Throughout the 1990's the people of Sacramento showed up at Sacramento Kings games despite the team only making the playoffs twice and never posting a record above .500 until the 1998-99 season. While a decade like that would be a death knell for many teams in professional sports, Sacramento was different. Even though most of these teams were bad-to-mediocre, Kings fans sold out Arco Arena every night to cheer on their team. For many young kids like myself, the player they were looking forward to see the most was Mitch Richmond. While Sacramento had some relatively big names in the past, such as Reggie Theus, Mitch Richmond was the first real star to put on a Sacramento Kings uniform. As a part of the popular Golden State Warriors trio "Run TMC", (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin, for the youngsters out there), Mitch Richmond made a name for himself before he ever put on a Kings' uniform. After 3 years entertaining our neighbors in Oakland, Mitch was traded to Sacramento, and for the next 7 years, he was the face of our franchise.
1998 was an interesting time for the Kings. They wanted to get better, but to do so they would probably have to do away with their franchise player. While they had a good relationship, Mitch was 32 and looking for a new deal, and the Kings were looking to get better and younger. This would be hard to do without trading Mitch. Jerry Reynolds spoke about the situation with Sactown Royalty's own Blake Ellington.
Jerry, the one time coach and GM, as well as the long time color commentator/encyclopedia of the Kings went on to talk about the mindset of the players and teams at the time of the draft.
"Geoff Petrie was really pressured by the owner, Jim Thomas, to really shake the thing up and make something happen.
Mitch had a reputation as one of the elite players, and certainly on a team that wasn't winning and he was the best player. And I think he wanted a new contract, so there were some issues on that regard too. Not that they couldn't have been resolved. I think in most cases, players that aren't on a winning team aren't happy - same reason that Chris wasn't happy about coming."
While the Kings did not have much success in terms of wins and losses during the Rock's seven years, (only making the playoffs once in that span), Mitch Richmond still helped bring a spotlight to the Kings. To this day he is the only Sacramento King to be awarded with the All-Star MVP and the only Kings beside Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic to make an All-NBA team. With his non-stop hustle, toughness, and resiliency, (he only played less than 70 games once in his time here), Mitch Richmond was a player that fans everywhere, from Sacramento to New York, wanted to see. For most of the 90's, he was not just a player on the Sacramento Kings, he was the Sacramento Kings. All of this came to a halt in May of 1998, when the Kings traded Mitch, (along with Otis Thorpe), to the Washington Wizards for a 25-year-old former #1 pick named Chris Webber. The Kings were in search of a younger star (Mitch Richmond was 32 at the time, and wanted to play on a winning team), and the Wizards were looking to dump Chris Webber.
"Guys, I make no bones about it, we gave up a tremendous young talent in Chris Webber. We got a tremendous, mature leadership-type individual in Mitch Richmond." Wizards GM, Wes Unseld, told the New York Times back in 1998. But Chris Webber's talent was not the only thing garnering attention during the time of this trade. Since Chris Webber came into the league, he had been seen as a punk and a headcase. After a Rookie of the Year campaign in Golden State, the Warriors could not wait to get rid of Chris Webber. While he had a great statistical rookie year, young Webber was constantly butting heads with famously hot-headed coach Don Nelson. It was the beginning of the uphill climb that was Chris Webber's career. The Warriors had had enough, and immediately traded Webber to the Washington Bullets following his rookie campaign.While he continued to be a great basketball player, his character issues kept rearing their ugly heads. In his last season alone, he accumulated numerous traffic violations, an assault charge, possession charges, and even a sexual assault charge, (which was later dismissed), He had all of the talent in the world, but he seemed to be headed down a dangerous path.
"It was viewed that Chris Webber was really a guy that was out there being shopped because of some issues that he had in Washington," Reynolds explained, "... from maybe a coachability standpoint, some alleged drug situations ... so it was no secret that Chris was going to be traded, they wanted to trade him. And really, I think from Geoff's standpoint to realize hey, this is a marvelous talent if he can get his head on right it would be a home run for the Kings since Mitch was, quite honestly, on the downside of his career, which is exactly what happened."
While everyone knew of the talent Chris Webber had, his lingering character issues were a heavy focus of trade analysis at the time. Jerry Bumbry of the Baltimore Sun wrote a scathing article about what the Wizards had gone through with Chris Webber. "In being exiled to a small-market franchise, he must now attempt to prove he is one of the top power forwards in the NBA".
Despite being an All Star, a lock for a double-double each night, and being a virtual highlight machine, Webber's marriage to his second team ended just as badly to his first. When a guy as talented as Chris Webber could not keep an address, (he was on his 3rd team in 5 years), it usually meant there was a problem. Despite his scathing remarks, however, Bumbry was not ready to blame all of Webber's faults on the basketball court on the troubled young star. While Chris Webber and his Wizards teammate Juwan Howard worked great together in college, at the NBA level, they were both natural power forwards. Despite this, the Wizards insisted on playing them together, with Juwan Howard moving to the small forward spot. "The bottom line is that the combination of Webber and Howard did not work." Bumbry lamented.
In a very accurate assessment, Bumbry correctly stated that if Webber wanted to reinvent himself in the NBA, he would need to fine tune his game and become a more reliable presence, especially in clutch situations. Bumbry concluded that "If Webber works on that aspect of his game -- and learns to curtail his off-the-court troubles -- he'll be an All-Star for years to come and maybe shake the negative labels that have followed him."
This was quite the change from Mitch Richmond, who not only had been known as one of the better players in the NBA, but also one of the better people. In response to the trade on May 15, 1998, the Sacramento Bee's R.E. Graswich said that the deal "could be paid for in court fines, legal fees, maybe even jail time, judging from Webber's record. Funny how the words 'judging' and 'record' seem to trail Webber. Welcome to a trade born of desperation."
Not exactly a hero's welcome. Graswich was not a Richmond apologist by any means, going as far as saying his "legacy was losing" and saying he had earned the right to be called "selfish, foolish, greedy, and ungrateful". Despite these, Graswich went on to say that if you take the money out of the picture, Mitch was "a professional athlete who wanted to win, who wanted the ball in his hands in the closing minutes, who wanted to defend the best guy on the other team, who knew he was good but never became insufferable, who respected the fans and avoided the back seat of police cars". Graswich ended his article by stating that despite all this, the Kings had acquired a very talented young player. He ended his article with a passive aggressive rally cry, "Let's go celebrate! Let's go Mourn."
"From the standpoint of the Kings, risks had to be taken." Jerry explained, "It was pretty clear that the thing wasn't going to work the way it was going... it was a matter of, 'Hey, whatever it takes to get better and whatever risk, if it's possible, you better take it', because if you come back with the same guys it's not going to work."
Mitch had a great relationship with the fans, and if Chris Webber didn't work out, the fans would be out for blood.
"It wasn't a popular trade in Sacramento when it was made at all." Jerry reminisced, "People said, hey, Mitch is the real deal he's done it. He's not been a problem off the court per se and Chris had issues in Golden State and he had issues in Washington."
While it was clear that Webber was talented, it was unknown how he would respond on his new team. He let it be known right away that Sacramento was not where he wanted to be. If history meant anything, he would probably be packing his bags and going to get another team within the next couple of years. Not everyone was focused on the negative issues that Webber had faced. Jackie MacMullan, then of Sports Illustrated, had what turned out to be a stunningly accurate take on the trade.
Jackie stated that the Kings "suddenly had a much more promising future". She said that if the Kings could sign "Pedrag Stojakovic", and use their 7th pick wisely (that became Jason Williams), they could suddenly be a team to watch in the NBA. While she thought the Kings would be happy with signing Michael Stewart to a new deal, I am pretty sure she would have had good words if she knew were going to bring Serbian big man Vlade Divac over.
This move by the Kings was definitely polarizing when it first went down. From a basketball point of view, it was a no-brainer. They traded an aging shooting guard for an up-and-coming power forward. Unfortunately, the power forward came with his own laundry list of issues. Despite the team's' struggles under the leadership of Mitch Richmond, one thing that the fans could never question was his character. While he earned the nickname "Rock" from his toughness, that grit and scrappiness was all on the basketball court, not in court. Time would tell if the Webber trade would work out, and fortunately for the Kings, it did.
The results of the trade are now forever written in the history books. Under their exciting new owners (this was 1999), an experienced head coach, and a whole new class of talent, the Kings became one of the marquee teams in the NBA. People from the United States to across the world wanted to watch this exciting young team. They brought the Utah Jazz (who had come off 2-straight finals appearances) to the brink of elimination, formed a now legendary rivalry with the LA Lakers, and became what is still referred to as one of the most entertaining teams to watch in NBA history.
Now, 16 years later, both of these players are long since retired. Mitch Richmond put up decent numbers each of his three years with the Wizards, but age eventually slowed him down. He won a ring with the LA Lakers, though he did not do much for them in the process. Chris Webber finally realized his immense potential in Sacramento, but a bum knee cut a great career short.
As far as the trade is concerned, and the impact Mitch had on the team, Jerry Reynolds put it best.
"As I've said many times, Mitch made us better coming and he made us better going - actually the most valuable player in the history of the franchise on that basis alone."