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Down in the Valley

Sacramento has known nothing but adversity, but has endured regardless.

Kings v Lakers Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Nothing has ever come particularly easy to me. I’m not sure if this is attributable to circumstance or general incompetence or some combination of the two but I’ve historically struggled with functions that most normal people don’t while not necessarily feeling like I’ve been given the breaks plenty of other otherwise normal people have. Now that last comment is almost purely self-sympathy. That I’m 36 years old and taking driver’s education courses for the first time in my life next week is an incompetence owed only to myself. But there’s something about adversity and its relationship with its kissing second-cousin futility. It is ever tempting to dismiss what is merely an adversity to overcome as a futility to be discarded. And similarly it is easy to get seduced into believing that that which is ultimately futile is just an adversity conquered with patient persistence.

There was an older guy, a sort of senior statesman of the NBA, who used to do Andy Rooney-esque vignettes on Inside the NBA. For the life of me I cannot remember his name, and if you Google “Andy Rooney Inside the NBA” the only thing semi-relevant that pops up is a bizarre Andy Rooney interview with Shawn Bradley. In any case he did a piece on Allen Iverson after his first NBA decade and Iverson commented that while his career had been better than he expected, he also would have expected to have won multiple championships 10 years in. LeBron James is probably the greatest basketball player of all time. He has already won three titles, one of them in the most compelling way one wins a title. And yet those three championships feel insufficient. If you’re Skip Bayless and an overpaid dick they’re an insufficiency that blemishes your status. If you’re the rest of us it’s more a curiosity. How is it that LeBron, basketball in human form, only managed 3 titles?

Consequently if you asked me today, point blank, if I thought the Kings would ever win a title in my lifetime I’d tell you, honestly, no. I genuinely don’t believe. Basketball is a frustrating sport for the same reason it is so compelling. The sustained excellence of the top heavy is unforgiving to even minor mismanagement. And in the last decade the Kings have been victims to a bit more than minor mismanagement.

It is that Sisyphean quality that is one of the reasons the Kings’ ongoing struggle is so unique. The commitment to piling on heaping helpings of adversity to a situation inherently adverse. It is the reason that curses and superstitions and billy goats and Bartmans and Bambinos and Buckys dominate the Cubs and Red Sox narratives. Because in those situations fate had to actively intercede to undermine. In the case of Sacramento we’ve already done all of Fate’s work for her. She only has to swoop in on occasion with a swallowed whistle here or a stray Horry shot there.

And you start to wonder, then, if you even deserve the damn thing. If you have any right to feel tortured when your best examples of torture this last decade all happen in the offseason, usually on a Thursday evening in June. You can rationalize, to yourself and others, only so many Tyrekes over Currys, Jimmers over Kwahis, Robinsons over Drummonds, Stauskases over LaVines before the whole exercise starts to feel really fucking futile. Because one or 2 bad drafts, particularly for a team like the Kings, is the difference between 10 years of relevance and 10 years of whatever this is. And suddenly you’re 46 and your mother is picking you up from the Club Raven after the Kings just traded 2 future first rounders to move up to draft a guy from Northern Iowa that scored 30 in a Sweet 16 game.

I’ve felt like crying a lot lately. I don’t know why to be honest. Honestly that’s a lie. I know why. Enough of why. I know myself well enough to know why there are newly discovered reservoirs of tenderness and compassion. But, as I suppose is always the case, the waterworks work at odd times. I teared up a bit that opening game. And I guess that’s not that surprising. Though it’s such an easy thing to be cynical about, with any number of people working overtime to make that moment less about the moment and more about themselves, and cynicism has always been a necessary crutch of mine. A garlic necklace to the emotional vampire of empathy.

Anyway that felt futile. That felt really fucking futile. The struggle for the team. The early popular sentiment that it was the fault of the city of Sacramento, and not the Maloofs, that the franchise was struggling. The later sentiment that Sacramento, through no fault of their own, would lose the franchise to Seattle. At no point in popular media was Sacramento defined as anything other than a city that would suffer and struggle. Because, in so many ways, that’s how Sacramento defines itself, as a city that suffers and struggles.

Long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans are long-suffering Cubs fans, not long-suffering Chicago residents, hell not even long-suffering Chicago fans. One cannot suffer long when, in the same generation they missed a second world championship, they saw Ditka and Jordan and Pippen and Patrick Kane. I was in Chicago when the Blackhawks won a championship in 2013. That was 3 years ago. Around the same time the Kings were drafting Ben McLemore. Long-suffering Sacramento Kings fans are long-suffering Sacramentans. In part because there’s no other team to suffer for. In part because that’s how Sacramento defines itself, as a city that suffers and struggles.

There are plenty of Sacramentans that don’t readily identify with the Kings. An influx of Bay Area sports success has syncopated with an influx of outpriced Bay Area residents. The cultural impact of the team, which in many minds justified the financial impact of keeping it, has felt overstated to those wary of the arena’s immediate and long term financial consequences. Others are just haters. The problem with this of course is the Kings are Sacramento. Whether by coincidence or osmosis the Kings’ struggles are the city’s struggles. The struggle for relevance. The struggle for competence. The struggle to feel like any of this, the struggle specifically, ultimately matters. Or are we just stuck in some central valley town screaming to a God that, when interested, only wants to scream back “No. This is who you are, this is how Sacramento defines itself, as a city that suffers and struggles”?

This is the point in these articles where the author writes and maybe that’s the point. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the suffering and the struggling is the whole point. It doesn’t have to be for everyone. But maybe it has to be for us. Because we can take it. Because we have taken it. Because we’ve spent 50 plus years as one of sports’ most futile franchises without being romanticized or sympathized, without being anything other than ignored until its “LOL Kings.” And yet we’ve endured, flourished even, both in spite of and because of that.

Or maybe it isn’t bad to have some semblance of faith. We’ve seen it rewarded before. Maybe in a season where the Kings start playing in a new arena and the Cubs win a world championship and I start taking drivers’ education it isn’t misguided to believe in the capacity for change and reinvention. Sacramento has always been to me a fall city. And fall, after all, is a far better time for renewal than spring.