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31 Summers of Kings Fandom - Turning the Corner

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Peja
Pictured above: Not Joe Axelson and not John Wallace.

Welcome back to our ongoing series, in which we reminisce on 31 summers of Kings basketball. In parts one and two, we chronicled year after year after year of unmet expectations (thank goodness we don’t have to deal with that anymore!). In part three, we explore the dawning of a new era.

1995: Fresh of the most wins in Sacramento era history (39), the Kings looked to take the next step forward. The summer began with the drafting of Corliss Williamson. Williamson had been seen as a potential top four draft pick a year earlier, after leading Arkansas to a 31-3 record and the NCAA championship. He decided to stay in school and dropped to #13 and the Kings the following year. Williamson not only showed no remorse for his decision, he was outwardly ecstatic about coming to Sacramento, which was a first for the Sacramento fan base and a refreshing change for a city that was still smarting at least a little bit over being snubbed by Billy Owens. The Kings also drafted Tyus Edney in the second round, and took a late draft flyer on a Euro player by the name of Dejan Bodiroga. Bodiroga never opted for the NBA, but the pick itself was a harbinger of things to come.

A day after the draft, fan favorite Spud Webb was traded for Ty Corbin. In September, the Kings executed a trade that at the time was not discussed all that much, but in retrospect helped transform the 95-96 team, as Frank Brickowski was traded to Seattle for Sarunas Marciulionis and Byron Houston.

Going into the season, the basic mindset of the fans was that the Kings, who missed the playoffs by only a couple of games, had improved themselves. Expectations were probably a little too high for Williamson as a rookie, and the front office was nuts if they thought that Edney could replace Webb (which he really ultimately did). But this team was playoff-bound!

I know that this is a series about the summer dealings, but I want to expand on this season a bit. The Kings won their first five games of the season, and by January 6 they had amassed a record of 19-10. The city was absolutely on fire over your Sacramento Kings. The Kings then proceeded to lose 16 of their next 21, falling to 24-25. For the first time that I can recall, the fan base was genuinely surly, and that certainly did not get any better when the Kings traded Corbin (who they had given up Webb for) and Walt Williams (who was still a favorite among fans) for…wait for it…Billy Owens (GAH!!!) and Kevin Gamble (meh). Fans certainly felt no better about this when the Kings proceeded to lose eight out of nine after the trade, falling to 25-33.

But then it clicked. The core of Mitch Richmond, Edney, Olden Polynice, Brian Grant, Michael Smith, Marciulionis, and Owens, with contributions from Duane Causwell, Bobby Hurley and Gamble began to play impassioned basketball from baseline to baseline. It was visibly apparent that opponents took little joy in the physical play of the team, led by Richmond, Polynice, Grant, Smith and Marciulionis.

The team finished the season with a 14-10 run and 39-43 overall, the same record as the previous year but good enough to get into the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

About those playoffs – I won’t do a complete autopsy here, but I will always remember showing up early for that first home playoff game, and the fans rising to their feet and screaming and clapping, non-stop for a full fifteen minutes before the Kings even took the floor for warm-ups. The place was absolutely electric, and the loudest that I had ever heard (to that point) when the national broadcast went live. The Kings fell behind by eleven at the end of the 1st quarter and 13 at the half, but the crowd remained fully wound. I will never forget looking around the crowd with about four minutes left in the 3rd quarter – virtually everyone was exhausted. They had never rooted that hard and that loud and that long in their Kings fan lives. It was epic, and we were all sure that it was never going to end. Nothing but blue skies ahead!

1996: …and a couple of months later we were kind of surly again. It started when Sarunas Marciulionis was traded for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Mind you, Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson) was a gifted shooter/scorer. But he was just a few months removed from his controversial decision not to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner” (he ultimately worked out a compromise with the league where he would stand but not at attention), while “Rooney” had already become a fan favorite for his blue-collar play. The trade was not received well, at least not initially.

Less than two weeks later, and with the collective fan base imploring Geoff Petrie to draft the still available John Wallace, the Kings opted to draft Predrag Stojakovic. WTF? The Kings tried to make amends by drafting Jason Sasser in the 2nd round…and then promptly sold him to the Blazers the next day. We then learned that Stojakovic wouldn’t even be coming over for at least a couple of years (if ever – visions of Bodiroga). It was nonsensical – there were fans wishing that Joe Axelson would come back to run the team!

Tyus Edney was banged up for most of the year, but his minutes were really victimized by the experiment of a Richmond/Rauf back court, with Richmond being a pseudo-point guard. Brian Grant was hurt and missed most of the season. Duane Causwell and Lionel Simmons were all but useless at this point. The team was three games under .500 in early March, still in the playoff mix, when they dropped seven games in a row. Garry St. Jean was fired and replaced by Eddie Jordan. The Kings beat the Spurs that night in overtime, but then dropped their next six games. And that was pretty much that. Final record: 34-48, back to the lottery.

1997: The Kings made no real moves in the off season prior to the draft, so the first move of the summer was drafting Tariq Abdul-Wahad (Olivier St. Jean as he was known at San Jose St.). I remember being a Brevin Knight fan at that pick, but hey, at least Petrie drafted someone that would actually play for us this year, right? How’s that Stuckineurope guy doing, Geoff? The Kings also selected Anthony Johnson in the 2nd round (great, noooow you draft a point guard!).

This was followed by the signing of Terry DeHere, which may very well have represented the biggest free agent signing in Sacramento’s history up to that point. Then came deal of the century: Duane Causwell was sent out in exchange for Matt Fish. This was a deal that would assuredly shape the future of the organization.

5-14 to start the season, 3-26 to finish it. But hey, 19-17 in the middle! Outside of the feel-good story of hometown-boy-made-good Yogi Stewart, the season was a wasteland. It was becoming public knowledge that the ownership group headed by Gregg Lukenbill was out of money, and the future of the Kings in Sacramento became a topic of conversation.

1998: There were new names that had come into the organization during the past season. Joe and Gavin Maloof. Jim Thomas, and others. They talked of big things for the future, but after eleven playoff misses in the past dozen years, the fans were pretty much in “show me, don’t tell me” mode.

The “summer” started in May, when the Kings dealt Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe for Chris Webber. I remember thinking that this was the kind of high risk, high reward trade that the Kings had to make…and then Webber came out and said that he would never play in Sacramento. The circle was complete: we got Richmond for a guy that would not play in Sacramento (Billy Owens), and now we were trading him a guy that would not play in Sacramento.

The Kings once again flummoxed their fans by drafting Jason Williams out of Florida, a kid that was suspended by the University three times as a junior for marijuana use. I could not believe that we passed on Michael Dickerson for this hophead. Maybe this was a way to entice Webber to come here, I thought bitterly. We did snag Jerome James in the 2nd round, and he might just round into something, right? One week later the NBA locked out the players, and we would not see basketball until February of 1999. This was going to wind up being the longest of summers.

I recall laughing when the Kings fired Eddie Jordan in August of 1998, hiring Geoff Petrie crony Rick Adelman to take his place (the story has since been told that Jordan was fired against Petrie’s wishes).

If you were a season ticket holder, you were sent a VHS tape of Jason Williams highlights, which wrapped up with some grainy, third world footage of Stojakovic. You were to watch it over and over again until the lockout ended, dreaming of what someday might eventually become.

A collective bargaining agreement was finally reached in January, and the Kings’ front office got right to work, signing Isaac Fontaine…Peter Aluma…Kevin Aluma…then they waived Isaac Fontaine a day later…

And then the greatest free agent day in Kings history – before or since – happened. The Kings signed Vlade Divac, Jon Barry and Vernon Maxwell, adding Oliver Miller a couple of weeks later. Predrag (hey, call him Peja!) Stojakovic had comer over. Chris Webber had reconsidered (with some guidance from his dad) and was ready to wear a Kings uniform. Scott Pollard was added after the season was underway. The team took a while to gel, but finished the abbreviated season by winning ten of its last eleven games.

It’s fun to look back on the core rotation of that team. Williams, Divac and Webber led the team in minutes, but it is forgotten that Corliss Williamson and Tariq Abdul-Wahad came next. Peja, Maxwell, Lawrence Funderburke and Barry rounded out the core. Scot Pollard hardly played at all.

The 27-23 record earned the Kings a tie for the 6th best record in the West and playoff series with the Utah Jazz, who had tied the Spurs for the best record in the West that year at 37-13. The Kings could not capitalize on a 2-1 lead in that series, as John Stockton broke the hometown crowd’s hearts by burying a late jumper in game four. Vlade Divac’s baby hook rolled off the rim in regulation in game five, and the Kings fell in overtime.

Without a doubt, the most exhilarating “summer” that Kings fans had ever seen, followed by the most exhilarating season. As fans, we looked at each other in delight and disbelief. Finally!!!

1999: This was really weird. With no 1st round pick, the draft was a non-factor for the Kings for the first time since their arrival in Sacramento. But the summer wound up being very active, as the Kings traded Abdul-Wahad and the 2003 1st round pick (would become Kendrick Perkins) for Nick Anderson. The Kings would fill out the roster by signing Darrick Martin, Tony Delk, Bill Wennington and Ty Corbin while saying goodbye to Oliver Miller and Vernon Maxwell.

This was a different kind of summer for Kings fans. The core of the roster was more or less set. The moves that were made were really more tweaks to what was already seemingly a pretty good thing. The team played .540 ball the prior year with virtually no camp or time together prior to the season. The fans were cautiously optimistic that the team would take the next step...forward, for a change.

Final record: 44-38, 2-3 playoffs. The Kings took the Lakers to five games, but lost by 27 in the final. There was still work to be done if this team was ever going to see the 2nd round of the playoffs.

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Next up: 2000-2004. The Golden Age of Kings basketball, until it no longer was.