The power forward who would be King

[Editor's note: This story was published before the Kings' 118-109 win over the 76ers on Monday night.]

They will cheer Chris Webber at Arco Arena in Sacramento on Monday night not because they ever completely understood him, which they never did, but because when you're desperately thirsty, most anything looks good to drink.

And Webber, in his prime, was just about a one-man oasis for a Kings franchise that had been wandering around in the sand long enough. They will remember that fact above just about any other, where Webber is concerned, and if you'd stunk for as long as the Kings had stunk before the truncated 1999 season rolled around, there's an even-money chance you'd do the same.

As Webber and the rest of Allen Iverson's team from Philadelphia come into Sacramento, the tally from the Kings-Sixers trade has yet to be made final. The Kings, who almost immediately after the deal lost offensive linchpin Brad Miller to injury, have hobbled along, playing .500 ball since then. Webber is still trying to figure out how to live in Iverson's world.

But as for what Webber's departure from Sacramento meant to that formerly moribund franchise out in the farm fields, that one's easy. It was the official pronouncement of the end of a very, very good time -- and one of which people connected to the franchise have trouble letting go.

It's easy to forget now how wildly controversial Webber was with the Kings from the start. He didn't want to go to Sacramento -- he has often said he nearly didn't get on the plane after his trade from Washington for Mitch Richmond, going only after his father more or less ordered him to -- and made it clear when he arrived that he would dutifully play out his contract and leave. He later signed a whopper of a long-term deal (seven years, $123 million), but only after bruising feelings and angering fans by suggesting that Sacramento's, uh, cultural shortcomings might drive him away.

But along the way, just about everything changed -- for Webber, for the Kings, for the sense of expectation and entitlement from a franchise that previously would've been thrilled not to lose 50 games in a season. Along the way, the Kings got better, and Webber was the primary reason why. For the longest time, there was nothing controversial about that, at least.

The Webber trade in 1998 was followed by Kings general manager Geoff Petrie's drafting that summer of erratic but wildly talented guard Jason Williams, Petrie's hiring of Rick Adelman to coach some life into the franchise, and -- after the 1999 lockout that shortened the season to 50 games -- his signing of free-agent center Vlade Divac to more or less run the high-post offense Adelman favors.

It was the quickest transformation ever. With Adelman opening the throttle, using Vernon Maxwell to bomb 3-pointers and generally eschewing defense in favor of getting the ball back as soon as possible, the Kings went from 55-game losers the year before to a 27-23 playoff entry that nearly upset Utah in the first round of the playoffs.

But it was more than that: The Kings were suddenly worth watching. Williams was a short-term NBA sensation, a kid from rural West Virginia with an urban-looking game that the league exploited with a massive marketing campaign and an unfortunate nickname ("White Chocolate") that Williams has spent years trying to shed. Divac found himself finally in a system that seemed designed to maximize his skills as a passer and distributor from the post.

And Webber was the glue, a man capable of elite-level performances who found himself, however improbably, having a good time.

Together, Webber, Williams and Divac became the designated saviors of the franchise. Sacramento, which had made the playoffs once in the previous decade-plus (and that with a losing record), was almost instantly transformed into an open-throttle offensive machine that was a good bet on any given night either to score 110 points or give up that many -- but never to be dull, and never forgettable.

And that's the part they'll cheer Monday night, the part about breathing life into the Sacramento franchise. With Webber, Divac and Williams, the Kings hit the playoffs three straight seasons and became a consistent 50-plus-game winner under Adelman. Williams then was sent to the Grizzlies for Mike Bibby, and Sacramento reached the Western Conference finals in 2002. Even if Webber himself and the Kings came up just short of greatness, it looked as though the good times might stay good forever.

This just in: Forever's a long time.

The Webber on display at Arco Arena this week isn't the guy the Kings brought to town in time for that abbreviated 1999 season, but, listen, who is? He's basically playing on one knee, the result of a microfracture suffered during the 2003 playoffs against Dallas. His subsequent rehabilitation was lengthy, grueling and -- shock of shocks -- ultimately controversial.

By the time of the Philadelphia trade, Webber had come to be recognized as a genuine problem for Sacramento. He made a ton of money and his efficiency had dwindled, yet he retained the regal bearing and feed-me-the-ball mentality of a superstar. Petrie again was trying to skew the Kings younger and more athletic. The Sixers came along at exactly the right time.

Still, expect few catcalls from the rafters Monday. For as long as they remember him, the long-suffering fans of the Kings are more likely to recall the Chris Webber who changed the face of the franchise for the better than the Webber who, at the end, simply had to go. There are worse legacies in the NBA.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.