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.