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Thursday, April 14, 2011
A long goodbye to the Sacramento Kings

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Wait, I didn't tell you the kicker: They used the whole thing as a stage prop.

That's beyond the obvious facts, which are these: On Wednesday night at the building that will always be remembered as Arco Arena, the Kings played what was likely their last game in Sacramento. The place was playoff intense, one emotional whiplash after another. The opponent was the Lakers. The fans were frenzied, manic, resigned, determined, tearful. And, as just about always happens, Kobe Bryant gutted them in the end.

But if you still struggle sometimes to understand how fans can have such complicated relationships with owners whom they've never met, follow this: The Maloof brothers, Joe and Gavin, the public faces of the franchise for the past decade, were no-shows at their usual courtside location for the Sacramento finale. Instead, their sister, Adrienne, pulled up in a dramatic stretch limousine and went inside … while being filmed as part of the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" television series.

Kings Fawell Sign
The reality (TV and all) sank in for Kings fans as their team is likely moving to Orange County.

She'll have a shorter commute next season, to Anaheim, once the NBA approves the family's expected request to relocate the franchise to the Honda Center there.

Meanwhile, people flying Lakers colors sat in Joe's and Gavin's seats.

Good luck with that NBA future, Sacramento.

It got weird on Wednesday, sure. What did anyone expect? A city is getting its heart ripped out in an era of truly baffling ownership in the NBA -- just another midlevel city with corporate support and broadcast money that can safely be described as "not insane," which in the current times is not nearly good enough.

The franchise was held in out-of-town ownership for nearly two decades. The arena got old and, to be frank, kind of musty. The Maloofs jacked ticket prices heavenward during the good times and then wondered why a building that was foundationally constructed on single-ticket sales suddenly began feeling drafty when the team hit the skids later.

It's no state secret that the Maloofs don't have the deep pockets or extracurricular business success to compete among NBA owners without an infusion of revenue. Arco Arena, built on the cheap more than 25 years ago, wasn't going to do it. Sacramento, without a single Fortune 500 company headquartered in its region, wasn't going to do it. The TV and radio rights check in at around $11 million annually, which is somewhere slightly south of the estimated $150 million per annum deal the Lakers will begin after next season.

No surprises there. Sacramento floundered and flopped around for 10 years without really coming close to building a new place, which might have alleviated cash-flow problems. Poor leadership, lack of vision, confusion as to what the Maloofs actually wanted, economic crisis -- a perfect storm of hideous missteps. The fans in Sacramento are loyal, not stupid. They knew which way the wind was blowing and how this was likely to go. When NBA commissioner David Stern basically checked out of the situation months ago, it was a matter of time.

Still, Wednesday night hit like a sucker punch. Outside, before the game, a man named Brad Davis, whose family has held season tickets since the Kings' arrival from Kansas City 26 years ago, struggled to come to grips with the reality of it all. Davis rooted for the team from the time he was a kid. He remembers, while away at college at the University of Oregon, standing outside with a Walkman, trying to get the signal from the Kings' flagship station, KHTK, and hear the strains of the play-by-play. True fan.

Scaramento Fan
Brad Davis and his son, 9-year-old Cooper, shared the last sad moments.

I asked Davis if he will consider now driving his own son, who was with him Thursday, over to Oakland, to the Warriors' Oracle Arena home, to continue their NBA life together.

"To be honest?" he said. "The day the Kings' season was over every year, I turned off the NBA altogether. I was always so drained from going through their season with them that I had nothing left. I'd rarely even watch the playoffs if they weren't in it."

Down in the bowels of Arco, which is now called Power Balance Pavilion, the mayor of Sacramento held court. Kevin Johnson once played on the floor in the arena; now he's the person left holding the bag as the Kings prepare to go.

Like Joe and Gavin Maloof, Johnson was to appear Thursday and perhaps Friday before the NBA Board of Governors in New York. Unlike the Maloofs, Johnson still made an appearance at the final game before taking a red-eye flight. But then, Johnson has to wake up next week and go back to work in Sacramento. One of his tasks: Get a new sports and entertainment complex built. It won't be in time to save the Kings.

"We're not trying to block anything," said Johnson, whose tone over the past several weeks has become gradually more resigned. "We know the Maloofs have to make a business decision."

Up on the concourse, the Kings team store was selling everything in stock at half-off. It was that kind of a feeling, a kind of everything-must-go sort of night. The crowd wore new jerseys, old jerseys, throwbacks to the powder-blue era, all of it. They rang cowbells. (For the record: nothing plaintive about a cowbell.)

They roared like old times in the fourth quarter, when Sacramento came back from 20 points down to take the lead. They fell silent, enveloped in the screams of the very vocal Lakers fans in attendance, when Bryant dropped a deadly 3-pointer on them with a couple of seconds left to force overtime. They watched in increasing numbness as the OT slipped away.

And then they stayed, which several thousand fans had pre-planned. They stayed after the game for 15 minutes, then 30, then nearly an hour. They chanted and cheered, and roared one last time when fan favorites Donte Greene, Jason Thompson and Pooh Jeter came back out to thank them. They watched, some of them, as Kings coach Paul Westphal swallowed hard during his postgame news conference before finally croaking, "We could feel the love out there."

Samuel Dalembert
Like many of the fans, the Kings' Samuel Dalembert didn't want to leave when it was over.

Maudlin? Sure, a little. Listen, teams don't leave towns after a quarter century without emotional baggage. No one gets away clean.

At the far end of the night, the three longest-tenured Kings broadcasters, Gary Gerould, Grant Napear and employee-of-all-trades Jerry Reynolds, each choked up and struggled for words. Napear and Reynolds, appearing together likely for the last time on the television broadcast, slipped into an uncharacteristic silence for a few seconds as each man tried to regain his composure. It was a beautifully awkward thing.

At courtside a little bit earlier, a Kings employee described the weird uncertainty of his own situation, adding, "I'm not sure how many people in this entire organization really know what's going to happen. But this feels like home."

Feels like home, but home can change. On Wednesday, fans stood at those old seats in Arco Arena and wiped away tears, real tears that people sometimes cry over players they've never met and owners they'll never know. It's the way of the sports world. It'll make for a great reality TV backdrop, I'm sure.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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