around. Nik Stauskas is a promising work in progress, and Ramon Sessions has found some semblance of a home in California’s capital.

Team History

The Kings have built their team in a way that defies convention, but that’s the way they’ve always done it. The turn-of-the-century Kings were comprised of wild-card Jason Williams, unwilling Chris Webber, and over-the-hill Vlade Divac. They take the league’s leftovers and turn them into a surprisingly palatable entree.

Sacramento is not a free-agent destination like Miami, LA, or NYC. Risks must be taken  to get decent players because most times players won’t come unless they’re drafted or desperate. But, once the players arrive, it’s hard to leave.

Sacramento may not be the most glorious city, but it’s still in California. The weather is delightful 90% of the time, the sun frequently smiles upon the valley and it’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump from some of the freshest, finest food in the world.

Plus, absolutely nothing else commands the attention of Sacramentans during basketball season. They don’t have any other professional teams. They don’t have a rollicking night life. They don’t have an uber-vibrant culture scene, but boy do they ever give a damn about the fellas in purple.

The fans set the world record for loudest indoor stadium roar. They cry when the team is about to leave. They revere a woman who makes signs.

Sacramento may not be the sexiest city in the league, but they’re content to be the back-up plan. When other cities chew up and spit out stars, Sacramento coddles them back to their full potential and this unwavering devotion makes players forget they’re playing in a “cowtown.”

The lovefest is a bit premature as the Kings are still a piece or two away from true contention. But, to any maligned stars out there –*cough* Josh Smith *cough* Rajon Rondo *cough*- if no one else loves you, Sacramento will.

What It’s Like to Be A Kings Fan

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I volunteer in a Kindergarten class. Occasionally, we do basic math problems like adding single digit numbers together. One of my favorite kids in the class, Aamed, is really bright, but on this particular day he could not figure out how to do this type of math problem.

He was just staring at the problem, getting angry at himself for not knowing it. His frustration increased when he saw the other students around him zooming through the project. I felt so sorry for the little fella, because I knew how smart he was because he had shown it in the past, but at this moment, he just couldn’t get it.

He squinted at the problem, scrutinizing it, then finally something clicked. His face beamed from the inside. The cloud of frustration evaporated and his bright eyes returned. He got it. He started zipping through the problems and was again just as good as his classmates.

This experience is exactly what it’s been like to be a Sacramento Kings fan for the past decade. The Kings became my favorite team in the league during the turn of the 21th century, when I still wore velcro shoes. Their potent blend of no-look passes, deep threes, and breakaway jams was basketball heroin.

But then, they hit a wall. When Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers defeated the Kings in 2002 under dubious officiating, the Kings dropped off faster than Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career.

In 2003, Chris Webber shredded his knee cartilage in a playoff series against the Mavericks. He would never be the same. The year after, Vlade Divac signed with the Lakers and Doug Christie got traded to the Magic. Then, the Kings swapped Peja Stojakovic for Ron Artest and in their final self-destructive move, they fired Rick Adelman, the coach who had presided over the glory years, for Eric Mussellman, a coach who would almost immediately get a DUI.

From there, things rapidly spiraled out of control. Our owners, the Maloofs, had been hit hard by the recession and were running the Kings like a thrift store, only spending paltry sums of money on players nobody else wanted. The team became atrocious as the Maloofs cared more about turning a profit than winning.

For years we relied on the unimpressive likes of Kevin Martin and Brad Miller to lead the the team. Beno Udrih played starting point guard.

But the ultimate poster child for the Kings’ incompetency is John Salmons. When we first traded for him, he sucked so much, we unloaded him and Brad Miller for such studs like Andres Nocioni and Drew Gooden.

Then a few years later, we made a draft day deal. We traded our seventh pick for Jimmer Fredette and, you guessed it, JOHN SALMONS. We could have selected Kemba Walker with that seventh pick, but instead we drafted a marketing campaign and an older version of a player we already knew was terrible. Instead of trying to win, the Maloofs squeezed every penny out of this franchise.

For years the Maloof’s cheapskate ownership doomed the Kings to the cellar of the stacked Western Conference.

Then, we thought we had fallen ass-backwards into a superstar with Tyreke Evans who won Rookie of the Year while carrying an atrocious team to 25 wins. But, it appeared that season was simply a case of a good player putting up great stats on a horrible team.

Then, we drafted the mercurial, but exceptional center Demarcus Cousins. Cousins and Tyreke were both ball-dominant players and fit awkwardly together. We had another surprise in the relevant Mr. Irrelevant, Isaiah Thomas, but his score-first mentality only complicated matters.

The Kings were a talented, but ill-fitting team that never got its act together. The only attention we got on national television was mockery.

As if our putrid play wasn’t bad enough, fans had to fight tooth and nail to keep this awful team in Sacramento. We were constantly on the verge of being sold to Anaheim or Las Vegas, or Seattle.

At the end of what could have been the last season in Sacramento, the long-tenured sportscasters Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds signed off uncertain of the team’s future. They were surrounded by fans who stayed long after the final horn, begging the team to stay put.

Soon, the gathered fans started chanting the names of the men who have called every broadcast for over a decade. These are two men that I have heard speak more than any other people on this planet outside of my immediate family.

Grant and Jerry couldn’t help but stumble off the air. Their eyes pregnant and throats choked with tears, Grant draped his arm over Jerry’s slumped shoulders, as cowbells rang in the background.

Cowbells became a symbol of Sacramento after Phil Jackson called the capital of the state a “cowtown.” Instead of recoiling in embarrassment, we embraced the image. We weren’t a big city. We couldn’t afford the best players. But, goddammit we were gonna try our best and make a bunch of noise doing it.

That night, the cowbells clanged because we felt we had been robbed. We had been treated to some of the finest basketball the league had ever seen and through a combination of bad luck, poor ownership, and baffling decision-making, we watched the league leave us behind and laugh at us.

Aamed’s frustrated struggle reminded me of what it is what like to watch the Kings get worse and worse in a league that got better and better. Our former glory had withered under the stingy care of the Maloofs. Fans felt the same frustration as the players leaving the court in defeat night after night. Together we thought, “We deserve better than this.”

And then, a tiny, tech-money angel dropped into our lap in the form of Vivek Ranadive. Not only did he keep the Kings in town, but he helped us build a new arena to replace the decrepit “Sleep Train Arena,” which is literally named after a MATTRESS STORE. He locked down Demarcus Cousins immediately and made hard decisions letting Evans and Thomas go as they didn’t fit alongside our cornerstone big man.

Then he splurged and brought aboard Carl Landry and Rudy Gay for above-market value, a move the Maloofs wouldn’t have made in a million years. He took a chance on Darren Collision, drafted Ben McLemore and Nic Stauskas, and brought back Omer Casspi, PhD of Chemistry. We committed to Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams, and Ramon Sessions: all players who had been ignored. Nobody in the entire league knew what the hell we were doing.

But then, the bright eyes returned to our team. The sulking and finger-pointing of the past decade was replaced by team celebrations and daps. Our offense no longer produced fadeaway mid-range jumpers at the end of the shot clock. We moved the ball until we get open looks. We didn’t blame each other on defense, we helped.

The last few seasons, the Kings have played basketball like they were Michael Jordan enslaved at an Alien Amusement park. These new Kings play like the 16 seed that just made it into the second round.

For the first time in over a decade, We’re 5-1. I’m cautiously optimistic as my attitude for years has been “Never count the Kings in.” But this year, I can’t help but be hopeful.

On Friday night, Demarcus Cousins fouled out of the game on a questionable “illegal screen” call. Young Cousins would have erupted at the referee and earned an ejection. But the score was 99-99 with less than a minute remaining. An ejection would have doomed the team. So after his initial surprise, Big Cuz trudged back to the bench, accepting his fate.

Coach Mike Malone had other ideas. He stormed onto the court swearing at the referee. But, Demarcus ran out to restrain our coach. The player who the media has ceaselessly beaten with accusations of immaturity came and grabbed his coach so the Kings wouldn’t lose the game as a result of a technical foul.

The Kings would win the game in double overtime as Rudy Gay and Ben McClemore stepped up to sink clutch shots. The winning play was about twenty seconds of stifling defense against the electric Phoenix Suns offense. From Demarcus to teamwork to defense, Friday’s game ended in actions I hadn’t seen in years.

Maybe the Kings have broken most of their bad habits and are playing like the Kings of old. Maybe they’ll rebecome the team I used to beg my parents to let me stay up and watch.

But maybe, just maybe, they’ll be better.

The turn-of-the-century Kings always crumbled in the worst situations. We let officiating and dirty tactics defocus us in the most crucial moments. The 2002 Kings were unraveled by a game that was legally proven to have been fixed by the referees. But on Friday, in a fitting turn of symbolism, the Kings won despite poor officiating.

The Kings had a call go against them at the absolute worst time. We could have rolled over with the excuse that the officials had screwed us out of another game, but we didn’t. We won anyway. I couldn’t help but feel that some of the demons from that 2002 series were being exorcised.

I know it’s early. I know I should be cautious. But this is the first time the Kings might be good in over a decade, and I can’t help but get excited.

I can’t help but think we’re finally, finally, FINALLY, getting it together.