The Abdication of the Sacramento Kings

“I’m not too worried about the Sacramento Queens.”

-Shaquille O’Neal

Tonight’s season finale with the Kings is potentially the end of professional basketball in Sacramento. The Kings are like the really hot girl in high school, who shows up to the reunion 10 years later working a dead-end job and her looks have significantly diminished.

In 2002 the Kings had the best record in the Association at 61-23, backed by one of the most loyal fan bases the league has ever seen; the people of Sacramento sold out ARCO Arena for 497 consecutive home games. Life was good in Sac-town and the Kings were treated as royalty.

The Kings fielded the gritty Mike Bibby, the defensive minded Doug Christie, lights out shooter Peja Stojakovic , complemented by the best passing frontcourt in the league in Chris Webber and Vlade Divac.

They had all the ingredients of a potential dynasty. Sports Illustrated put their starting five on the cover and dubbed them “the Greatest Show on the Court”

There was just one problem: they were never able to get past the Laker team led by Shaq and Kobe.  They gave the Lakers all they could handle every year.

The cross-state rivalry between the Lake-show and the Kings was as heated as it gets in the NBA. When the Lakers and Kings hooked up, you expected fireworks and bad blood, an element that is currently missing in the NBA.

I remember in a meaningless pre-season game, Rick Fox elbowed Doug Christie and Christie retaliated with a punch. Both players were ejected, but the fight continued in the tunnel, the two had to be separated by Staples Center security. And this was a pre-season game.

I remember Kobe falling ill to food poisoning before game two of the Western Conference finals against the Kings. Rumors began to swirl on the internet about the hotel staff having tampered with Kobe’s food.

While he missed morning shoot-around and had to receive fluids periodically throughout the day, he recovered in time to start Game 2.

When fans point to Michael Jordan’s flu game as a testament to his mental fortitude, remember Kobe’s food poisoning game as a sign of his. (Last season he also played with a broken finger and a right knee with little cartilage)

I remember game four of that series, with the Kings threatening to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. The Lakers were down 99-97 with one last chance to tie it.

The ball was inbounded to Kobe who drove past Christie and misses a contested layup. Shaq misses the tip-in, the ball is batted out to a wide-open Robert Horry at the top of the three point line.

We know the rest. Webber’s close out comes too late, and Horry’s fling finds the bottom of the net.  Horry struts back to the Laker bench knowing he just salvaged the Lakers’ season. It was surreal.

httpvhd://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_fhwqXmUMk&feature=related

I watched replays of the shot countless times that night, sitting through the other 58 minutes of Sports Center just waiting for the highlights of that game. (Keep in mind this was before YouTube took off.)

Their rivalry culminated in an epic seven-game series in the Western Conference Finals, when the Lakers escaped ARCO with a 112-106 victory in overtime.

Upon losing Game 7, the NBA on NBC cameras followed the Kings into the locker-room, capturing Chris Webber throwing a lamp against the wall in frustration.

Recently referee Tim Donaghy alleged to favoring the Lakers in Game 6 of that series, tarnishing the legacy of one of the most exciting series I’ve ever witnessed as a Laker fan.

The Lakers went on to win the championship that year, in retrospect even as a die-hard Laker fan, it’s hard not to wonder, what if?

Next: What would happen if the Lakers lost Game 7?
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