Earlier in this series, I accused the NBA franchise currently residing in the nation’s capital of having an identity crisis. That organization has played in three different cities under six different names.
There’s a team in Northern California that would like to throw its hat into that ring.
Over its 62-year history, the franchise currently (who knows for how long?) known as the Sacramento Kings has been associated with five different cities and undergone one name change.
For a franchise that’s made 29 playoff appearances, played in eight conference finals, won a championship, and had 10 Hall of Famers suit up in at least 200 games (good luck finding a color photo of most of them), the Kings have endured a staggering amount of misfortune, mismanagement, mediocrity, or downright putridity.
The franchise began in 1948 as the Rochester Royals. After one year in the Basketball Association of America, in which they posted a league-best 45 wins (in a 60-game season) and reached the conference finals, they joined the NBA. There they reached the playoffs each of the next six seasons, with a .600-plus winning percentage in each of the next five, took part in three conference finals, and, led by Arnie Risen, captured the only championship in franchise history in 1951.
After nine years in Western New York, the Royals relocated to Cincinnati before the '57-'58 season. The team’s first four seasons in Ohio were generally unremarkable (all sub-.500, one playoff appearance), until a 1961 territorial draft pick changed the franchise’s fortunes.
Enter Oscar Robertson.
More on this shortly, but a funny thing about Oscar’s run with the Cincinnati Royals is that most fans are hard-pressed to cite anything other than "he averaged a triple-double." While that is undoubtedly true and phenomenal, details about the length of his tenure (10 years) and the team’s success (six playoff appearances in nine years, two conference finals appearances) are nowhere near as widespread in their recognition.
Think about it. If you eliminate "triple-double" from the vernacular, Oscar Robertson’s prime is murky at best, right?
The Royals stumbled in the late '60s and early '70s, missing the playoffs in Oscar’s last three seasons and the four that followed. In 1972, two years after Robertson was dealt to the Bucks, the Royals left Cincinnati and headed for corn country. They started the '72-'73 season as the Kansas City- Omaha Kings.
(A quick side note: I am all for inclusiveness, but this was a bit much. K.C. and Omaha are separated by about 200 miles and a state line. If you enjoy mocking the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, go to town on this one.)
Anyway, after missing the playoffs each of their first two seasons as the K.C.-Omaha Kings, the '74-'75 team, led by Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Jimmie Walker (Jalen Rose’s father), won 44 games and earned a spot in the postseason. They were eliminated by the Chicago Bulls in six games.
That summer, the powers that be got together and took a look at the team’s name—the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. I’d imagine that at some point during that meeting, someone said, “Hey! You guys know these are two different cities in two different states?” which led to the “Kansas City Kings.”
(Note: What actually happened was that, after splitting its home games between the two cities, the franchise elected to abandon the Omaha market in 1975; although, I hope one of the geniuses in charge came to the aforementioned realization.)
After three more losing seasons, now as the Kansas City Kings, the teams enjoyed a period of relative success in the late '70s and early '80s. In the seven seasons between 1978 and 1985, the Kings finished over .500 four times, made five trips to the postseason, and appeared in the saddest Western Conference Finals series in memory in 1981.
That year, despite three teams in the West winning 52-plus games, the 40-42 Kings and the 40-42 Rockets combined to pull three upsets and battled for the right to be extras in Larry Bird’s coronation.
Yeah, that passes for prosperity.
However, this “success” was short-lived, as a number of factors combined to doom the Kings in Kansas City. First, during the '79-'80 season, a severe storm caved in the roof of the team’s arena. After a literal caving in of the roof, a figurative one got rolling.
First, Ted Stepien, the craziest owner in Cleveland Cavaliers history—a competitive category—offered huge free agent contracts to Otis Birdsong and Scott Wedman, the Kings’ best players. This was followed by the team being sold to a group from Sacramento for just $11 million. In the summer of 1985, amid flagging attendance, ownership pulled the Kings from Kansas City, moving the team to Sacramento.
Before we move on to the Sacramento era, a piece of information that I have no idea what to do with but is good for a chuckle:
Late in their Kansas City run, the Kings’ general manager was fired in a scandal in which he was found to be reusing previously used postage stamps. In light of this, the Kings ran back into the waiting arms of Joe Axelson, the former GM who had traded away Oscar Robertson, Norm Van Lier, Nate Archibald, and Jerry Lucas.
That’s the caliber of leadership we’re talking about here!
The Kings’ first year in California, while lackluster, was not all bad. Despite finishing the regular season with a 37-45 record, the Sacramento Kings managed to treat their new fans to the postseason experience—such as it was.
The '85-'86 Kings earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference and drew the 62-win juggernaut Lakers in the first round. They were not only swept in three games, they endured as savage a beating as has ever been seen by a professional team. The Lakers won by an average of just under 31 points, none by less than 20, and dropped a 47-point beatdown (135- 88) on Sacramento in Game 1.
This was sort of a precursor of things to come.
The Kings failed to win as many as 40 games in a season over the next dozen years, nine times failing to win 30 games, and made a single playoff appearance, losing to the Seattle Supersonics in four games in 1996.
However, starting in the 1998-1999 season, when the team drafted flashy PG Jason Williams (White Chocolate or Slim Shady to some) out of Florida and acquired Chris Webber from the Washington Wizards (the other name-crazy team!), optimism began to build. The Kings, so sad for so long, were suddenly young, entertaining, and competitive!
The brash, young team won 27 of 50 games (.540 winning percentage) in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, exhibited some spectacular play, and pushed the Utah Jazz to the limit in the first round of the playoffs before falling in five games.
The Kings won 99 games over the next two seasons and won their first playoff series in more than two decades in 2001, knocking off the Phoenix Suns before losing four straight to a Lakers team that lost a single game that entire postseason.
Following that season, the flashy but inconsistent Williams was dealt to the Grizzlies in exchange for Mike Bibby. Bibby would team with Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson, and a SG whom I refuse to name (Whatever, man! Get your wife to smack me with her purse!) to win 175 games over the next three years (including a franchise-record 61 in '01-'02) and push the third of the Kobe-Shaq title teams to the brink in the 2002 conference finals.
Anyone in the city of Sacramento had been able to grab one of two rebounds in the dying seconds of Game 4...
Robert Horry was just “Moderate-Sized Shot Bob”…
Game 6 were not an officiating atrocity (I’m a Laker fan; I’m not offering to give it back, but I can admit it)…
A team of great shooters had been able to make more than 16 of 30 free throw attempts…
Peja Stojakovic, as good a shooter as there’s been in the past decade, had not been lobbing up knuckleballs (3-12 FG, 0-6 3PA) in Game 7…