By Kevin D. Seal
This is a picture of an authentic Sacramento Kings jersey that I bought in middle school. I walked to the NBA Store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue during a free period, pulled Chris Webber’s jersey off the rack, and handed over a silly amount of cash for the right to have it hang in my closet for the next 18 years. But I treasured this jersey because the Kings circa 2001 were an absolute sensation, a memorable blend of entertainment and effectiveness in an era of deliberate, sometimes stagnant basketball. Chris Webber was their fulcrum. The New York Knicks were my team, no doubt, but there was only so much Shandon Anderson and Othella Harrington a guy could take before needing to watch some quality ball. The Kings scratched that itch. So how did they become, as Sports Illustrated put it in 2001, “The Greatest Show on Court”?
The Kings’ rise and fall began in the late 1990s. After 15 consecutive losing seasons, the Kings made significant changes. They hired coach Rick Adelman before the shortened 1998-1999 season. They overhauled their roster of journeymen, past-their-prime stars, and talented but one-dimensional players. The Kings signed Vlade Divac, the slick-passing, veteran Serbian center who currently serves as the general manager of the team. Fellow Serbian Peja Stojakovic, whom the Kings drafted in 1996, finally arrived from the Greek professional league and signed with the team, giving them a promising young scorer to develop. They drafted the talented-but-volatile Jason Williams with the seventh pick in the 1998 draft, hoping he could develop into their point guard of the future. Their most significant move, however, was trading franchise cornerstone Mitch Richmond for Webber, who was entering his prime years as one of the league’s best all-around forwards. In Divac, Stojakovic, Williams, and Webber, the Kings had assembled a core that would open their competitive window.
Their moves paid immediate dividends. They finished 27-23 in 1998-1999 and lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. With Williams at the helm and an unselfish core of nifty passers, these Kings played a slightly unhinged, uptempo brand of basketball that was low on efficiency but high on entertainment and good vibes. They played at by far the fastest pace in the league, with a huge gap between them and the next-fastest team, the Los Angeles Lakers. They led the league in scoring but also allowed the most points per game in the league, both a function of their pace. Interestingly, they would have been only the 23rd fastest team in the league today, an indicator of just how briskly the modern game moves. The 1998-1999 Kings signified a shift in the team’s culture and identity; they were going to play fast, team-oriented basketball, and lean on the passing skills of Williams, Webber, and Divac to do it.
The Kings’ growth continued. The 1999-2000 team was superficially similar to the previous year’s team–they played fast, scored a lot of points, and allowed a lot of points–but underneath the surface, real improvement was happening. Their defense improved to 10th in the league, as measured by Defensive Rating, an advanced metric that adjusts for pace. They made the playoffs with a 44-38 record, but lost to the dominant Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in the first round.
After the 1999-2000 season, the Kings’ front office made significant upgrades to the roster’s depth. They traded for Doug Christie, a ferocious perimeter defender and one half of a very committed marriage. Bobby Jackson was brought in as a free agent, giving them a scoring guard off the bench to keep up the frenzied pace when Williams needed a breather. They also added another international player to the roster, drafting Hedo Turkoglu out of Turkey with their first round pick. Turkoglu’s acquisition in particular portended what the league was to become: a place where sweet-shooting, ball-handling, and playmaking big men would eventually revolutionize NBA offenses. By drafting Turkoglu, the Kings added yet another foreign-born player to a roster that was heavily international for its time. The league would continue to head in this direction over the next decade, with the Kings securing a place as an early adopter of looking abroad for talent. These varied additions helped the 2000-2001 Kings to a 55-27 record. The Kings were now fast, more efficient than ever, and boasted a strong defense to boot. This time they advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost again to the Lakers.
Not content with their rise to Western Conference semifinalists, the Kings made the franchise-altering decision to trade Jason Williams – their starting point guard – in the 2001 offseason. At this point, Williams was one of the most recognizable and marketable players in the NBA. Certainly, race had something to do with it. Known as “White Chocolate,” the white, West Virginian Williams brought flash and flamboyance–a style typically associated with black streetballers–to a league that had seen elements of this style before, but rarely from a white player, and never from one with a shaved head and prominent tattoos. He regularly attempted behind-the-back or no-look passes–including the greatest pass I’ve ever seen–or dazzling crossovers, or pull-up threes on fast breaks. Williams’ style of play would simply not be permitted in today’s game, which is so focused on shooting efficiency and ball security. With a career 39.8 field goal percentage and a mediocre assist-to-turnover ratio, Williams was the antithesis of the modern point guard. But at the time, he was considered a star.
The Kings evidently felt differently about Williams’ actual effectiveness. His replacement was acquired in the trade itself: Mike Bibby, a steady, young veteran point guard who was a much more effective shooter than Williams. Bibby could pass and play with pace as well, but his arrival signified the final step in the Kings’ maturation, the transition from a stylish team with some substance to a true threat to the Western Conference crown. The trade was a coup for the Kings. They finished the 2001-2002 season with a 61-21 record, the best in the conference. They finished with the second best offense in the league while also playing at its fastest pace. Their defense was sixth best in the league, a fact obscured by the high number of points they allowed in their fast-paced games. The Kings were now legitimate championship contenders. Entering the 2002 playoffs, it seemed fated that the Kings and Lakers would meet in the Western Conference Finals. It seemed like it was the Kings’ year, that they may have developed into the best team in the league. Indeed, the Kings and Lakers did rendezvous in memorable fashion.
The narrative entering the 2002 Western Conference Finals was classic: the old guard against the young upstarts. The Lakers were steered by legendary coach and incompetent executive Phil Jackson, who disparaged Sacramento and Kings fans with elitist provocations during the series. Calling the city a “cow town” and the fans “semi-civilized,” Jackson sought to maintain hegemony on the backs of his future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Kings sought to disrupt the established hierarchy by proving that their team-oriented, democratic, unselfish style of play could both entertain and win. The organization even embraced Jackson’s insults and stereotyping, encouraging fans to bring cowbells to home games throughout the series. The series was evenly matched, but the new order seemed to prevail. The Kings jumped out to a 3-2 series lead. They headed to Los Angeles for Game Six, needing one win to make the NBA Finals.
Game Six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals is widely considered to be the most controversial game in NBA history. The game’s referees–Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt, and Bob Delaney–made a slew of calls (and non-calls) throughout the game, particularly in the fourth quarter, that went against the Kings. Some of these decisions were egregious, while others were simply very fishy. Big men Scot Pollard and Divac fouled out on a number of questionable calls while trying to defend Shaq, while some of Shaq’s infractions went uncalled. Webber was called for a phantom foul while legally blocking a Bryant shot on a drive. Bibby got elbowed in the face by Bryant with 11.8 seconds left and the Kings down by one, but there was no call for an offensive foul on Bryant. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Announcers Bill Walton and Steve Jones repeatedly criticized the officiating for both its accuracy and consistency throughout the game. The Lakers won the game and forced a Game Seven in Sacramento, which the Kings ultimately lost. The Lakers advanced to the finals and defeated the New Jersey Nets to win the title.
The uproar after Game Six was significant, sustained, and powerful. Many viewers believed that the NBA instructed the referees to make sure the big-market, ultra-popular Lakers advanced to the finals instead of the underdog, small-market Kings. High-profile sportswriters slammed the referees’ performance, with some calling it the worst-officiated game they’ve ever seen. Ralph Nader wrote to David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, asking for a formal review of the referees’ decisions during Game Six. And in 2008, ex-referee Tim Donaghy–who resigned from the NBA in the midst of a gambling scandal–alleged that Game Six was fixed by two referees to reflect the league’s interest in the Lakers advancing. The NBA has consistently rejected all of these wonderings and accusations out of hand.
In the following years, the Kings remained a potent side but failed to match the success of their 2001-2002 season. They earned the second best record in the West in 2002-2003, but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals after Webber tore his ACL in Game Two. They slipped to fourth in the West in 2003-2004 after some significant roster changes; Pollard, Jackson, and Turkoglu left and Webber missed most of the season rehabbing his knee. He returned in time for the playoffs but was clearly diminished, and the Kings lost to the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in seven games. Webber was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers halfway through the 2004-2005 season, bringing “The Greatest Show on Court” to a close.
While the early 2000s Kings did not totally revolutionize professional basketball, they did represent a transition period in several ways. The dominant style of play at the time was methodical and heavy on feeding the ball to a team’s best one-on-one scorer. The Kings adopted a more free-flowing, democratic offense in which the ball rarely stuck to one player. Their constant movement on offense would fit in neatly in the modern game. Rosters in the early 2000s largely comprised American players, either experienced former college players or straight-from-high-school phenoms. The Kings built and augmented their core with a heavy international presence. Coaches preferred a deliberate pace on offense and a bullying physicality on defense. The Kings pushed the pace in a way that was indicative of where the league would eventually go, but they did not rely on threes or free throws, which are the shots contemporary NBA offenses actively hunt for. Rather, most of their shots were twos, and many of them midrange jumpshots: the very shots that math now tells us are the worst value proposition in basketball. And it turns out that, contrary to the narrative, the Kings’ stout defense was a major factor in the team’s success. Their offense got the accolades–and really, it was something to behold at the time–but the defense made them championship contenders.
I suspect the Kings era of my life is over as well. Their games start too late for this lifelong East Coaster, and my bedtime is not trending in a direction that makes viewership likely. But I will always remember their dazzling play, their reckless abandon, and all the hours I spent trying to recreate those qualities in NBA2K. And I will always have that Chris Webber jersey hanging in my closet.
Kevin Seal is an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a former sports blogger and, despite the sustained efforts of Pittsburghers, a devoted fan of his beloved New York teams: the Knicks, Yankees, and Giants.