The magic in the air was palpable.
Just five months before, the Sacramento Kings were dead in the water. Sitting at 17-24, the mere idea of continuing their six season streak of making the playoffs was laughable. Chris Webber and Vlade Divac were gone, and Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller were struggling to carry the team.
Then came Ron Artest via trade. And he brought some serious magic with him. Artest re-energized the team to finish the season 44-38, clinching a first round date in the Playoffs with the defending champion (and top-seeded) San Antonio Spurs. But that had to be the end of it, right? The Spurs took both games in San Antonio, the latter of which came after a back-breaking three by Brent Barry to force overtime. In Game 3, despite gamely fighting the Spurs for every inch, San Antonio had the ball with the lead and seconds remaining the game, and that was supposed to be the end of it.
But the magic just kept on coming, this time courtesy of Kevin Martin. The second year guard stamped his breakout season with a twisting layup over Tim Duncan, capping a wild sequence kicked off by Bibby cleanly swiping Manu Ginobili of the ball. I was watching the game with my family on my grandma's tiny TV, and the euphoria was indescribable. We danced around celebrating the miracle, laughing and hugging each other. Now, take that euphoria and triple it; my dad surprised us all by pulling out tickets to go watch Game 4 at then-named Arco Arena. We were speechless!
I had only been to see the Kings live twice at the time, and neither of them was a Playoff game. Most of my experience with the Kings was spent around a radio taking in Gary Gerould's smooth commentary. This was on a completely different plane. The stakes were on another level. It was the Playoffs: win or go home. And we would be there to witness it.
The Arco Arena concourse was electric. There was a definite buzz in the air, undoubtedly sparked by the sheer nerve of the Kings' odds-defying season. The K-Mart game-winner just served to amp the voltage another notch. The scene was much like an eastern bazaar; the crowds navigated their way around the narrow hallways, picking up food, entering promotional giveaways, checking out Kings gear from the kiosks and counters. Franchise legends of the past were all represented on jerseys, from Reggie Theus and Mitch Richmond, to the team's current stars like Bibby and Artest. It was without question the mecca of Sacramento Kings fandom.
My favorite part of the night were the thundersticks. Kings fans are loud enough on their own, a boisterous cadre made up of Sacramento's diverse population, unified by a fierce pride in their city. Put 17,317 of those folks into a cramped building with a low ceiling and echoing walls and you can count on your ears ringing for weeks. Give every one of those fans a pair of those bad boys? There were car alarms going off in the parking lot.
The game itself was a blast in its own right. Bonzi Wells crushed the Spurs with 25 points and 17 rebounds, including a flying dunk while punking Tim Duncan in his face. Artest put the clamps on Manu Ginobili, holding him to only three points, the highlight was picking his pocket and scoring just before halftime buzzer. Everybody played well: Brad Miller, Mike Bibby, and Kevin Martin all scored in double figures, and the Kings pasted the Spurs 102-84. The series was tied going back to San Antonio.
The crowd was wild the entire game. They celebrated Bonzi's dominance with chants of Bon-ZI! Bon-ZI! When he shot free throws. The noise caused the Spurs to miss 10 free throws; even Brent Barry (one of the best free throw shooters in history) missed half of his attempts. When the game was out of reach, the crowd desperately urged Rick Adelman to put fan favorite Corliss Williamson into the game with raucus chants of We want Cor-liss! Clap clap clapclapclap! That night, Arco Arena lived up to its reputation as one of the most hostile environments in the NBA.
That night was special for me, but it was not a unique night in the hallowed history of the building. The arena's nearly three decades of NBA stewardship have given thousands of kids just like myself the same chance to take in the magic. From its maiden season, to "Rattle Seattle" in 96, to epic showdowns with the Lakers, to actually rattling Seattle during the relocation era, the building has been central not only to the basketball team here, but our history and pride as Sacramentans.
Sports is a microcosm of the human experience because success depends so much on values we hold dear: teamwork, preparation, hard work, and competitive spirit. For the city of Sacramento, both the team and the people cheering them on expressed them all at Arco Arena. And while we will close the doors forever and try to take that special sauce to a new HQ in downtown, we will never forget those three decades of the magic we all made together in those hallowed halls.
Goodbye, Sleep Train Arena. Thank you for the magical ride. And here's to taking the magic into the future.