Sacramento Kings fans remain loyal despite years of instability, losing
Bob Dreizler, section 202 row B, usually glances at the morning’s Sacramento Bee on his front porch. He doesn’t want to stand too long outside in his underwear.
On Monday morning, he paused.
“Mike Malone fired?”
Nancy Daley, section 115 row V, was alarmed to find some 300 new tweets on her timeline after finishing a Netflix movie before falling asleep Sunday night. She learned why once she refreshed her browser.
Mark Drobny, center court Row D, found out by text message.
“Malone … fired?”
The most tortured group of NBA fans over the past decade, Sacramento Kings fans are now supporting their seventh coach (Tyrone Corbin) in eight seasons. Soon, they may meet number eight. Volatile, but respected, Malone arrived from Golden State 18 months ago, handpicked by owner Vivek Ranadive, who purchased the franchise from embattled former owners Gavin and Joe Maloof in 2013. The coach lasted only 107 games -- longer than three of his predecessors since Rick Adelman left the team in 2006.
“Can you even name the Kings coaches since Adelman?” asks Drobny, who has held his tickets since the team moved to Sacramento in 1985. Adelman led the team to eight playoff berths in his eight seasons in charge and built one of the NBA’s most formidable franchises. When he departed, the team bottomed out. His successors (Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal and Keith Smart) were at the bottom -- or totally absent -- from other teams’ wish lists. Few fans or season-ticket holders can remember them all.
A group still bruised by the former owners’ attempts to move the team and exhausted by the grassroots effort to help save it, Sacramento fans -- once the jewel of the NBA’s mid-market franchises -- must embrace a new coach, a new scheme, and another promise that they will, one day, be feared by the rest of the NBA. For most, their fondness lingers for the teams of the early-aughts. They try to name a nadir from the last decade, but there are too many bungled draft picks, expired contracts and relocation threats to remember.
Scarred is one way to describe them. Dreizler has another term.
“My son, Ross, and I have been going to Kings games for 25 years now,” he says. “We’re that disturbed.”
Despite the Maloofs’ oppressive ownership -- the constant losing and fluctuating roster -- many returned fearing the departure of the city’s one major professional franchise. While some fans renewed their season tickets, others purchased them just to try and keep the team in town. Once the most voracious fans in the NBA, some of the association’s most devoted supporters were forced to watch a roster full of lackluster players claw their way to one fruitless season after another.
“I recognize that keeping a professional team here is important to the overall economy and identity of this community,” Drobny says. “But I was torn between wanting to keep the team here and supporting the Maloofs as they sucked all the money out of the team to try and keep their casinos and beer businesses going while putting nothing on the floor.”
For some, the firing of Malone revived that familiar trauma of instability fostered by the Maloofs’ neglect.
For others, it was confidence that Ranadive and his new ownership group were committed to the promise of winning. But can that happen by firing another coach -- the third midseason dismissal in the last seven seasons -- only 25 games in?
“We have this saying among Kings fans called ‘Being Maloofed,’ says Laura Good, section 202 row E, who supported Malone’s ouster. “And when Malone was fired, that phrase started popping up again.”
The Kings entered this season with a bonafide star (DeMarcus Cousins), a pure scorer (Rudy Gay), a blossoming talent (Ben McLemore) and an up-and-coming coach. Though not a playoff contender in a stacked Western Conference, the Kings are rich with promising talent and feature one of the NBA’s most intriguing rosters. Malone, a fierce leader who earned praise for helping engineer the Warriors’ turnaround, appeared an ideal fit. He nurtured a mercurial star in Cousins, engendered a loyalty in his players and garnered respect after working with USA Basketball this past summer.
The project looked successful when the Kings started the season 9-5 and began fulfilling a starved, relentlessly passionate fanbase that last enjoyed a winning season eight seasons and six coaches ago. But after Cousins fell violently ill with viral meningitis and missed 10 games, the Kings lost eight of them. After the seventh loss, Malone was out of a job and the Kings, again, were in flux.
Most inside the basketball world saw the firing as a brash, tone-deaf move, especially since Malone didn’t have his best player on the floor. Some fans were displeased that it occurred one game before the Kings were set to retire three-point legend Peja Stojakovic’s number. But a sub-.500 record is unacceptable under the new ownership.
Losing -- any losing -- is unacceptable to Vivek Ranadive.
Ranadive, a tech tycoon who emigrated from India to attend MIT before pioneering TIBCO, a Palo Alto software giant that netted him billions, purchased (most fans would say saved) the Kings in 2013. Ranadive swooped in to buy the team to keep them in Sacramento after the Maloofs waged a protracted, acrimonious battle against mayor Kevin Johnson (the former All-NBA point guard) and the association with threats to move the Kings to Anaheim, Seattle or Virginia Beach. With the purchase, Ranadive assured that the team would not only stay in Sacramento, but build a new facility downtown (it broke ground in October and is slated to open in 2016), but win.
Profiled extensively in a New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell (and later in his book, David and Goliath), Ranadive had no background in basketball, but developed an interest in it when his daughter joined a team as a preteen. Frustrated by the team’s losing and befuddled by half-court defense, Ranadive discovered that if his daughter’s team ran a full-court press for the entire game, the undersized team could overwhelm superior competition by defending 90 feet instead of 25. The undersized, unathletic team, full of “little blonde girls from Menlo Park,” would make the national championships.
"When you think about how a pearl is made, it starts with an empty shell," Ranadive told the AP in an illuminating 2013 profile. "And an impurity, or an irritant, a grain of sand, gets into the shell. And then a pearl forms around it. And so to make something of beauty and value, you often need an irritant. My role is to be like the Chief Irritant. So I'm just going around annoying people."
Ranadive acquired other investors and basketball minds -- among them Shaquille O’Neal (who once referred to franchise as the ‘Queens’ when he was a Laker), former Kings star Mitch Richmond and NBA Hall of Famer Chris Mullin -- to usher in the new era. The cashflow and commitment, absent under the Maloofs (who barely made the salary cap floor during the last two seasons of their ownership), are there. But so is Ranadive’s innately disruptive nature.
“Malone seemed to be doing a really good job with the team,” Dreizler says. “The last three or four games were really sad. But just because they played terribly against Detroit, is that really a reason to fire the coach?”
The split was rooted in front office struggles (Malone was hired before general manager Pete D’Alessandro and the two didn’t work well together), but the uncertainty accompanying a midseason firing jaded some of a fanbase hoping to move past constant uncertainty.
Carmichael Dave, a prominent Sacramento sports radio host and former leader of the “Here We Stay” campaign to keep the Kings in town, posted a Twitter poll asking fans if they supported the firing -- 228 out of 252 responders said no. Good, a social media maven who lauds the Kings’ unparalleled community support, posted a poll where 88 percent of responders answered “angry” or “uncertain” to the news of Malone’s ouster.
While Ranadive has committed long-term investments to the team’s two stars (Cousins and Gay), he and D’Alessandro declined to extend popular point guard Isaiah Thomas in favor of veteran Darren Collison and spent the No. 8 draft pick on the athletic, but raw shooting guard Nik Stauskas. Both moves confounded fans and national pundits.
“There is an enormous sense of pride that surrounds Kings fans because it’s one of the only ways to show off Sacramento,” says Blake Ellington, a contributor at the Kings blog SacTown Royalty. “But this is an ownership that has made several quick and abrupt moves, so people are still trying to get a gauge on what will happen.”
Sacramento, state capital and the apex of California’s central valley, is a sprawling metropolis of 475,000 that, according to Dreizler, “everybody passes through there, but not everybody stays. The running joke is that we’re about two hours away from every great place in California.” Ellington says fans still anticipate the release of the schedule every year.
“Fans immediately find the schedule to find which games are nationally televised,” Ellington says. “Because it’s their opportunity to show off Sacramento.”
Memories of Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson, Vlade Divac and the clanging cowbells that established Sacramento as a late-90s/early-2000s powerhouse still permeate the minds of most fans. Stroll around SleepTrain arena, “a cinderblock building with paint inside of it ... an embarrassing NBA facility” according to Drobny, and most supporters adorn jerseys of players from the bygone era. Until Cousins, no star player stayed long enough to sell many jerseys.
“My grandson got a Tyreke Evans jersey for Christmas a couple years ago,” Driezler says. “He was fun to watch. But now he’s gone, too.”
Stuck in the NBA cellar for almost a decade, Kings fans have little else but to invest hope in a new regime. Ranadive’s arrival brought new employees (92 were employed after his purchase, most in the marketing division) and the most new season-ticket purchases of any NBA franchise. Add in investments pouring in from local and Bay Area businesses to support the new arena project, Uber credits to season-ticket holders and 3D print renderings of the new arena, and the city has found a “synergy,” according to Drobny, something unimaginable under the Maloofs.
“Malone’s firing was unfortunate,” Daley says. “But at least he’s our coach to fire, not Seattle’s.”
The Kings still sit with a losing record and an interim head coach with a career record of 112-147. Optimism is hard to eradicate from a fanbase who inspired an award-winning documentary (“Small Market, Big Heart”) and who flooded town for a parade when Ranadive bought the team. But the uncertainty weighs on some, and the owner’s quick trigger has unnerved others.
“Sacramento has a low esteem problem,” Dreizler says. “And when the Kings were winning 10 years ago, it helped.”
On the night of Stojakovic’s jersey retiring, the first game of the post-Malone era, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled away late in the fourth quarter to send the Kings to their tenth loss in 12 games. The irony of losing to the NBA’s new mid-market darlings on a night honoring a team legend was bitter. After 14 games of promise, the Kings are again mired in defeat and flux. Their NBA-worst eight seasons without a playoff berth will likely become nine come April.
“You know, I bet $20 every year that the Kings are going to win the title,” Dreizler says. “This year the odds were 200-1.”
But he still made the bet.