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Return of the Kings

Playoff basketball is back in Sacramento for the first time since 2006. This season’s run has delighted a long-suffering and devoted fan base, but the Kings aren’t satisfied. Says All-Star guard De’Aaron Fox: “We want to be championship contenders year in and year out.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustraation

Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals will forever occupy a spot in Doug Christie’s psyche. In 39 minutes, he missed nine of his 11 shot attempts, including a miss in overtime that sealed the Lakers’ third straight trip to the NBA Finals, ended the greatest season in Kings history, and kicked off a downward spiral for the latter franchise.

“It’s not a lot about that game that I remember,” Christie says. “And the reason is I wasn’t mentally equipped to deal with the emotions of a moment like that.”

Christie was traded to the Kings in 2000, marking his fourth team in 10 years. During his tenure, he became Sacramento’s best perimeter defender and stretched the floor with his 3-point shooting. His play was a perfect complement to Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Mike Bibby, and he helped the Kings finish the season with the best record in the league. In the 2002 playoffs, they powered through the Jazz and Mavericks and forced the two-time defending champion Lakers into a Game 7. Christie had dreamed of this moment—of having the game in his hands—but his emotions got the best of him.

“For me, when I hit the court, it all came flooding on me, so I never caught up to myself,” Christie says. The loss was painful for Sacramento fans, who had to watch Kobe, Shaq, and the rest of the Lakers celebrate their Finals berth on the Kings’ home court.

“And if we had known what was coming after that,” says Carmichael Dave, a prominent radio host in the Sacramento area, “I think we would’ve been even more depressed.”

The following year brought the Kings 59 more wins, but a postseason knee injury to Webber dashed Sacramento’s title hopes and permanently altered the forward’s career. The next season, 2003-04, the Kings won 55 games. The year after that, they won 50, then 44 a year later, the most recent time the team finished above .500.

Seventeen years have passed since Sacramento last played postseason basketball, which was the longest active drought in North American professional sports. Since the team’s last playoff berth, in 2006, the United States has experienced four presidential cycles, two recessions, and a pandemic. Along the way, the team’s zealous fans have endured poor play, ownership changes, and the lingering threat of the only professional team in the area leaving for good.

This season, many expected another year of forgettable Kings basketball, with most observers projecting the team to be in the mix for the play-in tournament. Instead, the Kings became the biggest unexpected success story, winning 48 games and finishing with the third-best record in the West. Led by veteran coach Mike Brown and aided by the play of All-Stars Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, the Kings are building something that looks familiar to Christie, whose Kings teams captivated Sacramento with their run-and-gun style and got to the brink of the Finals.

Christie, who is now an assistant with the Kings, is trying to use his experience from 2002 to help this year’s group. “I would say that that moment teaches these guys it’s more about the mental capacity to be in that moment and hold it down and relax,” he says, recalling Game 7. “What’s going to separate us from everybody else is going to be the mental acumen when the situation gets hectic and crazy to take a breath and relax and say, ‘I’m built for this.’”

This year’s squad answered that challenge in Game 1 of its first-round matchup, beating the Warriors in an epic 126-123 shootout. In his postseason debut, Fox scored a game-high 38 points, dazzling the home crowd with speedy drives and timely 3-pointers. The victory over the defending champs was a statement—that it’s time to take Kings basketball seriously again, during this run and beyond.

“We want to be championship contenders year in and year out,” Fox tells me. “Especially with guys starting to enter their prime, you want to be one of those teams that people look at and it’s like, ‘This team has a chance to win a championship,’ and that’s what we want to build toward. I think as competitors, everybody that’s walked through here, Mike, everybody wants to be a championship team. That’s what we’re striving for.”

2023 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The Kings have enjoyed a rabid local fan base since the organization moved from Kansas City to Sacramento in 1985. A few months into their first season, noise from a sold-out crowd caused Larry Bird to miss two free throws with 31 seconds left, handing the eventual champion Celtics just their ninth loss in 47 games. Fifteen years later, Phil Jackson, the Lakers’ head coach at the time, called Sacramento a “cow town” and fans showed up to the next game against Los Angeles with cowbells. The following year, the noise before a Western Conference finals game against the Lakers matched the decibel level of a commercial jet engine.

Prior to the Kings’ arrival, Sacramento didn’t have a professional sports team. To catch a glimpse of major-league action, residents had to drive more than 60 miles to see the Raiders, 49ers, Athletics, Giants, and Warriors in the Bay Area. The Kings gave fans a team of their own, as well as relevance in the national sports scene.

But off-the-court events threatened the team’s existence in Sacramento. After failed attempts to partner with the city on an arena project, the Maloof family, who had bought the Kings in 1998, began fielding offers to move the franchise. The Maloofs were mired in debt, and by 2011, they had a deal to move the Kings to Anaheim after the city agreed to $75 million in public bonds to improve the Honda Center, but the Maloofs backed out of the deal months later. In January 2013, the family agreed in principle to sell the team for $525 million to Chris Hansen, a Seattle-based billionaire, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who planned to move the team to the Pacific Northwest.

“We had the worst type of feeling,” says Dave. “It’s one thing to lose a fight. It’s one thing to lose a game, but you’re on the floor for that. You’re in the ring for that. For the fans, the worst part was we felt so helpless all the time. We could cheer, we could rally, but we didn’t have the checkbooks.”

But they did have ingenuity. Following the sale announcement, a grassroots movement was born. Kids sold lemonade to raise money. Dave kicked off the Playing to Win Tour, partnering with local sponsors to get an RV and embark on a nationwide journey. He traveled to over 20 cities around the United States to raise awareness for the cause, ending in New York City in April 2013 outside the NBA offices as team owners discussed the Kings’ pending move.

Sacramento’s mayor at the time, former NBA guard Kevin Johnson, joined the campaign, working the phones and trying to convince California billionaires to invest in a competing bid that would keep the Kings in town.

The movement managed to catch the eye of a Warriors minority owner named Vivek Ranadivé. And NBA commissioner David Stern, sympathetic to Sacramento’s cause, encouraged Ranadivé to get involved.

“I got a call from David Stern,” Ranadivé tells me. “And he said, ‘Hey, there’s a deal to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle. … Why don’t you buy the team and be the guy?’”

Ranadivé, who often sat courtside at Oracle Arena and watched Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green ascend to stardom, saw an opportunity in the devolving hoops conundrum in the state capital.

“I saw the passion of the fans. And I came to this country with nothing. I came to California with zero dollars in my pocket,” says Ranadivé, who grew up in India, attended MIT, and eventually founded a software company in the Bay Area. “So everything I have, I owe to the state of California, Sacramento, the capital. And what I saw is that without the team, the city really would go down. It was the heart of the city. So it would be like ripping the heart out of the city.”

Ranadivé later led an ownership group that Johnson helped assemble, which bought the Maloofs’ majority share of the Kings for $348 million in the spring of 2013. Ranadivé says the deal came with parameters the new ownership group had to meet, including building a brand-new arena to replace the outdated Sleep Train Arena, which was in a state of decay during the early 2000s.

“I gave a personal guarantee that I would have a new arena built downtown in a certain time frame,” Ranadivé says. “And if I didn’t succeed, then they could take the team back from me.”

Ranadivé partnered with the city to construct a $558 million arena in Sacramento’s Downtown Commons district, but that monopolized his time and took his attention away from the basketball side of the organization.

“I had to get familiar with state laws,” he says. “They wrote a law just for us so that we could fast-track the development of the arena. And so, really, I had to learn everything from state laws to building an arena to revitalizing the downtown to how we get this team into the playoffs. And that was yet another journey.”

Ranadivé’s balancing act often led to hasty decision-making. Shortly after acquiring the team, he hired Michael Malone, a former Warriors assistant, as head coach before he hired a general manager: an uncommon practice in the NBA.

Ranadivé also seemed eager to re-create the magic he had seen in Golden State. During the 2016 draft, he fixated on Buddy Hield because he believed the Oklahoma guard had “Steph Curry potential.” And Ranadivé occasionally took an outside-of-the-box approach, once suggesting that coaches should leave one player to cherry-pick during defensive possessions.

The biggest gaffe of Ranadivé’s young ownership tenure came when he fired Malone 24 games into the 2014-15 season despite player objections, citing a need for a run-and-gun-style team. In 2015, he hired Divac as general manager, even though the former center had minimal front office experience. Although Divac drafted Fox, who is now the franchise’s cornerstone and the runaway favorite for Clutch Player of the Year this season, he was heavily criticized for picking Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic and trading away DeMarcus Cousins to kick off yet another rebuild.

Frustration from the inconsistency perhaps reached its peak when Monte McNair, hired as GM in the fall of 2020 to replace Divac, dealt Tyrese Haliburton to the Pacers for Sabonis before the 2022 trade deadline. In his one and a half seasons with the Kings, Haliburton had established himself as one of the league’s most intriguing prospects and been embraced by the local community.

“Everyone was shocked, surprised, just the usual,” Sabonis tells me. “It was a bad trade, yada, yada, all this stuff. … It didn’t really matter. If anything, it just [adds] more fuel to it. At that point, you’re just happy you’re moving on to a bigger chapter.”

Criticism aside, the trade for Sabonis brought Sacramento closer to realizing Vivek’s long-held vision of re-creating what Golden State has. Sabonis allowed the Kings to play more like the Warriors: small and fast, with a whirling offense of shooters surrounding a great passing big man. In the first game after the deal, Sabonis poured in 22 points, adding 14 rebounds and five assists in a win over the Timberwolves, offering a glimpse of what was to come.

But the Kings still needed a coach to make it all work, and the franchise’s attention was set on another Golden State assistant: Mike Brown. After a few interviews during the Warriors’ postseason run, including one inside Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center, Vivek invited Brown over to his Atherton house for one last meeting before sealing the deal. Upon his arrival, Vivek had one major question for Brown.

“He has a great basketball mind,” Vivek says. “Of course, he’s got all the experience boxes checked. He’s done it all. He’s won championships. He’s been an assistant under some of the legendary coaches. He’s been a head coach. But could he reinvent himself?”

Houston Rockets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When Brown first became the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he wore his emotions on his sleeve.

“When it came to making mistakes, especially if we worked on those mistakes time and time again,” Brown tells me, “the disappointment on my face or with my body if we didn’t do it was obvious whenever it happened.”

During one practice, Brown’s nonverbal cues caught the eye of LeBron James.

“LeBron came up to me and said, ‘Mike, can you watch your body language? … If you drop your shoulders or drop your head, it could bring us down as a group.’”

But Brown’s passion and dogged work ethic helped him rise quickly through the NBA ranks. He earned an assistant-coaching position on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio by age 30, and he was the architect of a defense that helped lift the Pacers to the 2004 conference finals. During head-coaching stints in Cleveland and later with the Los Angeles Lakers, Brown garnered the reputation of a grinder who’d sometimes spend nights at the facility, poring over game plans and planning two-hour practices in meticulous detail.

“Our practice plan would be down to the millisecond, and everything would be laid out,” Brown recalls.

Brown says that approach was born from his youth, growing up with a mother who was a schoolteacher and a father in the Air Force.

“I wasn’t the most talented guy in the world, but the one thing I always knew I had control over was how hard I worked. I can outwork anybody if I wanted to. That’s what I really hung my hat on,” he says. “Not sometimes, not most of the time, but all the time.”

But by 2014, Brown was out of the league. The Cavs, who were building a new staff to prepare for James’s return to Northeast Ohio, fired Brown just 13 months into his second stint with the team. Without a job, and still getting paid a salary from the two teams that fired him, he took frequent trips back to San Antonio, sitting in on coaches’ meetings with Popovich and plotting his next step.

Meanwhile, Steve Kerr, an old friend of Brown’s from the latter’s days as an assistant in San Antonio, was coaching Curry, Thompson, and Green to titles in Golden State. The Warriors’ success meant members of Kerr’s staff would soon be hired by other teams. Sure enough, Luke Walton, Kerr’s lead assistant who helped the Warriors win a league-record 73 regular-season games as Kerr recovered from back surgery, was hired by the Lakers in 2016, which opened a role at the front of Golden State’s bench. When Popovich heard about the vacancy, he called Kerr and recommended Brown.

“We met with some great candidates, but I knew Mike; I had the prior relationship with him,” Kerr says. “I knew about how meticulous he was, and I knew that that was a really good counterbalance for my own sort of, I don’t know, what’s the opposite of OCD?

“For my own vibes. He was the right guy to balance me out. He’s just way more organized than I am.”

When Brown arrived in the Bay Area during the summer of 2016, Golden State’s veteran roster forced Brown to change his rigid approach. During an early practice, he began falling into old habits, and the vets called him out.

“We got into some drill,” Andre Iguodala tells me, “and it was something that we already did, and he was trying to put his Mike Brown on it—like the perception of Mike Brown on it.”

“They came over to me and said, ‘Mike, we’re a veteran team. We’re going to be all right. We don’t need that right now. You just need to let us do our thing,’” Brown recalls. “‘When we need help, we’ll let you know.’ So I said, ‘OK. I see how it works around here.’”

In Sacramento, Brown is applying all he’s learned. Instead of planning practice to the second, he’s delegated the responsibility to his staff. And in the locker room, he’s instituted a leadership council, consisting of Harrison Barnes, Sabonis, Fox, and Davion Mitchell, to open communication lines between players and coaches. Now, instead of boring his players with two-hour practices, he can be seen running down the sideline in a full sprint, imploring his team to “Turn the fucking jets on!” as the team smiles from ear to ear.

For years, the Kings yearned for a postseason berth, but Brown immediately set a loftier goal for this current group: a championship.

To get there, Brown has instituted a militant level of accountability. “[He] wants you to be perfect in a world that’s not perfect,” says guard Malik Monk. “He just wants greatness, and he demands greatness out of everybody. And if you’re not with it, you’re going to get left behind.”

Earlier this month, during a late-season matchup against the Warriors, Brown called a timeout two minutes into the game after Terence Davis, a young guard, left Klay Thompson wide open for a 3-pointer. “He’ll stop in the middle of the game and go coach you on the point while we all still in the huddle,” Monk says.

Brown’s attention to detail has helped the Kings find consistency during a season when many other Western Conference teams struggled to establish an identity. After losing its first four games of the season, Sacramento won 10 of its next 12 and never lost more than three games in a row the rest of the way.

Brown, known before this year as a defensive coach, implemented a fast-paced offense tailored to the strengths of his best players. Fox’s speed, Sabonis’s brute force, and outside shooting from Monk, Kevin Huerter, and rookie Keegan Murray have powered the Kings to the most efficient offense in NBA history.

Moreover, for a team that’s employed 10 head coaches in a 15-year span entering this season, the newfound stability under Brown is exactly what the franchise needed.

“I mean, it was just tough,” says Matt Barnes, who played two separate stints with the team and is now a member of the Kings’ TV booth. “I wasn’t here that long, but you see someone like DeMarcus Cousins, who plays eight years and has seven different coaches. It’s just tough to build anything with that.”

The turnaround was rewarded last week when Brown was named Coach of the Year by the National Basketball Coaches Association, stamping the impact he’s made this season.

But Brown hasn’t lost sight of his ultimate goal for the franchise.

“My sole focus is on making sure that we’re doing the things that we’re supposed to be doing,” he tells me. “We’re competing. We’re playing together. We’re embracing our roles, all the things that help the team stay connected and believe in what our mission as a group is together, which is to win a championship here.”

Three hours after the Kings returned from a playoff-clinching pair of games in Portland in late March, a throng of fans descended on a private terminal inside Sacramento International Airport to meet the team plane following a midnight arrival. They yelled “Light the beam,” a rallying cry this season, as the aircraft taxied on home soil.

By 12:30 a.m., the crowd had parted on either side of the parking lot exit, ringing cowbells and eagerly looking into cars to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Other fans stood alongside a gate that separates the lot from the tarmac, forming a semicircle around a man holding a makeshift beam up to the sky as young children up past their bedtimes looked on. The crowd had mobilized on social media minutes after the Kings’ 138-114 win over the Trail Blazers, the second game of a two-game set in the Pacific Northwest, when someone located a public flight record of the team plane.

“They are out there. You can feel it,” Brown says. “I mean, whether I’m at the grocery store, at my partner’s daughter’s eighth-grade basketball game, or at her youngest son’s coding class. It doesn’t matter. If you’re out and about at a restaurant, you could just feel the excitement and the passion from this base oozing out.”

The cowbells were out again on Saturday afternoon before the Kings’ playoff opener. Fans descended on Downtown Commons, raising flags and basking in the glory of relevancy. Once the game began, the raucous crowd helped lift the Kings to a 1-0 series lead over the Warriors, with Game 2 set to tip off Monday night in Sacramento.

This matchup conjures more than a typical regional rivalry; the Kings and Warriors are especially intertwined. In the past two decades, rising housing costs from the tech boom and gentrification have pushed many former Bay Area residents into Sacramento and its surrounding area. And between Brown, Ranadivé, and Harrison Barnes, these franchises know each other well.

Golden State was one of the first teams to recognize Sacramento’s progress this season. In the teams’ second matchup, in November, the Kings nearly stole a road win at Chase Center, taking a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter before the Warriors outscored the Kings 37-25 over the final 12 minutes. But by the end of the evening, the champs were impressed.

“I always say, you can tell a well-coached NBA team by how many trap-the-boxes they miss,” Draymond Green said after the matchup, explaining an action in which a weakside defender rotates to the strong side of the court to defend a shot. “They didn’t miss many.”

“They’re serious,” he added. “And they believe. … Sacramento hasn’t believed since Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson, Vlade Divac, Doug Christie.”

The box score from the Kings’ 2002 Game 7 loss to the Lakers is still hanging on Carmichael Dave’s wall—a visual reminder of the team’s last, best chance at a title. Sacramento fans are happy to finally have another team they can believe in.

Only time will tell whether these Kings can reach the heights of the early 2000s teams, but there’s no question about the hope that the current roster has already provided. As the Kings ascend, the city, region, and beyond are reminding themselves to cherish the ride. Last month, I asked Dave what he’s learned from the previous 17 years of Kings basketball.

“Brother, it’s OK to want,” he replied. “But just enjoy the moment and think about all the shitty moments we’ve had before this. That would be my lesson.”

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