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Notes from a native son

On what it means to say "I'm from Sacramento."

Basil D Soufi via Wikimedia Commons

Years ago, and it's impossible to write this sentence without sounding pretentious, so forgive me, I was alone and drunk at a bar in Manhattan, on vacation, away from my hectic life of being alone and drunk at bars in Sacramento. I was seated next to a guy who was trying to strike up casual conversation with an abnormally attractive bartender, something I got the feeling he had attempted to do on more than one occasion, and I overheard him tell her, at one point "Well, you know me, I'm from Indiana." Now I have no idea what the context or content of that comment or their conversation was, but I knew exactly what he was trying to imply when he excused himself as being from Indiana. Assuming it wasn't an Axl Rose reference, he intended to imply all the innocence, earnestness and weird white-trash wonderment of the Midwest. And I wondered, again because I was alone and drunk, what someone would think if I, in some misguided attempt at seduction, had said to her "Well, you know me, I'm from Sacramento." I don't think it would have registered. The answer would not come in Manhattan. Unless you are from Sacramento I'm not sure you know what it means to be from Sacramento. And then you know entirely too well.

Some of this, this difficulty in definition, I think, is owed to geography. It is easy to identify the Pacific Northwest because, well, because it's the Pacific Northwest. It is a physical location whose personality is, to great degree, a byproduct of its natural landscape. The same is true for Phoenix. Or Salt Lake. Or Miami. Sacramento is a Central Valley town, but who, outside of the Central Valley, knows exactly what that means? And for that matter is Sacramento really a Central Valley town in the way a Coalinga or Fresno is? We have no Basque restaurants. No Sonic Drive-Thrus. Sacramento is a city that lacks, at least to the outside world, a specific personality in a state where every other city is immediately identified by a specific personality. And the one geographic identity we do have, our proximity, is the one most natives most actively attempt to distance themselves from (I remember once attending a KJ fundraiser, when he first ran for mayor, and he sharing an anecdote about how he hated the fact that Sacramento was defined as the place 2 hours between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe and how, when he was in the NBA and people would ask him to define Sacramento, he would explain it was the place 2 hours between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe).

Some of this difficulty in definition is also owed to the fact that, while very few new people come to Sacramento, very few people leave Sacramento. It is a population whose roots are in a sort of constant stasis. We do not have the transient population of a Manhattan or Manhattan Beach, the sort of places where people live for 2 years and, like study abroad kids that spent a semester in Barcelona, assume a cursory understanding of the physical landscape of a place entitles them to a similar understanding of the social landscape. Nor do we have the youth outflow or brain drain of places with less desirable climates - January in Sacramento is not January in Cleveland - that may make those out of town more empathetic to us as out of towners, the sort of Steeler effect. Most young people that leave Sacramento for big city living move to San Francisco, live in the Marina, mostly amongst people they knew in Sacramento, and inevitably return to Sacramento, largely as they were, just way more into the Giants and IPA.

These, I think, are the reasons for a certain disconnect in the way the NBA world at large looks at the Kings leaving Sacramento vs. the way Sacramento looks at the Kings leaving Sacramento. To most it is an issue of equity and inequity. You have two comparably deserving cities, one of whom will potentially get jobbed by relocation, but it's a justifiable, or at least easy to rationalize, jobbing, because that city had been previously jobbed. This ignores a reality we here understand; that this is something beyond a franchise and their fanbase, that the Kings are Sacramento and Sacramento is the Kings.

This is not the case in Seattle. That statement is not intended to disparage the city. Honestly the intention is the inverse. Seattle has 3 professional sports franchises. I was at a friend's 30th birthday party this weekend in Los Angeles and a mutual friend of ours, a Seattle native, and I were discussing the potential relocation. I asked him, even when the Sonics were in town, what sort of city Seattle was, was it a Mariners city, a Seahawks city, a Sonics city? He commented that in his youth (he's 34) it was, and for him still is, a Mariners city. He grew up on the great Pinella-Randy Johnson-Alex Rodriguez-Ken Griffey Jr. teams. But in recent years it had become, for obvious reasons, a Seahawks town. What if the Sonics had stayed, I asked, and become the Thunder as they exist in Oklahoma City? It would be very close to being a Sonics town. "It's not that we're front-runners" he continued "it's just the reality is this always has been, and always will be, first and foremost, a Huskies town."

And that's the closest I can come to explaining to anybody why the Kings leaving Sacramento would be so uniquely traumatic. Sacramento is not a Kings town in the way Seattle is a Sonics town. Sacramento is a Kings town in the way Seattle is a Huskies town. For a generation of Sacramentans, at this point for multiple generations of Sacramentans, the Kings have been inextricably intertwined with our personal lives. Sacramento State is a fantastic school; it is having a renaissance of sorts, Marshall Sperbeck, Tom Ziller, Jaslyn Ome, my father. But it is not the University of Washington. It is not the generational rite of passage the Huskies are for so many in the Pacific Northwest. I understand that Mariners games and Storm games are also a rite of passage for Seattleites. But they are a rite of passage. Not the rite of passage. In Sacramento the Kings are the rite of passage. The closest I can come to explaining the Sleep Train/Power Balance/Arco Arena experience is this passage from The Great Gatsby:

"When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

"That's my Middle West--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all-"

That's my Arco Arena experience. A transcendent moment when we are unutterably aware of our identity with this city before we melt indistinguishably into it again. I think, ultimately, that is the reason we so resent the Maloofs. Not because we are victims of their incompetence. Not because of their petty, punitive desire to sell this team to Seattle as a fuck you to KJ and Burkle and us. No, it is because they led us to believe that this was also their Arco Arena experience. They convinced us that they understood Sacramento because they were Sacramento. Not just that this team was ours as much as theirs, that is the goal of all good owners, but that they understood we uniquely needed this team, and this team uniquely needed us, more than the Maloofs needed either. Ultimately such was not the case. As basketball thriving in Sacramento absent of the Maloofs would be the ultimate referendum on their failings as Kings Owners, and as the Maloofs only exist anymore as former Sacramento Kings owners, the Maloofs will not let Sacramento have basketball.

Except we'll always have basketball. These last two years have preserved basketball in Sacramento in perpetuity. Here We Stay and Crown Downtown and Playing to Win and Tom and Carmichael Dave and Grant and Jerry and the Mayor and Ron and Vivek and Mark. All held in a common honor. This shared experience can't be taken away from us even if the team responsible for said shared experience can. Not just because it happened, but because it happened in a way and in a place where only it could happen.

And maybe that's what it means to be from Sacramento. Maybe I did get my answer in Manhattan. That picture of the fans in front of the St. Regis like they're at a mid-Atlantic city council meeting saying everything "Well, you know me, I'm from Sacramento" cannot.

That we are a city naïve enough to think we can pull this off, but sophisticated enough to just maybe do it.