SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- You could hear the cowbells from 100 yards away.
First one, then another, answering in the distance of the arena parking lot. The sound brought back memories. Of the days when Arco was so loud that opposing coaches wore earplugs. Of Vlade and C-Webb and Peja, cutting and passing and finishing. Of a love affair between a city and a team.
On this night, the love affair remained, even if the team was different. Wednesday night, the diehards came out in groups, holding signs that read "NOT SAYING GOODBYE" and "Long Live the Kings." The men had purple hair. The women wore purple dresses. Everywhere there were jerseys: Cousins and Evans and Fredette and Turkoglu and Webber. If this was the final home game in Kings history, these fans came ready for a party, not a wake.
A couple months ago, the outcome seemed inevitable: the Kings would become the Sonics, whisked away by a wealthy hedge fund manager and an even-wealthier Microsoft magnate. Back then, Dave Weiglein, the Sacramento radio host who goes by "Carmichael Dave" and who has been instrumental in rallying fan support, lamented to me how, "in the end we're just a number -- all they care about is money." Meanwhile, Mayor Kevin Johnson gamely spoke about market size and legacy and fighting for his town and his team. Then, after offering a final line of rhetoric about how the Kings were going to come back from the brink, like a playoff team down 3-1 in a series, he asked a favor as we finished our interview: "Just don't make me look crazy, OK?"
Now, who knew what was going to happen. Now, it was a toss-up. Earlier in the day on Wednesday, NBA team owners had met in New York to evaluate the latest offer from a new, encouraging Sacramento group. As a result, commissioner David Stern announced that a decision could still be weeks away, citing the unprecedented nature of the situation.
For Kings fans on this night, it meant there was now hope -- real, genuine hope -- amid all the messy emotion.
That hope was evident two hours before tipoff, when Kings radio play-by-play man Grant Napear stood courtside, staring up at the empty seats. "I feel more confident this time than I did two years ago," he said. "That night, I really thought it could be the last game. I don't feel that way this time. I hope I'm right."
It was there outside the arena at 6 p.m., when a line of fans curled down the asphalt rampway, waiting to enter the arena. A woman held a "Keep the Kings" placard. Two men in turbans with long beards held signs that read "Thank You KJ, Here We Stay!" Just up the hill, DJs blasted Prince from loudspeakers, urging everyone to "party like it's 1999." The message, whether intentional or coincidental, seemed both nostalgic and elegiac; after all, 1999 was the first playoff season of the great Adelman teams.
There was even hope, or at least what passes for it, in the media room. Walk in, past what must be the only existing photo of DeMarcus Cousins smiling on a basketball court, and you found beat writers discussing the promise of Vivek Ranadive, the software tycoon leading the latest Sacramento group, and how his connections in India are appealing to the league. The writers couldn't help it. This thing has a shot, they said.
Down the hall, in the Sacramento locker room, power forward Jason Thompson, the longest-tenured King at five seasons, preferred to think about the past, talking about his favorite Sacramento memories. "Man, there are so many," he said. "This was my first new home, coming from 3,000 miles away [in New Jersey]." Thompson grew up a Sixers fan but the first jersey he owned was Chris Webber's, and he loved the Kings teams of the early 2000s. "For me the most powerful moment was playing the Lakers for the first time," he said, "because I knew about the rivalry and tradition"
Tradition. That's part of what this is about. A number of the old Kings came out on this night. There was Brad Miller in the family room, wearing a baseball hat and a long-sleeve polo shirt that, against all odds, was not camouflage-patterned. And there, in the tunnel, was Mitch Richmond, who later received a prolonged standing ovation when shown on the big screen during the game. And of course there was Bobby Jackson, the former defensive stopper and current Kings assistant coach, trying but failing to pretend it was just another game. "It's tough," he said quietly, standing in the locker room. "You try to think just about the game but it's the end of the season so now you have to focus on the future." Jackson said he still talks with Doug Christie, and Mike Bibby on occasion. He worries what will happen to their shared history if the team moves. Will they hang Kings jerseys from the rafters in Seattle? Jackson shook his head. "If they go to Seattle, we would disappear," he said. "When they move, nothing goes with them. All this Sacramento Kings stuff stays here. They'll be the Supersonics." Jackson's not happy about it but seems resigned. "Power, that's what controls this," he said. "I'm here to do my job and wait and see what happens. It's all I can do."
Kings fans feel otherwise. For months -- actually years now -- they've rallied and pledged and picketed. On this night, the epicenter was in the K14 area of the parking lot, where Weiglein held court outside a giant purple-and-white RV. Man and machine had just come back from traversing the country, rallying for the Kings. They rolled up to the NBA meetings in New York, dipped through the South. Now, upon return, the RV was covered with good luck messages, scrawled in Sharpie by fans and supporters across the country.
With each minute, more signatures were added, higher and higher up on the RV, in the only spots where space was available. Young guys with bushy beards and tats signed, white-haired grandmothers signed, women holding Coors Light cans signed. Weiglein stood in the middle of it all, a man who's afraid of crowds working hard to embrace this one. He posed for pictures, led the swarm in "Go Kings!" chants, signed the jerseys of 8-year-olds. "I'm feeling good," he told people about the future, and he seemed to mean it.
Half an hour later, Weiglein and his troops swarmed into the building, joining thousand of others to create a rippling mass of purple, a sellout crowd that sang along to the national anthem, stood and clapped throughout intros and booed the Clippers lustily.
In the end, a game was played, one the Kings almost won behind an epic 36-point, 22-rebound night from Cousins, the crowd roaring the whole way and Kevin Johnson clapping from his seat at midcourt. It had all you could ask for: monster dunks (by Cousins) and airballs (by Marcus Thornton) and beautiful drives (by Isaiah Thomas) and a close finish (112-108 final). There was even some solid Chris Paul heckling from the fans on the baseline.
This night was never about a game, though, even if this happened to be a surprisingly good one by Kings standards. Rather, this was an outlet, a stage, an opportunity, a soapbox. It was a community coming together. It was about shared memories, and love, and resilience. It was about hating the Maloofs and adoring the Kings, about toasting the past and yearning for a future.
Most of all, though, it was about one more chance to be heard, in the hopes that the right people are listening.