As this season nears its end for the Sacramento Kings, leaning halfway out the door on their way to Anaheim, we need a reminder. Once upon a time, a decade or so ago, there was no fanbase more rabid, no love affair between a city and team more pronounced and no basketball more exhilarating than the Kings. Cowbells were in, and on the East Coast, it meant staying up late and getting up early for SportsCenter.
They never did win anything of substance, those Sacramento teams immediately following the second retirement of Michael Jordan. But damn, they had substance.
“Remember those NBA commercials in which they had jazz musicians discussing how basketball and music were so similar?” Zach Harper of the popular Kings blog, Cowbell Kingdom, asks. “It was like watching beautiful music on the court every night. That team definitely had its flaws, but they were as good as anybody in the league and their offense was a huge reason for that.”
He’s right. It’s easy to compare hoops to culture; normally, it’s cliché. But there’s no other way to remember a team that ran its offense through the starting center and power forward. Fake handoffs, back cuts, bounce passes, over-the-shoulder, through-the-legs, one-handed, it was a collage of nightly spectacles. Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, the two forming what is still one of the most unlikely partnerships in basketball history.
Steve Nash was given credit for redefining the offensive game in the 21st Century, bringing basketball back to its 1970s and 80s freelancing roots. He was a hoops comet, crisscrossing across the country on a barnstorming tour, showing everyone this new tango. But, he went at it solo. The Kings brought five rangers to the court, all taking turns passing, shooting, passing some more, dunking and of course dishing some more. They were the groundwork, the foundation that Nash built off. In a weird way, it was like having Nashs all over the court.
Everyone knows the story. In 1998, Webber was sent to Sacramento, outlawed to the place furthest from the center of the basketball world. He cried upon first seeing California’s capital. He had helped destroy a promising team in Washington and was now coming to a place where basketball had long before dried up. That’s where careers went to die. Webber was headed there a colossal failure, one of the most talented players ever, but considered a loser at Michigan and a problem at Golden State and Washington. It felt like the NBA had just sentenced one of its most riveting young talents to Mars. Then, the Kings added some guy from Florida. They brought in a loveable European flopper. They finally got a shooter from Serbia to come over stateside. They had talent, but no one was listening to the music. Yet. From there, they exploded in the lockout-shortened season of 1999. Two straight trips to the first round, then an appearance in the second round and finally, their date with destiny in 2001-02.