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 clichÃ©. 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.
Their pace that season, which is the estimated number of possessions per 48 minutes, was tied for the second-highest pace over the last 15 years (95.6). They won 61 games. They earned the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They won hearts.
After three years of playoff failures, including an embarrassing sweep in the semis the year before to the Lakers, it was finally time. Mike Bibby was on board, the half-court, numb-blooded shooter who could make the difference. And he did, helping to bring Sacramento to the Western Conference Finals and a rematch with Hollywood.
“While you could see Kobe rounding into one of the best players in the league at the time,” Harper recalls, “Shaq was still the main force for that team. Vlade was a crafty defender (outside of the flopping) and could do a decent job on just about anybody. But I couldn’t see any conceivable way to stop Shaq in any manner. He was just too dominating of a presence out there. Because of him, I figured the Kings didn’t have much of a chance.”
Game 1 of that series was more of the same. But, perhaps surprisingly, Sacramento punched back and won Game 2. Then, they took it to another level, catching the Lakers sleeping in the next game before going up 24 in Game 4. You know the rest of the story: Robert Horry…Tim Donaghy…Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie airballs…Lakers win Game 7 in overtime.
Webber was a man all series, playing at least 40 minutes in every game and going off for averages of 24.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. Still, no one remembers that. They remember Bibby, morphing into a fuming ball of clutch fury. Bibby took and hit every big shot, won Game 5 and very nearly Game 7 all by himself.
When it all ended, it was Bibby who was the subject of the postgame interview, so impressive that Bryant stood next to him beaming like a father. In the offseason, certain sports outlets asked: “Is this the next Stockton-Malone?” It was Bibby’s pinnacle as a player, Harper says.
“He was pretty good the next season, but I don’t really believe he ever was as confident or as effective as he showed against the Lakers,” he continues. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Lakers fans were legitimately scared of the way he affected the game. There wasn’t a lot you could do to guard him when he was playing at that level.”
It was supposed to be the beginning of a new dynasty, the loveable Super Troopers finally outdoing their glamorous rivals and taking control of the basketball planet. It was a sure thing. At the time, no one would’ve ever believed that 10 years later, we would be looking back, saying this was perhaps the best team to never win an NBA championship.
After that epic series, Webber got hurt, Bibby reverted back to normalcy and the rest of the Kings got old or left. They were never truly the same again, slowly dying just as they matured.
“I still think you can argue the Kings were the best team in the league that season,” Harper says. “It wasn’t good enough to overcome the Shaq-Kobe combo and the way the role players stepped up around them. But the Kings ending up with the top seed definitely wasn’t a shock. Looking back, they might be the best team of the last 15 years to not win a championship.”
For Kings fans, especially with the team on the cusp of bolting town, it might be impossible to get the sour taste out of their mouth. Mention Game 6, mention Donaghy and it all hits home. For those in Sacramento, it’s like cruel punishment. For the rest of us, we can reminisce.
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