SACRAMENTO, Calif. – They came teary-eyed and frustrated, carrying signs that showed the depth of their passion. "God Save The Kings" and "You Gotta Believe" were among the countless displays of faith Sacramento Kings fans brought to the former Arco Arena Wednesday night. So was another simple placard: "If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em … In L.A."
Such was the irony on an evening that, at times, had the atmosphere of both a farewell party and a revival, depending on one's optimism. The Kings played their final game of the season and maybe of an era, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers 116-108 in what quite possibly was the end of the NBA franchise's stay here. The Maloof family, owners of the Kings, will begin presenting their case to relocate the franchise to Anaheim, Calif., at the NBA's board of governors meeting Thursday in New York. A majority vote is needed to grant the move.
The NBA was kind enough to schedule the Kings' most hated rival as their final date. Kobe Bryant(notes), Phil Jackson and the rest of the Lakers have memorably haunted the Kings throughout the years, never more so than in 2002 when L.A. beat them in a thrilling and controversial Western Conference finals series that spawned almost a decade's worth of contempt and conspiracy theories about the league's officiating. Bryant couldn't even let the Sacramento faithful enjoy this one last night: After allowing the Kings to rally from 20 points down in the fourth quarter, he broke their hearts with a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation to send the game into overtime. The Kings never recovered and lost.
"I told Phil it was only fitting that it ended this way," Bryant said. "It just didn't seem like a blowout victory here was going to happen just because of all the history that we have. It winded up being history revisited, I guess."
About a quarter of the sold-out crowd of 17,841 stayed at Power Balance Pavilions for about an hour after the final buzzer to voice their displeasure over the Kings' possible move – and maybe say goodbye. There were tears, hugs, chants of "SAC-RA-MENTO" and "Here We Stay!" Seven Kings players and coach Paul Westphal shook hands with the fans and addressed the adoring crowd.
While there were the normal fan scuffles that come whenever the Kings play the Lakers, nothing of note seemed to happen in the stands after the game. Even so, the Lakers didn't walk across the court to the team bus as they usually do, instead taking a back way.
When Lakers assistant Frank Hamblen tried to head toward the court after the game, Jackson stopped him. "We're not recommending people go out that way, Frank," Jackson said. "You know this arena."
Arco was long one of the NBA's most difficult places to play because of the frenzied atmosphere created by the Kings' loyal fans. So it was not surprising to see so many stay for so long after the game as part of a sit-in organized by a local radio host.
Absent from their usual midcourt seats were owners Joe and Gavin Maloof. The Maloofs were already in New York by the time the Kings' season finale tipped off. The two haven't been to a Kings home game since Feb. 28.
Anaheim mayor Tom Tait will join the Maloofs in New York to help convince NBA owners his Southern California city is an appropriate home for the franchise. The Anaheim City Council voted unanimously March 29 to issue up to $75 million in bonds for improvements at Honda Center to help induce the Kings to move. Already, the Honda Center has 17,608 seats and 84 suites, more than 50 suites beyond the Kings' current 23-year-old facility. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson admitted the Maloofs are in a difficult position trying to run the Kings in an aging venue.
"It's an uphill battle," said Johnson, who also will speak at the board of governors meeting. "But I've been in many games where you've been down in the fourth quarter, the final two minutes, and find a way to pull it out. This is something that is not new to me. I'm accustomed to it.
"I think it's probably more probable than not that they go to Anaheim."
While the Maloofs are known to have financial issues, league sources said they turned down overtures from potential ownership groups in Seattle and San Jose to buy the team. The Maloofs haven't told even high-ranking employees much about the possible move in recent weeks. Moreover, several basketball-level employees said they have no clue if they will be invited to Orange County if the franchise moves.
"Everyone here is in the dark," a high-ranking Kings employee said.
Johnson watched the early part of the Lakers game before departing to the Bay Area for a flight to New York. He is scheduled to make his pro-Sacramento case at the NBA meeting Thursday afternoon. The former NBA point guard will cite Sacramento's proven fan support in a top-20 market and believes he can demonstrate a better way to produce corporate sponsorship. A concrete plan to build a new arena in Sacramento has yet to materialize, though one source close to the situation said city officials have considered the idea of renovating the Power Balance Pavilion or building a new arena next to it instead of building a venue downtown.
"We are not trying to block anything," Johnson said. "We know the Maloofs have to make a business decision. I have said all along that I respect that. It's their prerogative. They should have the right to go out there to do that. We have to go out there and present a counterproposal of why it makes good business sense for the NBA and Maloofs to stay here in Sacramento."
Said the Lakers' Jackson: "When you got the mayor going to the board of governors to address them about the situation, it's pretty dire. It looks very ominous to me."
While the odds are against Sacramento keeping the Kings, the Maloofs won't have an easy time moving the franchise. SI.com has reported the Lakers have signed a 25-year television deal potentially worth $5 billion with Time Warner starting in 2012. The Lakers will lose 10 percent of the deal's value if the Kings move from Sacramento to Anaheim, ESPN Los Angeles has reported. And the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers aren't the only teams expected to protest the Kings' move. The Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets also could vote against an Anaheim move because it could set a precedent to allow other teams to relocate to their own lucrative markets, sources said.
The Kings also will likely have to pay a hefty relocation fee to the NBA, Lakers and Clippers. The former Seattle SuperSonics had to pay $30 million to the NBA and a $45 million settlement to the city of Seattle to move to Oklahoma City in 2008. A bill also was introduced in the California State Senate this week that would require the Maloofs to repay a $77 million loan to the city of Sacramento before moving the team.
"It's so fluid that I don't think anyone can tell you what the likelihood is," said one member of a committee to keep the Kings in Sacramento. "One minute it's falling apart. The next minute it's sold itself. They're focused and they're committed mentally to go there. If it does end up happening, it's because the league doesn't want to be in Sacramento."
The Kings came to Sacramento from Kansas City in 1985 after losing at home in their final game to the Lakers nearly 26 years to the day. While there were a lot of lean years, the Kings made the playoffs 10 times, including a string of appearances from 1999-2006 when the team had Chris Webber and Vlade Divac playing in front of their boisterous, cowbell-clanging fans. The Kings, whose roster is now stacked with young players, haven't made the playoffs since 2006. They finished this season with a 24-58 record.
Now, Sacramento fans are hoping for another chance to keep cheering the only major professional team they've known.
"We'd much prefer for the Kings and Maloofs to be here in Sacramento," Johnson said.