As the Sacramento Kings were days away from being located to Anaheim, it still surprises me that a team so close to winning a championship not 10 years ago could tumble so far.
It all got me thinking back to May 2002, when the rivalry between the Lakers and the Kings was at its zenith. At the time, the Giants hadn't yet been relevant, the Celtics were watching Antoine Walker throw up 7 threes a game and making 29% of them and Brian Windhorst was still following some teenage phenom around Akron, Ohio. I didn't have any other outlet for my hate - so it all got funneled towards the team that threatened title hopes for YOUR...Los Angeles Lakers.
I hated Vlade's doughy face and how big and slobberly his lower lip would get when he vehemently disputed a foul that he very obviously committed. I hated Chris Webber's face of fake confidence during the game, but loved the well-worn look of defeat that adorned him after yet another missed opportunity. I hated Mike Bibby's face of legitimate confidence and especially hated when he played like one of the 5 best guys in the league. I hated Hedo Turkoglu's face, which set just right below his frosted tips and just behind a moustache that even I scoffed at. I hated Doug Christie's face...that's it, I just hated his face.
The 2002 Western Conference Finals were undoubtedly the toughest test that the Shaquille-Kobe-Phil Lakers squad faced. The Kings were bigger, stronger and more talented. Everything about them seemed to be falling into place with their guys playing at the height of their powers. Chris Webber looked like a future Hall-of-Famer and Mike Bibby challenged Kobe and Reggie for the mythologized title of "most clutch". They seemed ready to carry the baton. The Kings were hungry - but not as hungry as their fans. After 15 years of losing and beat downs from their rivals in neighboring Portland and Los Angeles, the fans could sense that their beloved team was on the verge of breakthrough. The Kings and their loyal followers had all the momentum in the world - one that not even a miracle three-point by Big Shot Rob could break (everyone remembers that shot from the series, but no one remembers that Mike Bibby followed that up with this in game 5).
Game 7 was on June 2nd, 2002. In Sacramento, with a rabid home crowd behind them, the Kings played with all the ferocity and confidence in the world. The way that the fans were reacting before the game, it felt like they were going to win before playing a minute. The Kings believed that they were the better men and there was no way that the Lakers could come into their house and their town and halt the championship dynasty they were about to build. But - they didn't get it done.
From June 2nd, 2002 going forward, the Kings were never the same. With the Lakers eliminated in the 2003 postseason by the Spurs, many proclaimed the Kings the favorite to win the chip. It seemed altogether too appropriate when Chris Webber's knees couldn't support the symbolic weight of such a responsibility. The next year didn't they didn't fare any better, as Kevin Garnett and his Timberwolves survived a seven-game war, with Chris Webber missing a tying three at the buzzer. It was as if the loss at home to a physically inferior Lakers team broke them in ways not visible to the eye. In their "Yes we can" moment, they failed, and from there on all the bravado and talent in the world couldn't get them to truly believe that again. Players faltered physically and emotionally and the stars couldn't quite align again for the Kings to make it to the top.
From then on, it was not a quick, shocking death - like what we just witnessed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, or even the 2004 Lakers. This was a slow, agonizing descent into anonymity, with injuries piling up as quickly as the Maloof's debt, and faces of the franchise slowly shipped out of town, one after the other. Rebuilding was difficult, as huge contracts and the small market nature of the team had crippled the team's ability to compete. Had the Kings won that 2002 series with the Lakers, a move out of the city that had witnessed a championship (more probable than anything else against that year's feeble Eastern Conference champ, New Jersey Nets) would be almost unthinkable. The players would not only be champions, but also wouldn't have worn those all too apparent scars of bungled opportunity. Avoiding that game 7 loss to the Lakers wasn't just about losing 1 title - it might have been about losing several titles.
2006 happened. And 2007. And 2008. And here we are today - with announcers mourning over a team that had the fifth worst record in the league and have fallen from what was once one of the shining beacons of small market athletics to a team that finished in the league's doldrums for years in a row. This is not just hyperbole - that singular Game 7 has had ripple effects that lead to the destruction of a franchise. Amazing. It feels like the fate of your future Anaheim Royals was sealed in the season following the 2002 Western Conference Finals. In short, they've been YOUR...Anaheim Royals for 8 full seasons now.
But the most telling metric of how low the Kings have gotten is my emotional reaction to all of the above - I feel bad.
I watched that afore-linked clip and could only think about how tragic it was. If you had told me in 2002 that in less than 10 years time, this team was going to capsize and they would have to put their tails between their legs and retreat behind the Orange Curtain, I would have driven up there to take down a truck-full of cowbells myself. But things have changed - the Kings are terrible and have been for years. What was once one of the best and most genuine rivalry in basketball has degenerated to a footnote on the daily scoreboard.
When you see Francisco Garcia missing corner jumpers and DeMarcus Cousins looking listlessly around the arena as coach Paul Westphal passionately pounds his playbook, I only miss the rivalry even more. I miss the contentious rivalry between the players, which was only fueled by a real-life geographic rivalry between the dreary-weathered, title-starved blue-collar Northerners and their glamorous championship laden brethren from the south. Nothing seemed to matter beyond the 4 games we played during the year, and even a competition for something as meaningless as the Pacific Division crown was rendered important, if for nothing else but the thrill of the other's defeat. This should feel great.
It is really fun to have a team you hate. Otherwise meaningless games matter. The league pays attention, the fans pay attention and the teams feed off of that excitement. You know which games are exciting every year in Milwaukee? The first game and whenever Michael Redd comes back from his latest knee injury. They have no rivals. There are no regional invaders fighting for importance and no foe to conquer. It's a strange phenomenon to hate a team so much but to absolutely love the rivalry. Everything in you wants to conquer but not destroy. There is nothing fun about vanquishing an opponent until they fade into obscurity. Consistently beating them over and over and devastating generations of fans? That's fun.
I've heard that Mayor Kevin Johnson is doing everything he can to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Let's hope for the best so I can continue to hope for the worst for YOUR...Sacramento Kings.