Jonathan Abrams just published a fantastic oral history for Grantland on the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Kings and Lakers. For non-Kings and non-Lakers fans, that was simply an incredible back and forth series. For Lakers fans, it was the series that cemented the first three-peat. And of course for Kings fans, it was the one that got away.
The Kings were never closer to getting to the NBA Finals or winning a championship than they were in 2002. As Doug Christie says in the oral history, that series WAS the NBA Finals. We make fun of the how bad the East is today, but at least the East today has the Miami Heat. During the Kings' glory years, the East was never really a threat to beat the West in the playoffs. Everybody knew that whoever won that series was going to win the championship.
I still remember this series vividly despite being just 12 years old at the time. My mom, not really a huge basketball fan, even got into the spirit of things, and put up a big banner on the garage that said "Kings Rule, Lakers Drool". The games were a family event, and we'd have grandparents and uncles and cousins over just to watch. I would go in my backyard after the games and try to recreate the best moments, or if the Kings had lost, shoot the shots that they had missed and wonder if things had gone differently.
My most vivid memory of the series remains the Robert Horry shot. For me, that's one of those moments for Kings fans where you can ask someone where they are and what they were doing and they'll remember exactly, just like the Kennedy Assassination or 9/11. I was at my grandma's house and sitting just a few feet away from the TV. We were winning and there were only a few seconds left. I knew the ball was going to go to either Shaq or Kobe. The Kings knew too and played it beautifully, as Shaq misses a shot and Vlade knocks it out away from the rim. My heart jumps and I get ready to celebrate... wait why is this guy standing out there on this play ... why is the ball going straight to him... oh god... no.
I think I cried the whole way home.
Of course the Kings had their own moments in the series. Bibby's shot the next game was seen as the redemption, but because of the way the series played out, it doesn't stand out as much as Horry's shot. Instead, Kings fans are left constantly thinking "What if": "What if Horry's shot had missed". "What if they had been able to make free throws and open shots in Game 7". "What if C-Webb hadn't blown his knee out a year later". "What if..."
That series remains to this day the pinnacle of Sacramento Kings basketball. That team inspired an entire generation of Kings fans, who to this day pine for better days and the playoffs.
I still count myself lucky that we were able to watch those teams. As Tennyson wrote:
"It is better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all"
Sure, he wasn't talking about basketball teams, but man, I loved those Kings teams. And now, thanks to Vivek Ranadivé, Kevin Johnson and co., we have a future to look forward to, rather than simply a past to commemorate.