Sometimes being a fan of a professional sports team is sheer agony, and sometimes it’s an absolute joy. In recent years, being a fan of two particular teams has given me both experiences.
I’ve been a fan of Sacramento’s basketball team, the Kings, since they first arrived in our town in 1985. And I’ve been a die-hard fan of the Dodgers, well, just about since birth, having resided a stone’s throw from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field back in the glory years of Jackie Robinson.
In my childhood, the Dodgers were perennial heart-breakers, annually having the best team (on paper) in the National League, only either to lose the pennant on the season’s last day (as they did famously in 1951 – the first baseball memory I have) or, more often, losing the World Series to the hated cross-town Yankees.
Only once, in 1955, did they vanquish the evil Yanks and win it all. And while the joy of that experience was memorable, it only partially relieved the anguish from past near misses.
And then, of course, at the tender age of 13, my heart was broken when the team moved across the country to Los Angeles, which might have been off the planet entirely for all the news that was available about their exploits. Remember, this was long before the days of ESPN or any other comparable 24-hour sports reporting resource.
Following the Dodgers on a day-to-day basis was almost impossible from the East Coast. Most of their games started after my bedtime (not that they would have been broadcast locally anyway), and they were not considered important enough to report even the next day, when the local sports reports on TV’s morning news aired.
But I stayed loyal, hoping against hope that they would someday return to Brooklyn, or that I might someday live in Los Angeles (which I did manage to accomplish a quarter of a century later).
Over the years of its LA existence, the team continued to be perennial contenders, even winning a half-dozen world championships, albeit still breaking my heart more often than not. But, by most accounts, the Dodgers had been the best National League team of my lifetime—until that is, the O’Malley family (which had owned them since 1950) sold them to the evil Fox Group (Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate) in 1998.
Shortly after that purchase, the team traded away their best player, future hall of famer Mike Piazza, and the franchise hasn’t really been the same since.
Fox was a disaster, but the real calamity ensued when that ownership gave way to a Boston carpetbagger named Frank McCourt, who, in just six years managed to take the team into bankruptcy. As might be expected, he also destroyed the team’s ability to win, decimating the talent base with a payroll that would be expected of a small market club, rather than a team with annual attendance of over three million in a city with a population base of close to ten million.
And so has been the far from sublime existence of this avid Dodger fan of late—until this year. The season began on a euphoric note with the announcement that McCourt had agreed to sell the team to a group headed by none other than Magic Johnson. And, as if picking up on the positive vibes created by that amazingly positive turn of events, the players on the field began the season playing like the great squads of decades past, winning nine of their first ten games to register the best record in the major leagues in the early going.
Ah, the joys of being a fan of a professional sports team.
Which brings me to my other team.
The Sacramento Kings have never been world beaters. The closest they have come to a championship was ten years ago when a very good squad, led by Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, lost a seven-game conference-championship round to the hated Lakers of Kobe Bryant.
Within a few years of that high point in their Sacramento history, the team returned to the desultory play that had characterized its first decade of existence, to wit: doormats of the conference and perennial draft lottery candidates (meaning they finished with one of the worst records in the league).
The team also went through a couple of ownership changes (from Gregg Lukenbill’s group to Jim Thomas to the Maloof family). The Maloofs, owners since 1998, were gung-ho at the outset, opening their wallets to bring top talent to the team (the playoff runs in the early years of the century being the result).
But as newer arenas opened and bigger market teams outpaced the Kings in their on-court endeavors, the Maloofs began to sour on their arena, claiming it was too old and too small to allow them to remain financially viable. Build them a new arena, they demanded, or they would have to move to another town.
It all seemed like talk for a long while. David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner, was clearly not in favor of a franchise move, and the city, under new mayor Kevin Johnson (himself a former NBA all-star) busied itself looking at options for a new arena. And then, last year, the Maloofs got an offer to move the franchise to Anaheim, where an existing arena was readily available.
Only a last minute rescue (engineered by Johnson) gave the city one last chance to come up with a real plan for a new arena, and that plan came together over the summer and fall and became what seemed like a fait accompli last month when Johnson and the Maloof brothers shook hands on a deal to build a new arena in downtown Sacramento.
Crisis averted. Joy in Sac-town. (Never mind that the team still stinks.)
But then, last week, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, the Maloofs declared they cannot accept the plan for the new arena, and once again the city may be on the verge of losing its beloved team.
Ah, the agony of being a fan of a professional sports team.