My Open Letter to Bill Simmons, ESPN

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My Open Letter to Bill Simmons, ESPN 

March 16, 2009


Dear Bill,  


You don’t know me, but we crossed paths the other day.  It was brief, and for you, I’m sure it was inconsequential.  I don’t hold it against you--as a best selling author, national columnist, and high-profile fan of America’s most successful sports city, you’ve got a lot on your plate.  Nevertheless, the chance intersection of our sporting lives had a big impact on me.  My name is Tom.  And I’m a Sacramento Kings fan.


I’m a fan of yours, too, and I’ve read your column for years.  But it wasn’t your column that caught my eye recently, but rather that of your colleague, Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star.  Mr. Whitlock references an exchange with you where you encourage Kansas City to work on getting an NBA team, with the Kings being a top target.  "You should absolutely steal the Kings", you encourage.  "That would be cool."  Your own column later confirms the sentiment.


You seem to have convinced yourself that this would be karmically OK, as the Kings have some history in Kansas City, and "Sacramento stole them in the first place."  I must say, as one who readily aligned myself with you as "one of the remaining 20 NBA fans", your willingness to toss me and my city aside left me dazed.  To use another one of your favorite phrases, it was a real stomach punch.


I hardly know where to begin with my various thoughts on the topic.  Half of current NBA teams have moved at some point in their history; only 9 have made it at their original location for more than 30 years.  With your logic, moving the Kings back to K.C. is only the first of many moves.  After a short stop, perhaps you would advocate moving them back to Rochester, where they played originally.  Similarly, you might put the Lakers back in the Twin Cities, and the Warriors would be returning to Philadelphia.  Perhaps you feel that anything that migrated to the West Coast rightfully belongs somewhere back East; can we expect your house in California to go on the market soon?


But this line of thinking seemed sort of childish, so I stopped a moment to consider the circumstances of the moving franchise.  Surely, we can agree that not all moves are created equal.  There’s got to be a difference between secretly pulling up the moving vans in the middle of the night, like the one-time Baltimore Colts, as opposed to moving a team from a situation that clearly wasn’t working, like the Vancouver Grizzlies.  Where would the Kings’ move fall on this spectrum?


Let’s look at Kansas City’s circumstances first.


The franchise originated in Rochester, and played there from 1948-49 to 1956-57, nine seasons total.  They won their 1st and only championship there, in 1951.  From there, they moved to Cincinnati, where they stayed 15 seasons.  1972 came with a name change (Royals to Kings), and another relocation (steal?), this time to Kansas City-Omaha.  3 years later, they finally became the sole property of Kansas City--where they lasted 10 more years.  So right off the bat, I’d say K.C.’s claim to the Kings is dubious--they didn’t start there, and of their first 37 years of existence, only 13 had any connection to Kansas City.  By comparison, next year will be the Kings’ 25th year in Sacramento, by far their longest stint in any location, and longer than nearly 1/3 of current NBA teams in their respective cities.


Longevity can’t be the only criteria, though.  As we’ve all seen, a bedrock franchise with storied history, All-Star players, and established ties to the community can still be ripped from a city like Seattle, basically at the whim of ownership.  When discussing the egregiousness of any potential move, fan support has to be considered as well.  (Incidentally, you’ve been pretty vocal in opposition to the Sonics move to OKC--no friends at the Oklahoman, I guess?)


Now, I’ve lived in Omaha, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in K.C., and there is no doubt that wonderful fans exist in both places.  Tailgating at Arrowhead is on the short list of great game-day experiences, in any sport.  Kauffman is an under appreciated gem.  In Omaha, the Creighton Bluejays are a surprising top-15 annually in college hoops attendance, and the College World Series is a superlative event.  Nebraska football draws better than the Pope on Easter Sunday.


Still, I rarely heard a word while there about NBA basketball.  When telling folks I was a Kings fan, many didn’t realize that the Kings had once played in their city.  Others remembered, but weren’t harboring any angst about the issue.  The NBA fans I did find were all reporting long-time allegiance to the Chicago Bulls (perhaps not-so-coincidentally, this was during the MJ era).  I’m not claiming to have run any rigorous epidemiological studies, but no one was viewing me as a pariah for "stealing" their team, I can tell you that.


Attendance at K.C. Kings games wasn’t particularly strong.  Only once in 13 years did the team average over 10,000 fans per game; their last year in K.C., they barely topped 6,000 a night.  It’s not to say that there weren’t hard core K.C. Kings fans; just that the community as a whole didn’t support them in the same way that they backed other sports in the area.


On the other hand, the Kings in Sacramento have been, for years, a model for the league.  Year after year of selling out every game, even with lousy teams on the floor  (in fact, the longest sell-out streak in the history of the NBA).  A community, like Portland or Salt Lake City or Green Bay, that has one team in the big leagues and proudly wraps the team into the city’s identity.  Players have ultimately loved being here, despite initial misgivings about the "small town" atmosphere, due in great part to the outpouring of support that the team gets from the fans (And yes, I’m well aware that we’re not a highly anticipated stop when it comes to visiting teams and media--we’re not Las Vegas, I can live with that).  By any measure, the Sacramento Kings have been a success.


Sure, you can knock us when we’re down right now--the team is bad, and the crowds are too--but even our current plight underscores just how unique things are in Sacramento.  Even in our bad years, Arco Arena has been a tough place to play; but from 1997 to 2003, during the very small window of our glory years, it rocked like few places in sports.  The crowds were big, loud, knowledgeable, animated.  And although every fan base purports itself to be "the best fans in the NBA", we weren’t the only ones saying it--opposing teams, coaches, national magazines, even your employer, ESPN, put us at the top.  Everyone respected the Kings’ home court.  It wasn’t coincidence--it was because Sacramento has a situation that few other Major League teams have.  Allow me to explain.


We’re not a huge city, and we’ve got a relatively small TV market.  As the state capitol, many of our jobs come from government, as opposed to major corporations.  We don’t have a big cable deal, and we don’t have multi-nationals as chief sponsors.  As a result, the vast majority of our ticket holders are individuals, not companies or corporations (by far the highest percentage in the NBA).  When the economy is tough, our season ticket sales will be hit harder than most, and I believe you when you say it will get worse.  But the flip side is this--at Arco, there isn’t a lower section for the corporate stiffs and celebrity sightings and to-be-seen crowd, and a higher section for the fans.  They’re all fans, all passionate--all diehards.  As Marcos Breton said recently in an article in the Sacramento Bee, "if the NBA can’t make it work in Kings-mad Sacramento, you wonder if it works at all."




I feel like I could leave it here, that the case for the Kings in Sacramento is a good one, and with all due respect to Kansas City, their claim on the Kings is tenuous at best.  Perhaps their quest to land a team will end well, and I wish them luck.  Perhaps our stadium deal will go down in flames, and we’ll cry in our beer.  Time will tell.


But there’s still a piece of all of this sticking in my craw, Bill, and again, I’m singling you out personally.  Since 1985, I’ve read about sports through my Kings-tinted glasses, and I can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t just about your love of BBQ, Jason Whitlock, or Kansas City in general.  It’s convenient, sure; and the Kings’ economic crisis, K.C.’s new arena, and their desire for an NBA team linked with the city’s past does have a certain "Perfect Storm" quality to it.  But it feels more intentional than that--like you’ve got it in for us in Sacramento.  There are great fans here, and I’ll admit I expected some reciprocity from you in this regard.  Bill, when did you stop being a fan, and become the Blue Blood of the NBA?




I believe you when you assert that you love basketball, and the NBA in particular.  Clearly, you are a great fan of the Celtics, and I mean that with the utmost respect.  Once, that might have been enough for you.  What comes across now, though, is different by a shade; you don’t just love the NBA--you love it more than anyone else.  You aren’t just a fan--you’re the best fan.  I’ll grant you that you watch more basketball than I do (it is, after all, your job!).  And I’ll concede that your knowledge of the game outstrips mine, that you may have a better eye for team dynamics or salary cap figures or defensive post rotations.  But are you a better fan that I am?  That’s laughable.  I’m not even sure that’s measurable, given the resources you have to work with.  More importantly, I’m not sure why that would be valuable to you.  


Being a fan isn’t about wins and losses, or humiliating opponents while you chest-thump your own greatness.  Being a fan is about investment; your personal anxiety and vulnerability, your collective shared experience and hope.  Being a fan is weighing the risk and reward of wanting something, and deciding that the ride is worth the price.  Being a fan is entering a relationship, with the potential for both euphoria and pain.


You already know all this; your writing has always been the voice of the fan.  You write what you know--Boston sports--but what resonates with your readers is that shared experience of caring, of having a commitment with a team, for better or for worse.  Your readers don’t care about Your Team(s)--they appreciate that you put into words what they were feeling about their teams.


You’ve demonstrated your personal investment countless times over the years, and crafted indelible images in your writing.  Memories of being in the Boston Garden, sitting on your dad’s lap.  The obvious pain at the bitter breakups you’ve endured, both with individuals (like Nomar) and teams (like the Bruins).  Palpable anxiety and angst about the direction of your teams, with every coaching change and draft pick scrutinized.  Your nostalgia about the good times is nearly swallowed by the lament about the ones that got away.


So you know what it means to be a fan.  Being a fan isn’t a fantasy league you can win, or a rivalry game you can text message your buddy about when his team calls a time-out to stop the bleeding.  You’re not really in competition with the other fans to see how your investment matches up with theirs; that’s amateur stuff.  It would be like bragging to your neighbor about how much better your marriage is that his.


But perhaps it is tough not to go down this road, when you’ve enjoyed the unbelievable success that Boston has had in recent years.  The Celtics have raised another banner in the rafters.  The Patriots have been the class of the NFL for the better part of a decade.  The Red Sox--the Red Sox!--have won not one, but multiple World Series.  And for the most part, they’ve done all of this with remarkable class, team-first attitudes, and top-notch play that would include any of them in the discussion about the all-time greats.  For a true-believer such as yourself, this is sporting Nirvana, a confluence that you rightfully recognize as incredible, something most fans will never experience in their lifetimes.


Did winning change you as a fan?  You’ve explored this yourself in your writing, and I won’t be able to do it justice.  The goal of sports is to win.  What we all hope for, as fans, is to see our teams achieve greatness.  It’s not a bad thing--it’s wonderful.  You teased it out beautifully in your classy tip of the cap to Giants fans after their Super Bowl win.


I wonder, though, is the mountain-top so addicting, that you would pay any price to get back there?  In the past, you valued integrity and aesthetics in your sporting relationships, even if it meant losing.  You wouldn’t keep a guy like Roger Clemens around.  You wouldn’t want your team to emulate a bunch of thugs, like the Pat Riley-era Knicks teams.  You blasted teams for their bloated payrolls.  


More recently, there were signs of slippage. You tacitly approved of the Red Sox dominating the free agent bidding wars. You danced around the Bill Belichick videotaping episode, and were downright defiant about the lack of sportsmanship of the 2007-08 Patriots.  What might have been an embarrassing compromise for Karl Malone and Gary Payton (Lakers, 2004) became a noble display of sacrifice for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (Celtics, 2008; can’t wait to hear about Stephon Marbury, 2009!)  For a guy who spent a considerable amount of time deriding the soul-less, win-at-all-costs hype machines like the Yankees, Lakers, Cowboys...well, it was a little disheartening.


But even with all of this, I continue to feel that, for the most part, you remain loyal to the causes that are in the minds of fans.  I believe that you have an overall respect for your fellow fans, regardless of their team affiliations.  Why, then, have you been so dismissive of Sacramento?  It’s puzzled me for years now, and it pre-dates the recent run of success for your squads, which rules out the simple explanation of you overlooking the bottom-feeders from your perch on the parade route.  Deep in your sporting heart, do you believe that fans can exist in a place like Sacramento?




I remember well how good it felt to see the Sacramento Kings on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Like many kids, I grew up reading SI, and I had my first subscription by age 7 (one that continues to this day).  I inhaled every article, studied every photo, honed my view of the national scene from my living room in California’s central valley.  Long before there was SportsCenter, SI marked your arrival in the Big Time.  And the cover--the cover of Sports Illustrated meant something, more so than might be possible in today’s age of internet updates and video feeds.  February 19, 2001--there was MY team on the cover.  "The Greatest Show on Court" was the headline.  "Sacramento Kings: Basketball the way it oughta be" was underneath.  I had waited my whole sporting life for a moment like this, the reward for years of rooting from the suburban outskirts of America’s Great Sporting Cities.


You do realize, don’t you, that not everyone lives in a Great Sporting City?  Or in most cases, even a city that has a Major League franchise?  It’s easy to forget, I know.  But we can’t all live in New York.  Or Boston.  Philadelphia.  Chicago.  Detroit.  (We could debate the names of a few others, but you get the idea)  Fans from those places often make the jump that due to their collective teams’ histories, records, legends--that they themselves carry a certain gravitas for which the rest of us can only dream.  


It couldn’t be further from the truth, of course--for whether you call it luck, fate, or biological conspiracy, you had about as much to do with being born into Boston fandom as you did with the color of your hair or that mole on your left shoulder blade.  You can be thankful, appreciative, loyal, tribal--but you can’t really claim any credit for it.  You can only realize the opportunity, or not.  Same as me, and my opportunities.


Comparing our respective opportunities doesn’t serve any meaningful purpose with regards to fandom.  Imagine two kids who are going out for a school team.  One kid is born with all kinds of talent--and maybe when you are talented at something you are drawn to it more naturally.  The other kid is the one who "tries hard"--and maybe he’s willing to work a little more or stay a little later or accept a different role.  And yes, talented kids can also be the hardest workers, and hard workers can develop incredible skills.  But as the scenario plays out on countless teams across the country, we both know who’s more likely to be the better we know who loves the game more?


Now, you CAN take credit for what you’ve invested--growing up in Boston during the era you did shaped you for life, and you’ve taken the vast opportunity that was presented to you and you’ve run with it.  Kudos.  Countless hours of work, sweat, stress, sacrifice, and effort have gotten you to where you are, and you are to be commended for it.  And if by virtue of your job you happened to get a front row seat for some of your teams’ greatest victories, more power to you.  But the pennants, the banners, the trophies--these weren’t really the pinnacle of your endeavors.  You had become the voice of the fan as a writer, and THAT is what what legendary about your pursuit.  Which is why I waited for you to write about my Kings.  And why I was disappointed.


Sure, you’ve written many things about the Kings in the last decade.  The continual riff about Rick Adelman’s Greatest Playoff Failures.  The recurring joke about the Maloof brothers and their susceptibility to a few shots of Patron Silver before the trade deadline.  The great line about the Kings needing to use Morrissey songs to describe their awful team chemistry.  Peja’s tightening collar during the playoffs.  Chris Webber’s dreadful jump hook off the front iron.  Kenny Thomas.  Ron Artest.  The playoff refereeing scandals.  Doug Christie, Doug Christie’s jersey as a gift, Mrs. Doug Christie.


All great stuff.  All pretty funny, and all at least somewhat true.  But you rarely got around to the Kings appreciation part.  You once memorably ripped the Kings for "laughing too much", looking like they were having too much fun out there, enjoying playing basketball and winning games more than individual stats or accolades.  You predicted--hoped--it would come back to haunt them.


Maybe the Kings’ rise to national prominence came at a bad time--the late 90’s weren’t great for the Celtics, and that could have colored things a bit for you.  The 90’s had dealt you some severe blows--the death of Reggie Lewis, and the closing of the Garden, and even the "loss" of Tim Duncan.  Undoubtably the likes of Rick Pitino, Eric Montross, Ron Mercer, and Kenny Anderson weren’t enough to get the taste out of your mouth.  And if seeing a team from the suburbs become the most televised team in America was painful, perhaps watching a storied Celtics franchise lose to a team from Sacramento was unbearable to you.


But it wasn’t like you couldn’t find room to appreciate other teams.  You embraced the frenetic, fantastic Phoenix Suns teams; 7 Seconds or Less, Steve Nash as MVP, defense be damned.  You chirped like a giddy teenager about the 2007 Golden State Warriors, cursing the fairweather fans who were taking up good seats while never realizing that you were one of them.  (Never mind that for most of the last decade "The Arena" was known around here as "Arco West")  You became a season-ticket holder for the LA Clippers, for goodness sakes--but no love for Sacramento?  Nothing for Arco Arena?  No time for fans in a large geographic area who are singularly dedicated to one franchise?  I just don’t get it.


You, of all people, should be a Kings fan.  You back the mid-majors against the power conferences.  You embrace role players over stars.  You back the team over the individual.  You like a style of basketball that focuses on skills--shooting, passing, cutting, moving--over one-on-one dribbling and isolation plays, and yet you don’t have time for Geoff Petrie and his obvious blind spot for players who pass, shoot, and move, even if they are un-athletic and can’t play defense?  Can you say something nice about Pete Carrill, for goodness’ sake?




Look, I don’t need you to write about the Kings to validate my own experience with them.  I’ve been there from the beginning, I witnessed their climb into prominence, I exalted in every wonderful moment and had my heart broken a few times along the way.    I haven’t been fortunate enough to see them win a championship, but I know I’m damn lucky to have been around for the ride the last 25 years, and to have a team that I can unequivocally call my own.  I’ve poured a ton of myself into this team, and with the exception of maybe one Robert Horry jump shot, there isn’t a whole lot I’d change about it.  A guy like you--well, I hoped you would recognize that there is value in that.  Instead, you’re becoming the guy that wins big at the blackjack table the night before, but wants separate checks at breakfast the next morning.


Just know that there are millions of people like me, all over the country...and you were once one of us.  Just know that while in Kansas City they could start their love affair with anyone, in Sacramento there’s only one team that I’ve grown up with and can grow old with.  Just recognize that when you say you’re OK with teams burning community bridges for the sake of newer, shinier luxury boxes, you are going against everything you’ve had the fortune of growing up with as a sports fan.  I’m proud to be a part of an incredible, wonderful group of fans, and our investment in this team isn’t something you can put on the back of a truck.  Once upon a knew that.






(This is a FanPost from a member of the Sactown Royalty community. The views expressed come from the member, and not Sactown Royalty staff.)