Nobody shed a tear for the residents of Kansas City when the NBA franchise that had made that city its home picked up and moved west to settle in the previously unheralded capital of California. Those Kings were a mediocre team that the fans of Kansas City had shown increasingly less interest in over the latter years of their tenure.
In fact, in the end, Omaha had been added in a kind of split custody arrangement: anything to get some fans in the seats and some money in the owners’ pockets (Omaha, Nebraska being as likely a town to introduce professional basketball to as any other in that part of the country). But by 1983, if not earlier, it was apparent that the mid-west no longer cared about a team that could barely manage a .500 season and had no discernable stars.
Sacramento was an unlikely suitor, being very much a lazy cowtown at the time with a modest professional orchestra of some note, a summer theater-in-the-round under a tent, but little in the way of sports of any professional stature. In fact, the college sports offerings weren’t even noteworthy, with U.C. Davis hardly an NCAA powerhouse.
But a young entrepreneur named Gregg Lukenbill had a vision, and he set about to make it real. And, sure enough, in November of 1985, in a hastily built arena that barely housed 10,000 crazed, screaming fans, the Sacramento Kings opened the season with a disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Few fans cared. Professional sports had arrived, and the town was immediately in love with its team.
Never mind that they stunk and would continue to stink for almost a full decade. Three years later, a larger, more NBA-appropriate arena was built. It seated over 17,000 and it was usually, if not always, full, even during the early years of wretched play and even more wretched coaching (Bill Russell and Dick Motta being the exemplars of that characterization).
Along the way, the ownership changed hands. The Lukenbill group sold out to a guy named Jim Thomas and he did the same to a couple of brothers. The Maloofs struck gold with their purchase, it coinciding with the arrival of a bevy of really good ballplayers (brought to the team by a really good general manager, Geoff Petrie).
The team, now led by Vlade Divac, Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic, soared in the standings, several times getting to within a game of a championship run. A pivotal game 6 against the hated Lakers in particular will never be forgotten by many of the faithful, with Kobe Bryant openly cheating by holding Bobby Jackson’s shirt, thereby preventing the speedy guard from scoring a winning basket.
Ah, but the cycle ran its course, as all cycles ultimately do in professional sports. The near-great team broke up, with each of the stars either retiring or moving on in free agency or in ill-advised trades (yes, engineered by the same Petrie). And, after a few years of one-round playoff runs, the playoffs, and dreams of a championship, became a thing of the past. And, as might be expected, with the return to mediocrity (or worse), the fans found better things to do with their time and money. The big arena suddenly was half-filled and awfully quiet.
And that arena, the building that Lukenbill built and that had been considered a palace when first opened, was now an albatross, a dinosaur, a relic. It lacked capacity (especially for the luxury suites that brought in the big bucks), it lacked the space (for giant concourses to hold all the amenities that also bring in big bucks), and it lacked the luster (the giant entrances and the marble tiles that the newer arenas in the country proudly display).
And soon the owners were asking for a new, state-of-the-art house for their team, one that could make their continued stay in Sacramento as profitable as a move to another city would produce.
But building a new arena would mean the city and its residents would have to make some decisions and those decisions would inevitably include some form of tax to pay for the new home. That stumbling block, added to the equally big problem of finding a suitable location for the new structure, proved to be too much for the city, its elected leaders, and its populace to handle.
And so, with a bigger city and a newer arena beckoning, Sacramento is about to lose its team. Barring a breakdown in negotiations between the Maloofs and the folks in Anaheim, the Kings will play their last game at the old arena and in the state’s capital in mid-April. They’ll finish their last season much as they started their quarter-century tenure in the town, as a miserable cellar-dweller with minimal talent and little hope of immediate improvement.
But they’ll be moving to a new environment with the hope that they will be greeted as enthusiastically there as they were here some 25 years earlier.
It isn’t fair, of course. It isn’t fair to all the fans who came to love their team. It isn’t fair to all the workers who gained employment at the arena or to the many businesses that sprung up around it over the years. It isn’t fair to the city that loaned the team a bundle back in the early years, just to keep the then owner happy.
But we’re talking about professional sports, and the key word there is the adjective, not the noun. It’s professional because it’s a business, and until the industry is socialized, teams will come and they will go, based entirely on the profitability of the franchises in the cities where they are located.
The Kings were profitable for their owners for a time; now they’re not. Whether they’ll be profitable in Anaheim is something the owners will soon find out. A few folks in Sacramento may care; most won’t. Instead, they’ll feel just like those abandoned fans in Kansas City did all those years ago.