The Company of Kings

(Jose Luis Villegas/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

How many hours have I shaved off my life declaring allegiance to sinking ships? A sobering hypothetical for a Wednesday afternoon. It came while reading an ironic spelling error in Marc Stein’s coverage of the Sacramento Kings extending Vlade Divac’s contract. “Tanks to ongoing struggles and longstanding tension between Karl and star center Demarcus Cousins…”

Tanks. Finally, on a March 30th afternoon in the Year of the Under Armour Curry Twos, I accepted reality: the Kings are not making the playoffs.

Girlfriends know how to cut to the core. Recently while browsing jobs in journalism, I noticed an editor’s position in LA at Myspace. I announced the opportunity across the kitchen table where she was editing photos on her laptop. She returned an exasperated groan and the kneejerk psychoanalysis of “why do you insist on boarding sinking ships?” I xed the tab. A week later the observation was still renting space in my head. So much that I finally connected that character flaw to my immunity to yet another bad Kings season. And so, I began a research of self to locate the origins of my terminal condition.

Who are the Sacramento Kings to me? They are the professional team in my city. Until eight years ago when I moved to Sacramento my teams were determined by sharing a state. As an Ohioan that makes me a Cavs fan. Iconic foul line free throws over Craig Ehlo carry a certain weight. I don’t deal well with Jordan fist pumps. Much like Kings fans don’t like to talk about Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in the Year of the Adidas T-Mac IIs.

As a coach’s son raised on pass-replace offense and Pistol Pete’s Basketball Homework VHS tapes, the Kings in the Year of the Air Garnett IIIs were the professional manifestation of everything I was raised to admire about the sport. From the Year of the And 1 Tai Chi to the Year of the Adidas T-Mac IIs, the Kings imprinted an antiestablishment attitude towards dynasty. I wouldn’t know it then, but my admiration for Doug Christie decking Rick Fox in a preseason game was a formative moment. There’s just something about hitting someone from LA in the face that resonates with the entire country.

If you were a sheisty landlord, an admissions advisor that denied my application, a publication that overlooked my resume, or a writer receiving the opportunities that I felt I deserved, chances are you were Rick Fox in my head. As a teenager that listened to entirely too much Ras Kass and Jedi Mind Tricks, watched every X-Files episode, and spent hours on the Internet reading conspiracy theories, that Game 6 was in my conspiratorial wheelhouse. I knew how those fans in Sacramento felt. I felt it too. Just like I felt like the government was hiding aliens and the church was suppressing information about black Jesus.

I looked at Kobe Bryant and I saw entitlement. I looked at Chris Webber and I saw a guy who’d encountered highs and lows. Who made a historically bad error in college; then won Rookie of the Year honors and made All-Star appearances; but also got swept by the Bulls and arrested for assault and marijuana possession. I saw a guy who’d made mistakes and then he found a system that played to his strengths and allowed him to excel. I’ve not met my Adelman yet, but I’ve made the mistakes equivalent to C. Webb’s 2 Much Drama rap album.

Obviously, Jason Williams holds a special place for any white teenager in the Y.N.G.IIIs. High school open gyms were primarily opportunities to replicate his moves. Before he came along we were all still trying to harness the strength and agility to shoot a Jordan fadeaway. Post-White Chocolate America woke up assuming trick passes had two prerequisites: audacity and a teammate.

Unable to interject due to OHSAA rules, the coaches reclined in the bleachers, holding back pained looks as they endured behind the back passes on fast breaks, behind the back post entry passes, and the epitome in selfish artistry, the fake behind the back pass through one’s own legs.

When I moved to Sacramento in the Year of the Nike Hyperdunk, I cheered with 300 fans at Arco Arena for the selection of Jason Thompson and attended the home opener featuring performances by Massachusetts alt-rock band Rev Theory. Two exemplary indicators of the state of the franchise. Back then being a fan was a challenge of faith, one I knew well as a Cavs fan. Every Mikki Moore gaffe and painful John Salmons folly was relevant to the orange and teal Decade of Struggle. The Cavs era of Fat Shawn Kemp, of drafting Trajan Langdon, of starting Chris Gatling, of great white bust Bobby Sura. The Kings had their many equivalents in Kenny Thomas starts, drafting Jimmer, and albatross deals for J.J. Hickson.

The poster boy of Struggle Cavs though was Ricky Davis who, one rebound short of a triple double in the final seconds of a 120-95 win, forwent the proper sportsmanship move of letting the remaining seconds tick without action and instead devised a plan to clang the ball off his own rim after an inbound to get his triple-double-sealing rebound. The selfish play did not count and Davis was traded the next season. Finally, in the Year of the Nike Air Zoom Generation Lebron, the past became the past.

Struggle Kings was exemplified by its dunce heirs that left their courtside seats empty in favor of Energy Drink Conventions in Las Vegas. They treated lottery picks like liquidation assets, sent Thomas Robinson to the Rockets in his rookie season to save a few pennies, and though the scandal never caught momentum, I’m pretty sure the owners rationed toilet paper in the arena restrooms. I think I was even handed an expired coupon with my ticket one time.

Enduring the Maloofs was a lesson in toleration. Tolerating the American epidemic of nepotism, corporate cronyism, and frivolous self interest at the expense of the proletariat. Our dunces in the executive office reflected the depression of the era. The challenge of being a Kings fan was knowing that the team was not designed to fail in some Money Ball master plan, but designed to slash budget. Dealing with the Maloofs taught me to see the sport as a critically thinking adult who could no longer dissociate his professional entertainment from the rampant corruption of America. I learned that there’s nuance in the esprit de corps and not simple solidarity in being the violinist going down with the Titanic.

Currently the Kings suffer the same modern dilemma that disillusions us in the Year of the Under Armour Curry Twos.  All controversy and content, but lacking in discipline. The Kings fling headlines into the mediasphere like crap to a ceiling fan. They don’t bother with the directions on the dynamite. They made all the wrong splashes in the Y. U. A. C. T. season. Meanwhile, I was watching them like Blackfish.

The new ownership was smart to celebrate the history. It hired the glory years in the front office with Stojakovic and Divac. It modeled the new logo after the original. The final game at Arco Arena not only celebrated the beloved former players that wore the jersey with pride, but it kept the focus on the fans. Arguably the greatest in the league. Fans and cities aren’t supposed to win battles against corporate interest, but in Sacramento that happened. This a We The People city and I’ve read enough Howard Zinn to not take those words lightly.

But battles aren’t being won in the 94 feet of hardwood. All hype, all splash, no technique or discipline. The distractions were comically bad. The Kings showed flashes though. There were times when the Kings executed perfect end-to-end basketball. A shot block by Cousins, foul-line extended outlet to Rondo who sends a lobbing chest pass ahead to a cherry-picking Curry, on the money and at the basket, Curry lifts the ball at the front of the rim, closer to the outstretched hands of the defender, and the floating orb is seized by Cauley-Stein for an alley-oop dunk over the defender. Perfecto.

An alley-oop inbound from Rondo to Gay for his 20th assist as time expires in regulation to send the game into overtime against the Charlotte Hornets. Omri Casspi fearless as he trades threes in the second quarter against the most elite shooter in the game, Steph Curry. Rondo crashing the offensive boards against OKC, securing a high rebound and as he lands in one fluid motion delivers a behind the back bounce pass to Marco Belinelli camped at the three point line to sink a long ball.

Is mediocrity airborne? Is it contagious? If I believe that I am only as good as the company that I keep, am I my own saboteur by aligning with franchises that seem anemic to greatness or even in their most elite form are still merely second best?

While watching the Kings play the Nuggets at a neighborhood bar I got into an existential conversation with a stranger. Normally a dreaded scenario of Springsteenian irony, we traded stories of our respective crafts and the ego conflict attached. He a sculptor who’s begun making chairs. I’m a writer who tirelessly questions utility. Alcohol was supposed to be enough, but in that moment we found comfort in one another. I told him to keep making chairs. That even the most renowned chairmaker likely hated his first six chairs, possibly more. For me, it was compartmentalizing my life story into a televised second half that led to the breakthrough that perhaps my great challenge is to excel at mediocrity. To reckon with my average-at-every-turn life. It would not be an acceptance of my station but a new awareness, and in it there was still much to be discovered. To write from a knowingly mediocre foundation and still find cause for it felt like a supreme challenge. And so, that evening a writer and a chairmaker found a minor chord of composure and the Kings beat the Denver Nuggets for the fourth time in the season. Weeks later, it felt like poetry to see both teams finished with 33-49 records.

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Blake Gillespie is a writer in Sacramento. He is actually palming this NBA basketball. His work appears in Impose Magazine, Paper Magazine, the Sacramento News & Review, the East Bay Express, and various online music publications. He keeps telling himself someday he'll write a novella.