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An arena that lost its way, but not its personality

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The Sacramento Kings will play their final game as a franchise inside the walls of Sleep Train Arena on Saturday. The 28-year old facility may be outdated, but it makes up for it in personality.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Schiele was eight years old when he first walked up to the original ARCO Arena. Flanked by his mom and dad, he remembers seeing the glass on the front of the building appear to be shaking from the noise level inside. He silently wondered to himself "holy cow, what's happening?" A few years later, a little older, and a little taller, but still in awe, he approached the second ARCO Arena, just 1.4 miles down the road from the original arena in Natomas, CA.

He looked down onto the court and stood captivated by how much larger the building was than ARCO Arena 1.

"I remember walking into the new building thinking, oh my gosh, this is like the eighth wonder of the world," says Schiele, who is now a season ticket holder and father of four boys who regularly attend games with their dad.

ARCO Arena 2 opened in 1988 at the cost of $40 million. Its hardwood floors the fans stomp on made it a noise machine as it sat, and still sits, in the middle of an expansive concrete parking lot in the middle of a vast field. At 450,000 square feet, ARCO Arena 2 accommodated 7,000 more fans than the original building (the initial capacity was 16,517 and later expanded to 17,317).

"It never lost that noise," Schiele said.

On Nov. 8, 1988, the noise was deafening. Standing next to original Sacramento Kings owner Greg Lukenbill, former NBA Commissioner David Stern addressed the fans on the evening ARCO Arena 2 opened.

"It's been an absolutely first-class reception, as good as any other city in our league and I'm glad to be here to help you inaugurate a first-class facility as good as any other in the league," Stern said, decked out in a tuxedo like Kings owners who stood at center court with him.

Current Kings color analyst Jerry Reynolds was the head coach of the Kings at the time.

"The arena, obviously, at that time was one of the better arenas in the league. We went from a totally too small, not NBA-caliber arena to an arena that at that time, there were probably eight or 10 arenas that you would put ahead of ARCO 2, but that's about it," Reynolds said.

Reynolds remembers the energy during first game at ARCO Arena 2 as well as the 97-75 loss at the hands of the Seattle SuperSonics.

"The game itself was a terrible letdown. Seattle came in and just slapped us around," Reynolds said. "Before the year, we traded Reggie Theus and Otis Thorpe, probably our two best offensive players and replaced them with nobody, which generally doesn't work very well."

But just as the years prior, and the 28 years ahead, the noise from the Kings fans and the support they showed didn't change when the team moved to the new building.

"Even though it was much bigger, the noise level and the atmosphere really didn't change much, you still had the small building atmosphere in a much bigger building," Reynolds said.

The Kings went on to have several letdowns over the years, but there were good times. The 1998 to 2006 era served as the pinnacle of the building as Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson dazzled NBA audiences with a high-octane Princeton offense. By then, the league had exploded in popularity due to a guy named Michael Jordan and the building that could have once been considered to be the "eighth wonder of the world" quickly became a relic in an age with high-technology palaces sprouting up around the league.

For the longest time, none of that mattered to fans like Schiele, however. The memories and moments he has been able to share with his family, friends and "extended family" of season ticket holders overshadowed the leaky ceiling and plastic seats that have been known to come completely unhinged. He was able to share the experience of what going to a game in Sacramento is like with his wife during the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks some years ago. He had told his wife, who was pregnant with their first born at the time and not a basketball fan, about the energy of the building.

"We were walking up and she looked over at me and she's like, ‘oh my gosh, you're not kidding, I can just feel it ... it looks like the building is about to shake,'" Schiele recalled.

The playoff games and even some hard-fought regular season games left lasting memories in the minds of many Kings fans. But it was also felt by the players. Chris Webber had this to say to ABC 10.

"I love ARCO Arena, it was a wonderful place to play, but the fans made it ... I just really remember the love that we [players] had. We really loved each other, we really loved playing in Sacramento."

Webber's opponents recall the great battles and the energy of ARCO Arena 2, which is now known as Sleep Train Arena.

"We faced them in the playoffs like every year back then with Bibby, and Peja, and Vlade and Webber, they had great teams and we had some great battles in here," said Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki. "Some high-scoring games and I always liked to play in this building. It was always loud here back in the days and it was always fun battles."

San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker shared similar sentiments.

"Great memories. My favorite was when I first arrived in the league, obviously the huge rivalry against Mike Bibby and C-Webb and Vlade and Peja. That was just great games, they were really good and ARCO Arena back in the day was one of the loudest in the NBA," Parker said. "They have a great fan base and it was great to play against them all those years."

On Saturday, with the memorable games, the fight to keep the team from relocating to Anaheim and Seattle, the countless concerts and other entertainment that came through town gone, but not forgotten, the Kings franchise closes the doors on Sleep Train Arena.

It has long been time for a change.

Walking around the operations and business side of the building is a reminder of how dated the design of the building is - business offices are scrunched by a slanted ceiling that holds up the second deck of seating. Signs with the ARCO logo splashed across them and jerseys from former players fill sprawling, caged storage areas. A stroll through the lower level gives you a peak underneath the lower bowl bleacher seating fit for a high school gymnasium. A solo truck sits cramped in the small area designated for media trucks (modern arenas can accommodate multiple media trucks).

Tucked away behind storage is the infamous "Clown Tunnel." Lukenbill's plan was to build a baseball stadium next to the arena and call it ARCO Park. It would share a parking lot with ARCO Arena 2 and be used to lure a Major League Baseball team to Sacramento. Construction, which included digging out the foundation and building a wall to keep water out, began in 1987. The stadium was intended to seat 40,000 people and would have been connected to the arena with this underground tunnel. Today, the tunnel is covered in stickers and drawings from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and autographs and phrases from circus staff and variety of other visitors. Funding fell through on the baseball stadium years ago and only a shell of a baseball diamond sits in the fields next to Sleep Train Arena. The tunnel is stuffed with storage and, of course, leads to no where.

Sleep Train Arena is filled with personality, but it is a flashback to an NBA era that is long gone.

A new era is ready to launch on the back of a 745,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Golden 1 Center. The downtown arena will feature 34 suites, 48 "loft suites," a six-story glass entrance that opens and closes, padded seating and restaurant and bar options in an adjacent mixed-use "tower." It will feature a bridge that connects the horseshoe upper bowl. Fans will be able to stand on the bridge and have a view of the court on one side and turn around to see the city's lights on the other. Though larger, the arena is being constructed to maintain an intimate feel.

It all sounds grand. And if you visit the Golden 1 Center's construction site, you can tell that it will indeed be grand. But as Saturday approaches and as that final buzzer sounds for the players and fans to exit for the last time, this is a time of reflection and a time to send the old barn off in proper fashion.

"When you look at the floor and you realize who has walked through that building. ... You can say hey, I remember when Magic Johnson came through, I remember when Karl Malone and John Stockton came through here," Schiele said.

But more importantly, many will remember their memories shared with friends and family as they stomped on those old wooden floors. Schiele remembers the memories with his kids, and his father, who he still goes to games with.

"I see a little bit of what I was like [at games] in each of my kids," Schiele said.