1985: If there were any expectations regarding the team, I sure don't remember them. The City of Sacramento was so excited to have the Kings in Sacramento, hardly anyone actually cared or gave a thought to the actual quality of the roster. There was certainly positive conversation taking place about newly minted draft pick Joe Kleine (and I assure you, no one brought up Karl Malone at the time), but there sure was no autopsy conducted on any of the other Kings' six draft picks (the draft went seven rounds back then - where art thou, Alton Lee Gipson?).
Here's another thing that was different back then and largely ignored: when you signed a free agent away from another team, you had to send compensation. The Kings had to send cash to Utah when they signed Rich Kelley, and they sent a 1986 1st round draft pick (became John Salley) and a 1987 2nd round pick (became Rickie Winslow) when they signed Terry Tyler.
What we did know about the team was that Reggie Theus was the guy with the star power and Eddie Johnson was the purest shooter. We really learned about the toughness of LaSalle Thompson and Mark Olberding later, as well as up and comer Otis Thorpe. Let's get this party started!
The fan base was not was not wringing their collective hands over whether we would make or miss the playoffs, and once we did, we sort of figured that it was a rite of Spring that would be repeated year after year after year...heck, you didn't even need a winning record. Final record: 37-45, 0-3 in the playoffs.
1986: Now, this was a summer that we could build on! Fresh off a playoff appearance and sellout crowd after sellout crowd (10,333 still counts, right?), the Kings drafted Villanova standout Harold Pressley. This guy had the makings of a perennial all-star in our young and naïve eyes. And when the Kings traded for Derek Smith, man-oh-man, we were a team on the rise...and all he cost was Larry Drew, Mike Woodson and the 1988 1st round draft pick that would become Hersey Hawkins!
I distinctly remember this summer as the first of what would be many summers of dashed hopes, as Smith's balky knees would be contributing factor in coach Phil Johnson getting the axe in early February, with Jerry Reynolds hired as interim coach. Final record: 29-53.
1987: The off-season began with the Kings hiring Bill Russell as head coach - dynasty here we come!!! Just prior to the draft, the Kings traded Eddie Johnson to the Phoenix Suns for Ed Pinckney - another guy that knows how to win! Next came the drafting of Kenny Smith (I preferred Mark Jackson, but hey, Kenny Smith!). And a brand new, state-of-the-art building - what could possibly go wrong?
And...Russell was "re-assigned" in March, replaced by Reynolds as the head coach. Final record: 24-58.
1988: We lost Conner Henry to the Miami Heat in the expansion draft, so the writing was pretty much on the wall. But the trade of Reggie Theus for Randy Wittman and a draft pick brought us Ricky Berry, and we added Vinny Del Negro in the 2nd round. Before the season started, Otis Thorpe was traded for Rodney McCray and Jim Petersen. This was a revamped team that was sure to be on the rise.
By February the team was foundering. Derek Smith was waived outright, LaSalle Thompson and Wittman were traded for Wayman Tisdale, and Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney were dealt for Danny Ainge and Brad Lohaus. Final record: 27-55.
1989: OK, losing Conner Henry wasn't bad enough, now we lost Lohaus to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the expansion draft. How is a rebuilding franchise supposed to survive such a pillaging? Thankfully, we owned the #1 pick in the draft, a pick that would surely turn the tide for the Kings and cement the team's path for the next several years. Well, half of that turned out to be true. Pervis Ellison, come on down!
And then Ricky Berry committed suicide, and for the first time in Sacramento Kings history, real life permeated what was up to that point an innocent and fun world of escape. We just didn't understand this. We just didn't understand this at all.
The Kings would go on to trade Jim Petersen for Ralph Sampson, who wound up being a mentor to Ellison for all the wrong reasons. By the time January rolled around, Reynolds was replaced by Dick Motta, and in February the Kings traded Kenny Smith for Antoine Carr. Final record: 23-59.
One of the things that really rang true during this period was that because it was all so new, it was less about the performance of the team and more about the event of NBA basketball in Sacramento. The fan base was almost resigned to the fact that the Kings were not a playoff team, but it was still a fresh and unique experience to be able to drive less than a half hour or so and see Larry Bird or Julius Erving or Dominique Wilkins or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson or Hakeem Olajuwon or Michael Jordan. And on those rare occasions where we would beat those guys? The town would buzz for days and days. The feeling was collegiate in nature, and our Kings were the University of Chaminade. What a treat it would be when this team would finally put everything together, and it always seemed as though it was just around the next corner.
Next up: 1990-1994. Bye-bye Pervis, hello four 1st round picks, bye-bye Billy Owens, hello Mitch Richmond, bye-bye Joe Axelson, hello Geoff Petrie.