The Sacramento Kings Disappear

On losses, losing, loss and a basketball team that never quite happened.
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I've been having a lot of weird dreams lately. My favorite—the one I've had at least four times and that I love for all its caustic, ravaging indelibility—involves Harold Pressley.

The starting forward for the 1985 NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats and eventual first-round draft pick of the Sacramento Kings, the Pressley of my dream is a workhorse in his third pro season. Really hustling. But he can't advance the Kings beyond 14 wins by the All-Star break, and he's struggling to find himself on a team of athletes with all the tangibility and purpose of dandruff. In this dream, the team turns on him. The local media turn on him. The ownership turns on him. And still he toils on and on and on. The fans turn on him. They hate the guy. And I'm observing all of this on a kind of dream newsreel, one that starts with a photo of him after the draft, shaking David Stern's hand. Then Pressley flies to Sacramento for a photo-op with theBee. Then I watch the rest and it becomes the story of a downfall that even my 12-year-old self, living in the Sacramento suburbs, takes deeply personally. And the sleeping 36-year-old me churns in his bed and awakes wondering where such a dream comes from—the real, waking-life Harold Pressley never amounted to a tenth of a legend in Sacramento and certainly never alienated anybody on such a nuclear scale. He was, until a few years ago, the Kings' player development director.

And then I plod to my desk a bit later and read the news that the Kings are really finally done with my hometown. For real this time. I think? Seattle, right? Wait, Anaheim? The real-life saga gets murkier, amid the lowlights of another miserable season. My hometown retreats from view. Soon the lesson of this dream assumes ever greater, clearer relief: The Sacramento Kings never happened.

***

The Kings happened, of course. They moved from Kansas City in 1985, the latest iteration of a franchise that won a title in Rochester in 1951, and then journeyed on to Cincinnati and then reeled through some choice bad-old-days NBA fuckery as a joint-custody experiment between Kansas City and Omaha in the mid-'70s. Kansas City claimed them outright in 1975. Roughly eight years later, the burgeoning Sacramento real estate and construction magnate Gregg Lukenbill bought the franchise with a consortium of partners that would relocate them to the promised land out West—or, failing the promised land, at least a few acres north of downtown that Lukenbill sought to develop. The team arrived in Sacramento ahead of the 1985 season, just as the paint dried on a 10,333-seat temporary facility called Arco Arena.

This all absolutely transpired, and Sacramento was changed instantly. You couldn't be a Sacramentan without having at least an opinion of the Kings, even if it meant little more than complaining about parking at Arco or counting your degrees of separation from the Fast Break cheerleaders. In the early years, that was good enough, because God knows the team wasn't: In the inaugural season alone, the front office drafted Joe Kleine over future Hall of Famers Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Joe Dumars. (They left Terry Porter on the board as well, which initiated a uniquely excruciating class of condition known as the Kings Fan Point Guard Migraine, which I'll get to in a moment.) That year's brutally short playoff run would be the Kings' last for a decade. The season's zenith culminated in defeating the eventual champion Boston Celtics at Arco. Larry Bird told the press afterward that it was the loudest, most challenging venue in the league to play in as a visitor, which resulted in a general reaction like, "Holy shit did you hear what Larry Bird said about Sacramento?" on every playground, golf course and 916 phone line the next day. The win itself was practically incidental.

For any local who ever loved or even bothered to consider the Kings, winning was pretty much always incidental. Everywhere the Kings have called home has been a city whose cosmopolitan aspirations seem perpetually at odds with its sprawling quietude. Just dropping a pro sports team into the cultural and economic mix can go a long way, at least temporarily, toward narrowing that gap. If the carpetbaggers settling down in your city are also lucky and/or well-run, a la Oklahoma City, then great: You might experience the benefits and byproducts of winning. But the Kings were barely ever well-run and chronically unlucky, yielding decades of striving and mediocrity that did more than just earn them a "lovable losers" tag. It mirrored the psychic vertigo of living in Sacramento itself, a state capital to which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to commute from L.A. and where the staggering new billion-dollar airport extension stands ready to greet a world of visitors going… where, exactly?

Wherever it is, they'll likely drive down Interstate 5 past the soon-to-be-empty Sleep Train Arena, née Power Balance Pavilion, née Arco Arena—the second one, outmoded and cavernous, which Lukenbill and Co. opened in 1988 and which seats 17,317. The place got off to a start cruelly becoming of the Kings. Naturally they lost—a lot, starting 2-6 at home and always quick to bring out the "rout" in "routine." Coach Jerry Reynolds fainted for six minutes one night after getting into it with referee Blaine Reichelt. A few months later, Lukenbill risked his life on a rafter hundreds of feet above the court, where he used an old playoff banner to stop a rain leak that had delayed a game between the Kings and 76ers. When play resumed, the 76ers completed a 24-point comeback to dispatch their hosts.

Within a decade, the same building was home to one of the most electrifying NBA teams in a generation. Most of the city had reasonably assumed that Mitch Richmond would be the best player we'd ever have and that Jim Thomas—Lukenbill's successor as owner and the scoundrel who made the Kings' original threat to move way back in 1996—would have stolen the team off to some other small-market suitor by the end of the decade. Instead, the Maloof family took over as principal owners, and general manager Geoff Petrie assembled a squad comprising Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu. (Jason Williams contributed early in this run, obviously. And Scot Pollard, I guess, but, you know: Scot Pollard.) In 2002, the Kings were the best team in basketball and would have won a league title had an alleged officiating scam not made a lopsided, Lakers-friendly farce out of the Western Conference Finals.

We all know this. We also now know that not only are the Kings hapless again, but they don't even really belong to Sacramento. This is a dead entity, riding a downswing so swift and inexorable as to fling them past full-circle and out of the city's orbit altogether. Casual NBA viewers who have observed from afar generally sympathize with Kings fans, and while we sincerely appreciate that, the current bleakness is one that can't be understood simply by watching some sour blowouts on League Pass. What's wrong in Sacramento is different.

***

The Kings' futility runs much deeper than the usual peaks and troughs associated with the NBA, because the Kings' near-win over the Lakers was the closest Sacramento ever got to reconciling the city's imagined self with its real identity. Instead, we developed a perspective on winning from losing, made all the worse by having no other pro sports team to balance the anguish. Long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans had two Celtics dynasties; White Sox and Cubs fans had the Bulls, if they wanted them. Outsiders like to recall the Kings' upswing as a heady, bittersweet marvel of civic renaissance, but believe me: There is nothing bittersweet about Sacramento and its Kings. It is all bitter.

The 2002 playoffs are nothing. Back in 1987, the Lakers outscored the Kings 40-4 in the first quarter of a game at the Forum. The Kings later gave Bill Russell the keys to the franchise, only to discover that the guy couldn't drive. They signed up re-retread head coach Dick Motta, who reminded us that he'd won everywhere he'd been and that by God he was going to win in Sacramento. He'd probably still be napping near the bench had Bill Wennington not tripped over him after fouling out one night in 1991—perhaps during their 43-game road losing streak, an NBA record that will likely never fall. The perennially lottery-bound team's only top overall draft choice, Pervis Ellison, came in a rare year without a consensus top overall draft choice; he later, of course, turned out to be Pervis Ellison. They lustily sabotaged themselves with trades for malcontents like Derek Smith and flat tires like Ralph Sampson.

And the point guards. Sweet Jesus, the point guards. Goodbye, Kenny Smith! Hello, Travis Mays, Jim Les and Spud Webb! Nice knowing you, Randy Brown; enjoy your Bulls three-peat! (The bankrupt Brown was forced to auction off his three championship rings after the Kings, to which he'd returned as an assistant coach, fired him in 2009.) A car crash near Arco almost killed Bobby Hurley, essentially terminating his promise less than two months into his rookie year. Tyus Edney looked like a savior in 1995-96, even helping lead the Kings to the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons. A year later, somehow, he'd ceded his starting role to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, one of the most reluctant passers of his generation.    

The team emanated misfortune at best and tragedy at its unrelenting worst; the low point was unquestionably the death of Ricky Berry, the heralded young guard who committed suicide after his 1988-89 rookie year. Reynolds walked out of a press conference that day in tears, unable to speak a single word.

And once again, as Kings fans navigate our latest, probably terminal grief, there are no words. There are point guards, though we know Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette likely won't reach their peaks here. There is also DeMarcus Cousins' rage, Tyreke Evans' knee, the Maloof family's craven megalomania and the reported handshake deal that may yet take all of them to Seattle. Or Anaheim. There, as the SuperSonics or the Royals or whatever this team's new owners call them, the Kings will cease to exist.

But the closest, most honest read of the Sacramento Kings' history suggests they never existed at all beyond a crisp reflection of Sacramento's limitations. Soon we will have only memories of pain powered by unwavering currents of inadequacy, and soon after that we will barely have those. All that will remain is a succession of wild dreams—real, actual dreams about guys like Harold Pressley, dreams that leak from a subconscious crowded with the Kings' curses, misfits, journeymen and busts. Their hardwood court will collapse and fall dormant. Our fear and apprehension surrounding the Kings will break down and evaporate, like the fog that shrouds Arco Arena before finally giving way to dawn. And Sacramento will accept its true destiny as the stopover we always secretly knew it was, even for this team that called it home—the team that was ours until it wasn't.


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