Anaheim, You Can Take My Team, But Not My Memories

“Purple and silver day” was one of the best non-uniform days of my elementary school experience, because it wasn’t just a day to forego wearing those polo shirts and plaid skirts; it was a day to celebrate our hometown pride: though the Sacramento Kings have long since fallen from their once-epic spotlight, their fans still remain some of the most loyal – and loudest (oh, the cowbells!) – in the NBA.

Yes, I will probably get shit for writing this nostalgic piece – hell, I get shit even now for being a Kings fan.

“Don’t you mean the ‘Anaheim Royals’?” my snide, but well-meaning (I hope), colleagues ask.

It’s heartbreaking. I won’t even pretend to not be devastated by the Maloofs’ attempt to take the team south. Southern California already has two NBA teams … do they need a third? I think not. Lakers owner Jerry Buss thinks not. But these moves aren’t about the fans. Seattle Sonics fans: you know what I mean.

For a decade, despite relocating to Irvine four years ago, I’ve remained a Kings fan. Through the glory, the frustrations and the heart-wrenching losses, I’ve stayed loyal to the team that began my love affair with basketball. My No. 16 Peja Stojakovic jersey still hangs in my old bedroom closet, and there’s still a Kings poster of the ol’ “dream team” (Webber, Bibby, Christie, Stojakovic and Divac) on the wall; a Kings pennant hangs above my bedroom door and there’s still a T-shirt or two commemorating that 2002 Western Conference Finals series against the Lakers in a drawer. The mementos are scattered throughout my Sacramento home, and how could they not be? We were a Kings-loving family, like many Sactown residents.

The early 2000s were truly the golden years for the Kings. Their starters graced the cover of “Sports Illustrated” (the “dream team” pre-Bibby, when Jason Williams was still a King) and the team won its first playoff series in 20 years in 2001. The building momentum led to the now-infamous 2002 conference finals, which many young fans cite as the source of the Kings-Lakers rivalry that still has Kings fans hissing over biased calls (particularly now that Tim Donaghy’s confessions are out in print) and Lakers fans re-enacting Robert Horry’s Game 4-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer (sigh!).

As the decade wore on, the Kings’ spotlight faded: by the time I left Sacramento in 2007, Head Coach Rick Adelman was gone, 4/5 of the “dream team” had been traded and their season ended with little fanfare. Coaching woes and player shenanigans caused Kings fans to shake their heads as their beloved team landed at the bottom of the standings by 2009, but it was no time to abandon ship. Say what you will, but Kings fans were nothing if not loyal. And loud.

Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson once called Sacramento a “cow town” and ignited a surge of trademark cowbells that would ring so loud during Kings games that there were rumors of banning the bells in some arenas (particularly Staples Center). Those cowbells rivaled the annoyance of vuvuzelas, but fans never tired: they wanted to be loud, to shake the roof of Arco and let the country know how damn proud they were to have the Kings in Sacramento.

Because if there’s one thing Kings fans know, it’s that this unpredictable team could always pull out the strangest surprises – surprises that reminded fans why the team was once called “The Greatest Show on Court.” In December 2009, the Kings came back from a 35-point deficit against the Chicago Bulls, and last December, Tyreke Evans made a game-winning shot from half-court to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies. Even in their final game against the Lakers last Wednesday, the Kings overcame a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter that eventually led to a 116-108 loss in overtime, as well as an hour-long sit-in after the game by fans who wanted to show their love.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, as we all know,” longtime Kings announcer Grant Napear said at the end of last Wednesday’s loss, “but the one thing that we do know is the love affair between this team and this city, and tonight, we say so long …”

Uprooting the Kings is more than just a change of location. It’s taking away a team that gave the capitol city something to be excited about for 26 years, the longest time period the Kings have spent in one city – something that bonded us in that unique way that only sports can.

“Maybe the Maloofs don’t feel the passion, but as an LA-based journalist, I traveled to Sacramento for the beginning,” wrote Ailene Voison of the Sacramento Bee. “I heard stories about cows in nearby pastures. I heard about a temporary arena and a second arena on the drawing board. I was introduced to a loud, loving, homespun crowd. The NBA still doesn’t have many places like this.”

Soon, it will be gone: no more fourth-quarter thrills. No more Slamson in his oversized Kings jersey, running around Target during the holidays. No more retired No. 6 Kings jersey in honor of the fans. No more shops at the Sacramento International Airport packed with purple and silver. No more Grant Napear shouting, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like NBA basketball!”

Even if the NBA relocation committee reject the move and even if the majority of the NBA’s 29 teams’ owners vote against it, the Maloofs have said they’re not interested in selling the team. NBA Commissioner David Stern thinks that Southern California can support three teams, but Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (a former NBA point guard himself) isn’t giving in without a fight. The Maloofs have until May 2 to formally request approval to move the Kings.

Once again: these kinds of moves aren’t about the fans; it’s about money. Politics and arena-building arguments aside, it is more than likely that the Kings will no longer belong to Sac, despite billionaire Ron Burkle’s bid to save the team.

As heartbreaking as being a Kings fan has been, I think that’s the beauty of the narrative of sports: the ups, the downs, the jumping-off-your-seat-with-excitement feeling and the heartbreaking losses that bring tears to your eyes. It gives you something to invest in and it brings fans together as they cheer and cry in unison.

And what’s the appeal of rooting for the Kings, a team that’s provided fans with more tears than cheers lately? As Michael Lewis wrote in “Moneyball,” his baseball narrative starring the Oakland A’s, “The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.”

And it was inspiring – the wins, the losses, the fight to the end. We can’t always be a part of a team that will never struggle, so if this is the last struggle for the Sacramento Kings, it’ll at least have been one for the books.