Commentary

Real Kings fans know the truth about '02 series loss to Lakers

Originally Published: June 12, 2008
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

The problem for Kings fans, in all of this glorious pseudo-vindication, is obvious. It sure isn't Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, because almost every sentient NBA follower long ago concluded that was one of the worst-refereed big games in modern history. You'd almost rather believe the fix was in than accept that the officiating was really that wretched, which might be why weaselly Tim Donaghy's self-serving pap is getting so much earnest play these days.

Nope, no issues about Game 6. It stunk. But for Kings folks, it isn't the full story.

[+] EnlargeMike Bibby
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillWas Mike Bibby holding his nose in pain after he ran into Kobe Bryant's elbow? Or did the Kings' performance just stink?
"Well, there's Game 4," my friend Paul said, reflecting for a moment after word of Donaghy's latest pungent crock of unprovable yet captivating allegations had begun to boil. "And after that, there's Game 5. And that [expletive] Game 7, when we couldn't hit a free throw."

Other than that, full steam ahead with the conspiracy theory.

The fact that the Kings tanked the 2002 West finals quite nicely on their own, of course, does not actually make Donaghy a liar when he claims a couple of refs artificially extended the series by making ludicrously awful calls throughout the fateful Game 6. The Lakers shot roughly 2 million free throws in that game, Mike Bibby got called for a foul for getting his face in the way of Kobe Bryant's elbow -- you've heard it all already this week.

Kings fans knew right away that they'd been had -- and, really, the particulars be damned. It didn't matter how they got hosed, only that they got hosed. And, trust me, they've known it for years. They would be perfectly happy to work up all-time indignation about it if they thought they could get away with it and still look in the mirror.

The problem is, they're reasonable people at the end of the day, most of them. And they know, despite the open door to rage, that the Kings really lost that series in two other places. It isn't that Game 6 was incidental; it's that every one of the games mattered, and the Sacramento side just flat punted two of them.

Sacramento Kings fan
AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliBy the start of Game 7, this Kings' fan had formed a pretty strong opinion about the way the series was being officiated.
This is why, as the national sporting media comes clucking around Sacramento looking for moral righteousness, it walks away mostly disappointed. Oh, sure, there are enough of the rabid types to evoke a sound bite or two ("We always knew they were out to get us!"), but in general, the feeling is almost a collective resigned sigh. From the team owners, the Maloofs: absolutely nothing. Political movement: nope. Kings GM Geoff Petrie always has dismissed the conspiracy idea as an unproductive kook theory. Even Scot Pollard, a super sub on that '02 team who fouled out trying to guard Shaquille O'Neal in Game 6, hasn't quite been able to bring himself to believe the fix was in, no matter how many times he has been asked the question while hanging out with his Celtics teammates at the NBA Finals.

Understand the context: The Kings never have won an NBA title in Sacramento. There isn't a sense of entitlement. When they lost in '02, they lost to the two-time defending champions of the NBA. And because of that, their fans simply might be more open to the idea that their team didn't do what it needed to do to win against the Shaq/Kobe Lakers.

Having personally witnessed every minute of every game of that series courtside, I can say the '02 Kings-Lakers playoff was the greatest advertisement to date for a complete overhaul of the way the NBA handles its referees, from training and consistency straight on through to evaluation, review and discipline. Start to finish, it was one mug-ugly job. And it blew putridly in both directions.

That included the Game 5 to which my friend referred. In that game, played in Sacramento, O'Neal attempted 18 field goals, most from about 7 inches out, and somehow was awarded but one measly free throw, which, of course, he missed. The Kings won that game on a Bibby jumper only after the refs flat-out missed a play in which the ball glanced off Chris Webber and directly out of bounds. The ball was awarded to Sacramento, making Bibby's heroics possible. It wasn't criminal, merely crappy.

[+] EnlargeVlade Divac
AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliFor Vlade Divac and the Kings, the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers was tough to swallow.
It also wasn't enough, thanks in large measure to Game 4. In that little jewel, with the Kings leading by two and the final seconds winding down, Vlade Divac managed to get just enough of an attempted rebound at the Lakers' end of the floor to tip the ball out past the scrum in the lane and directly to Robert Horry, who, for no particular reason, was standing near the top of the 3-point arc and who -- you might remember this; it's safe to say your average Sacramento fan does -- calmly drained the 3-pointer that, among Kings folk, still is thought of as the shot that killed them dead.

And then there was Game 7, the game that came after the fixed game (or so bleats Donaghy). My friend Paul still can recite the stats on that one. The Kings, owning the home floor, spit up all over that purported advantage for the second time in the series. They attempted 30 free throws and made 16. Webber played 51 minutes and got himself to the line exactly four times. Peja Stojakovic, still erratic after returning from injury, air balled an open jumper from the corner near the end of regulation. The Lakers won in OT. It happens.

Thus, the Kings were denied their best chance to reach an NBA Finals since moving to Northern California in 1985, and they were denied it by L.A., which made it that much worse, and Shaq and Kobe just laughed and laughed. Now comes word that the refs might have -- might have -- stretched out the series with some Game 6 shenanigans. But, hell, 6 is just a number, like 4 or 7 … or zero.

Mark Kreidler's book "Six Good Innings," about the pressure-filled season of one Little League team intent on upholding its town's championship tradition, will be released July 1 and can be ordered now. His book "Four Days to Glory" has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.