Late last week, Kings fans breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally announced that a group of investors, led by Golden State Warriors minority owner Vivek Ranidive, had come to an agreement to purchase the majority interest of the Sacramento Kings from the Maloof family. Die hard fans who rallied, tailgated, attended fundraisers, sat thru monotonous city council meetings, and purchased tickets to cheer on a team, that for all intents and purposes, could have been rumored to relocate to Anaheim, Las Vegas, Virginia Beach, Seattle, or Tijuana at any given moment, tasted victory for the first time in many years. Simply put, Kings fans have been reborn. But It’s not the first time a rebirth has taken place in the capital city amongst loyal Kings fans. Coincidently, last week also marked the 15 year anniversary that a guy by the name of Mace Edward Christopher Webber III was traded to the Kings. The season prior to Webber’s arrival was certainly an adventure…
In early 1997, then Managing General Partner Jim Thomas and the City of Sacramento came to an agreement on a $78.5 million loan that would keep the Kings in Sacramento. Thomas had threatened to relocate the team if the city did not provide monetary assistance to the franchise, which had been suffering financial hardships for many years. With the future of the team secure, attention turned back to the court. The Kings narrowly missed the playoffs in 1997 by two games, despite posting a dismal 34-48 record.
The start of the 1997-1998 off-season was a tough one for Kings fans. Star forward Brian Grant turned down a 7-year, $48 million contract from the team in order to ink a 7-year, $63 million contract with the Portland Trail Blazers, despite coming off a season that saw him appear in a mere 24 games due to injury. The Kings removed the interim tag from head coach Eddie Jordan (who replaced Gary St. Jean midway thru the previous season), and used their first-round pick (11th overall) on San Jose State guard Oliver Saint-Jean, better known as Tariq Abdul-Wahed, the name he adopted after converting to Islam in late 1997. Three other rookies were added to the roster, including second-round pick Anthony Johnson, 1994 second-round pick Lawrence Funderburke (who had spent the previous three seasons in Europe), and former Kennedy High School standout and Kings ball boy, Michael “Yogi” Stewart.
From the onset, it was a season of disastrous proportions. The Kings sputtered out of the gate to a 6-14 record, and during that loathsome first month of the season, the unthinkable happened. On November 7th, the Kings fell at home to the Los Angeles Clippers 98-85 in front of 15,858 fans at ARCO Arena. After 497 straight games playing at capacity, the Kings failed to sellout a game in Sacramento. If having a 12 year sellout streak snapped wasn’t bad enough, turmoil in the Kings locker room began to spill over.
Veteran center Olden Polynice had been regulated to the bench, pathing the way for rookie Michael Stewart to be inserted into the starting line-up due to his exceptional defensive play. “OP” was non too pleased with his diminished role, after being a starter the previous three and a half seasons, and had no problem voicing his displeasure regarding the situation.
Star guard Mitch Richmond began to grow tired in Sacramento. Entering his seventh season with the Kings, Richmond was already a five-time all-star, and well on his way to a sixth appearance later that year. However, Richmond had only seen the playoffs in his previous six years with the franchise one time, and despite all his accolades, was the sixth highest-paid player on the team at $3 million per year, behind the likes of Billy Owens ($4.2 million), Lionel Simmons (who retired prior to the start of the season, but was still due $3.7 million), Olden Polynice ($3.6 million), Bobby Hurley ($3.55 million), and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf ($3.3 million). Despite rumored mid-season trades that would have sent Richmond to destinations such as Miami or Seattle never materializing, the writing was on the wall that the teams first star player of the Sacramento era was ready to exit stage left.
Despite all the off-court issues surrounding the team, President of Basketball Operations Geoff Petrie still thought the team had a chance at a late playoff run, and pulled the trigger on a deal that would send fan favorite forward Michael “The Animal” Smith and guard Bobby Hurley to the Vancouver Grizzlies for former King Otis Thorpe and guard Chris Robinson. Thorpe, a one-time all-star with the Houston Rockets, was in the twilight of his career, and at age 35, provided the Kings with anemic 8.3 points and 4.3 rebounds while playing 23 minutes per game.
The Kings would finish the season dropping 26 of their final 30 games, a statistic that left even the most loyal of fans, who sat thru years of atrocious teams, with a feeling of disdain towards the roster. The Kings were going to need a miracle transaction to re-energize the once rambunctious fan base during the off-season, and on May 14th, 1998, that miracle fell into the lap of Geoff Petrie.
The Kings traded Richmond and Thorpe to the Washington Wizards for troubled forward Chris Webber. Despite apprehensions at first from both Kings fans and Webber, the move sparked one of the greatest turn arounds in basketball history. The trade provided seven straight years of playoff appearances, two division titles, thunderous crowds, a new sellout streak, and an entire city adopting purple as It’s favorite color. Kings fans had been reborn.
Now here we are, 15 years later, the future of the franchise in Sacramento is secure after several attempts by the Maloof family to relocate the team. Kings fans have had yet another resurrection. The phones are blowing up at Sleep Train Arena, and the “old barn” will surely be rockin’ next season. Now, does the new ownership group and their potential new front office staff have a “Webber-like miracle” in their back pocket? Will lady luck be riding on their shoulder at the draft lottery? Can they secure a big name free agent? Can they pull off a trade that would bring an all-star level talent to the capital city? Time will tell, but It’s great knowing as fans we can speculate about transactions that involve basketball players, and not billionaires wrestling over control of the franchise. It’s great to be able to focus on the game we all know and love. It’s great to be a fan of the Sacramento Kings.