I checked Grantland on Wednesday night and emitted an enthusiastic “Oooohh!” when I noticed the featured article: Jonathan Abrams’ oral history of the Sacramento Kings-Los Angeles Lakers 2002 Western Conference Finals. I promptly tuned out the episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” my girlfriend was watching and dove into the story like it was my own personal holy grail, hoping I would finally be able to connect the events of the seven-game series to my present day life. Considering your level of fandom, that obsessiveness either makes sense, or you’ll read the rest of this article with the suspicion that I’m a future case study in basketball insanity.
In simpler terms, the early 2000 Sacramento Kings were my rosebud.
The irony of my first encounter with the Kings is not lost on me. I grew up in a small town called Chico, California, one hour and thirty minutes north of the capital. Yet, despite my close proximity to the Mitch Richmond-era Kings, I found myself - along with the rest of the country - captivated by the instant celebrity of the Orlando Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal. In first grade, with no other means of communication, I drew and sent a picture of Shaq Fu (dunking, naturally) to the man himself. In a few short weeks Shaq replied with a standard autographed picture and a personalized message. Obviously “Dear Fan” was a special nickname the Big Aristotle bestowed only upon myself.
Following the natural progression of a fan-boy, I begged my dad to take me to a Magic-Kings game. We ended up attending two games in as many years. Civic pride be damned, the Sacramento Kings were merely a prop to view Shaq in all his backboard shattering glory. I now realize that driving to root for one player on the opposing team is not the most heartening display of loyalty to one’s home squad, but sheer spectacle is a force capable of destroying even the most hardened basketball cynic. LeBron James continues to attract away crowds for this particular reason. I’m not saying I need an excuse, but I was in first grade and the Kings were barely performing .500 levels. Shaq was basketball then.
My pre-teen devotion to the sport was like that of a vagrant, desperately wandering through whichever marquee match-ups were given the national spotlight. Without a team to rest my identity on, I picked players to root for depending on how similar our names were. Nick Van Exel was one of my better choices. Antoine Walker, not so much.
However, such habits were easy to extinguish with the lockout shortened 1998-‘99 season. In that small fifty game window, the Behind the Back (should’ve been a) Dynasty began to peak through, becoming the only team to average more than 100 points that year. The explosive Kings previewed a thrilling, if occasionally sloppy style of play that distracted from the brutish slugfests still taking place throughout much of the league.
In a post-Jordan era of explosive individual players, the Kings stood out not only in their kid tested high-light plays, but their mother-approved ball movement. Centered around rookie Jason Williams; future hall of famer (if there’s any justice) Chris Webber; and savvy veteran Vlade Divac, the Kings showcased a style of play in which seemingly any member on the court could commandeer the offense. Throw in Corliss Williamson, and future three-point champion, Peja Stojakovic, and you had the most thrilling 27-23 record of the year.
The following season, the Kings shed some weight (Oliver Miller joke) and blew past opponents in the first three quarters of nearly every game, earning what felt like a much more significant 44-38 record upon viewing.
In the scripting of the rivalry, the Kings lost to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
What I was watching was special. I knew that much. I knew it from the startling amount of behind the back passes per game (BtBppg) to the ecstatic declarations of play-by-play announcer Grant Napear, whose trademark “If You Don’t Like That, Then You Don’t Like NBA Basketball!” felt like a challenge as much as it did a rallying cry.
The Kings continued to grow in both popularity and talent, fetching Sixth Man of the Year Bobby Jackson and defensive stopper Doug Christie for a 55-27 record leading to another battle with the Lakers in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Jason Williams was then traded for the more reliable Mike Bibby, which enraged my And1 mixtape dependency for a moment before realizing the heart Bibby had. While he was no stranger to big plays, it was Bibby’s fearlessness in the clutch that filled the void of White Chocolate’s spectacular albeit sloppy playbook. There is no greater evidence of that than the Western Conference Finals.
It was in this seven game battle that the indomitable wall of meat* known as Shaq helped to destroy everything I love. Gone was the backboard shattering product pushing genie of Orlando. In his place stood a behemoth of the paint. Shaq didn’t post-up, as much as he absorbed defenders into his gravitational pull before exploding universes with a mere dunk. Once an admirer, I loathed the Big Nickname Generator. Coupled with Kobe Bryant’s steely-eyed smoothness and a murderer’s row of easy-villain role-players (Rick Fox’s smugness, Robert Horry’s Robert Horry-ness), the Lakers were a team so sickeningly dominant that even the slightest appreciation of their talents could destroy friendships.
It would not only be foolish for me to recap the WCF (I was thirteen at the time) but disingenuous to both the dynamic Kings highlights compiled by the saints of YouTube as well as Abrams’ amazing article.
For fear of sounding overtly sentimental about something I really had no part in, Abrams helped give me closure, specifically his section about the infamous Game Six.
There’s a desire to feel scorned, to feel like you and your home team were merely pawns in a conspiracy to solidify a Lakers three-peat. It makes you feel small and powerless, and there’s a comfort in that. That comfort overpowers any insecurity, because you can believe the problem isn’t with you, that it’s outside of you. It’s bigger than any thing you can handle. There are primal forces that you dare not meddle with. It’s the reason I listened to this Coldplay song more than once. But then you read Ted Bernhardt’s account of officiating that game and being forced to tell his boss, “…well, I thought my partners sucked,” and that can help you take closure in the fact that you were betrayed, not with malicious, cackling intent, but by dumb old human error.
I mean, there were a lot of errors. A hauntingly large amount of errors. Errors so headscratchingly crazy, you can believe Ralph Nader made it his business.
There is an utter hopelessness when you realize the universe just doesn’t want your heroes to feel the kind of joy you think they’ve earned, because what more can you give them after you’ve already hooted and hollered and even purchased a pair of their dumb shoes. (Kidding about that last part).
And yet that hope gets foolishly manipulated and restocked with new seasons, new faces, new jerseys. Of course that depends on whether or not your heart can handle it. One would be hard pressed to find a more accurate and clichéd metaphor for life. Except the one difference between sports and life is that in life you’re not sure if DeMarcus Cousins can really resurrect your team. Compared to that, this life shit’s easy.
*Yao Ming once referred to Shaq as a “meat wall.”