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Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Updated: April 16, 4:29 PM ET
The decline of the Kings symbolic of tough times

By Tim Keown
Page 2

SACRAMENTO -- This is the saddest sight in sports: An on-court announcer, serving as a live pregame host, attempting to whip up the ARCO Arena crowd before an early-April game on a Sunday evening between the Golden State Warriors and the Sacramento Kings. He's working it, imploring everyone to get excited, telling them what a great game we're going to have here tonight, talking about the young Kings and the young Warriors and by the way … let's hear it, Sacramento, aren't you excited?

It's a rough job. He has to ignore the reality of the empty seats glaring back at him. He has to ignore the reality of a game between two of the worst teams in the NBA. He also has to ignore something else everybody knows: Kevin Martin and Monta Ellis -- aside from Anthony Randolph, the only reasons to be here -- won't be playing. It's the kind of night that makes contraction seem plausible.

The few people who are here, 45 minutes before game time, aren't paying attention. They're here, they bought the tickets; let's leave it at that. They don't want to have it shoved in their faces.

But our man keeps going. He's got to do 41 of these a year, and he's not cheating anybody. He's the door-to-door salesman who hears commotion inside a house as he walks to the door and then silence after he knocks. Everybody just pretends he's not there, figuring eventually he'll go away. But our man is persistent; he's going to keep knocking until his knuckles bleed.

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There was a time, believe it or not, when an on-court pregame host would have been a star in Sacramento. Autographs, posing for photos, his pick of women: you name it. Sacramento was a Kings town, and it didn't matter whether the Kings were winning or losing.

You really should have been there. Twelve straight years -- 354 games -- of sellouts. From the powder-blue days of Brook Steppe, Reggie Theus and LaSalle Thompson to the swaggering years of C-Webb, Vlade and JWill, the fans cheered everybody. You'd leave the place -- the first ARCO, a glorified warehouse, and the newer and now-outdated one -- and you'd hear it in your head 'til the next morning.

Now they're the worst team in the NBA, with the worst attendance. They pawned off nearly half their roster in midseason. The guys they got, and the guys remaining, are just that: a collection of guys, thrown together with the hope that some of them might be worth keeping.

It's difficult to embrace a team whose roster promises no permanence. Interim coach Kenny Natt's frustrated sideline demeanor is that of a CYO coach who just can't believe the kids can't remember the plays, no matter how many times they've gone over them. He'll be gone at the end of the season, and there's already consternation brewing among the fan base that the Maloof family, owners of the franchise, will force GM Geoff Petrie's hand and hire longtime family friend John Whisenant, who won a WNBA title with the Sacramento Monarchs, to coach the team.

About the only hope is for the No. 1 pick in the draft, and even that is bittersweet: With no LeBron-like savior in the mix, it's not even a great year to be terrible. Around here, they remember the last time they had the No. 1 pick, 20 years ago. It was a down draft year then, too, and the Kings picked Pervis Ellison.

Kings Fans
Good luck getting a ticket back in 2002, when the Kings met the hated Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Along with poor decisions, the Kings are victims of poor timing. They've got their worst team at the worst time. The team is bust, the economy is bust, and neither promises a quick turnaround. Sacramento is ground zero in the foreclosure crisis. Job losses, especially in the construction industry, have hammered the local economy. For a franchise in a city without a huge corporate base, loyal season-ticket holders are the lifeblood. But when those season-ticket holders lose their jobs or decide it's not worth the expense, the entire enterprise is in jeopardy.

(It might not mean much, but I called the team's ticket office at noon the day of the Warriors game to purchase four tickets. Nobody answered. It rang and rang and rang until automatically disconnecting. No answering machine, no automated voice telling me to stop bothering them, no offer of a company directory, no chance to complete an anonymous survey when I was finished. Just … nothing. Clearly it's more cost-efficient to let game-day customers walk up before the game or purchase tickets on the Internet than to staff a ticket office on days when there is little or no demand.)

Eric Roberson is the kind of fan the Kings can't afford to lose. He moderates a Kings message board and possesses a frightening amount of knowledge about the team, its history, its personnel, its mistakes and its successes. He calls his message board a place where "we're trying to keep the light on for the loyal fan." He sees hope where others see despair. It's not easy.

For 10 years, Roberson had four season tickets, midcourt, second level. He bought them as community property. He would use them, his brothers would use them, they'd fill in here and there with friends who were dying to see a few games a year. It was the essence of the Kings experience: sitting around the same people night after night, loving the good times, always managing to see a glimmer of light amid the dark ones. After the Maloofs bought the team, they played to the fan, raising a No. 6 jersey to the rafters to salute their loyalty. It sounds corny, but when the team started winning, the fans felt like they had something to do with it. There was a spirit in the arena you couldn't find anywhere else. The motto for the Kings fan back then might as well have been "Check your cynicism at the door."

No Longer Kings

A look at how far Sacramento's attendance has fallen since the Kings reached the Western Conference finals in 2002:

The cowbells stopped ringing
Year Average NBA
rank
Capacity
2002 17,317 15th 100%
2003 17,317 12th 100
2004 17,317 13th 100
2005 17,317 13th 100
2006 17,317 14th 100
2007 17,317 16th 100
2008 14,150 27th 81.7
2009 12,551 30th 72.5

About four years ago, something started to change. Roberson noticed an undercurrent of disgust both on the message board and in the arena. The team's moment -- the '02 Western Conference finals loss to the Lakers in seven games, seen by many Kings fans as a conspiracy headed by the officials -- had passed, and the team was clearly trending downward. Webber left. Rick Adelman was replaced by Eric Musselman. Strangers started showing up in Roberson's section. They were mouthier and caustic, not interested in glimmers of light.

Roberson's tickets became, in a sense, like a bad mortgage. When the market was good, when the Kings were hot either because the franchise was fresh and new (1985-98) or entertaining and successful (1998-2006), the seats were worth more than the cost.

Back then, he had options: He could use the tickets, sell them at face value to friends or sell them for a profit on the open market. The tickets, like a mortgage in boom times, had equity. He could borrow against the tickets, as he did for one game in the '02-03 playoffs, by selling the $45 tickets for four times their face value. Demand was high; supply was low. The tickets were a sound investment.

But then, in the '06-07 season, the market went bust. (Conveniently for the analogy, the Kings' fortunes traveled roughly the same path as the housing market.) Ticket prices kept rising, roughly seven percent per year, and the team began to lose. There was a time when this wouldn't have mattered, but as Roberson says, "If you haven't had success, having the team there is enough. But when the team has success, then having the team isn't enough."

Kings Fan
There weren't many Kings fans showing this kind of enthusiasm this season.

The caustic fans were replaced by no fans. The neighborhood went to hell. Nobody, not even family or friends, was going to pay Roberson face value to see the Kings play the Grizzlies on a Tuesday night in February. Eventually, the bubble burst: He couldn't even give away his tickets. The seats sat empty for close to half of the 41 home games. To borrow from the parlance of the housing bust, Roberson was under water.

"When I couldn't give them away," Roberson says, "I knew I had to give them up."

He did, reluctantly, and he was joined by thousands of others. The sellout streak, which had become a running joke over the past 30 games or so, was finally called off. Demand dropped, supply rose, and everybody with an interest in the team came to an important realization: I can pick and choose the games I want, and pretty much the seats I want, without being saddled with the Grizzlies and the Clippers.

"It was a great love affair, but we'll never get back to the innocence we had," Roberson says. "If you had bet me six or seven years ago that half the arena would be empty and we'd have the worst attendance in the league -- well, one of us would have gotten rich."

There is sadness in Roberson's voice, like a retired ballplayer recounting his glory days. The fans in Sacramento truly believed they were a part of the team's success, and who could argue? "You just don't want it to turn to apathy, but I fear that's where we're heading," he says. "A lot of people have turned away in disgust. The tone changed, and people turned against each other. The people like me, who want to believe in the team, decided it wasn't worth it. The people started looking for scapegoats, and we lost the family feeling."

The team needs a new arena to keep up with the revenue streams generated across the league. There have been incessant rumors suggesting the team could move to either Anaheim, San Jose or the Maloofs' home in Las Vegas. Arena plans in Sacramento have come and gone, most of them victimized by the public's legitimate refusal to subsidize a home for the team.

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And in another cruel twist of timing, a workable plan arose at precisely the wrong time. The excitement over the concept -- brokered by the NBA, not contingent on public financing, at the convenient site of the California State Fair -- has been dampened by an economic situation that virtually destroys the possibility of private investment.

This is where the Kings are now: During a timeout in the game against the Warriors, the PA announcer directed everyone's attention to the scoreboard video screen, where a loyal fan was being given a generous gift certificate to a local mall. Her accomplishment? Being the first fan in her section to renew her season tickets for next season. It was a scene that brought to mind two things: (1.) The Maloofs still value their loyal fans, and; (2.) This would have been unthinkable as recently as three or four years ago.

(In another extraordinary measure, the Maloof brothers are going door-to-door visiting selected season-ticket holders to convince them to renew their tickets.)

Back before the game -- won by the Warriors, as if you cared -- our energetic pregame host finished his duties by interviewing Jenny Boucek, the new coach of the WNBA Monarchs. (First rule of showbiz: In tough times, always bring in someone else in to fill time.) He made some tangential comparison to the Kings' young talent and the Monarchs' young talent.

Boucek didn't let it go. She chimed in, "Well, we don't expect to be in this position. We expect to be in the playoffs."

Most people filing into the arena didn't catch it, but those who were listening let loose a guttural reaction of surprise mixed with amusement. Boucek's words carried a tone she probably didn't intend, but it would be hard to fault her the indignation.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.