Hope is the fickle, enigmatic companion of Kings fans: a coterie of jilted lovers, a mishmash of psychotic devotees, a hard-nosed tribe whose greatest era came and passed 17 years ago. We laugh in the face of victory, scorn those who succeed, and smirk at franchises who go through minor hiccups. We are the frontline veterans snickering at the wide-eyed fresh meat just in from boot camp. Your organization made a bad hire? We’ve made a dozen. A busted draft pick? That’s the norm here in Sactown. You’ve missed the playoffs for a half-decade? We’ve joined that club twice over and then some. We are the grizzled warriors of misery. There’s no such thing as a bandwagon Kings fan.
Each year, we tell ourselves not to get too excited. It’s just going to be another 82 game slog through the regular season before the excitement of the NBA Draft rolls around. Don’t get your hopes up, kid. Yet, despite that determined spirit of unbelief, a microscopic bit of faith slinks around the carefully constructed walls of snark and disappointment built up over the past decade-plus. A warm glow of “what if” sneaks into our hearts for the first five or ten or fifteen games. We dream of the playoffs, of competent management, of likeable star players, of quality draft picks. But all too soon, the glimmer of hope flickers out, never to be reignited during that particular season. A bad game, a bad decision, a bad hiring, a bad firing, a bad trade – something crushes that all too delicate feeling. The bitterness rushes back, a kick of blazing frustration caffeinates our annoyance. Things get back to normal.
The game of “what if” transforms from one of positivity and possibility to one of explanation and accusation. What if Kevin Martin and Tyreke Evans had been able to work together? What if Evans and DeMarcus Cousins had paired well? What if Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas and Boogie had been granted more than half of a season together? What if Mike Malone hadn’t been sacrificed on the altar of organizational politics? These questions permeate our minds and supply endless hours of debate during the doldrums of February and March and April. They distract from the pain of watching contenders pull ahead in the standings, leaving our team in the dust. The Kings suck yet again. We are home. We are comfortable.
The unexpected start to the 2019 season has presented a difficult dilemma for our masochistic nature. We’re no longer confronted with the same blame game of “what if”, the one we can master with our eyes closed. No, this game is different. And different is uncomfortable. What if the Kings are good? Not “good for the Kings” with an ironic sneer punctuating the question. Not good for a rebuilding team. What if the Kings are just…good?
That question has drifted aimlessly through our minds this year, an impossibly thin strand of hope almost too delicate to speak aloud. We watch the games and cheer on the wins while a mild amount of shock echoes through the fan base after each victory. We track the team’s journey up through different sites’ power rankings. We self-consciously peek around the corner, surreptitiously checking the playoff standings on a daily basis – akin to a child sneaking back into the living room after bedtime to catch a glimpse of her parents’ R-rated movie. We know it’s foolish. We know we shouldn’t be doing this. We certainly don’t want to get caught doing something so embarrassing, but we simply can’t resist. Hope is building.
But, the past dozen years of failures beckon to us. The wonder of the 2014-2015 start, 9-5 to be exact, and the horror after the Malone firing, leading to a 20-48 finish along with two additional coaches, reverberates through our memory. We’ve been here before. We fell in love with another impressive beginning to a season. We were crushed. Lucy is just going to pull the football out from under us again. It’s been 998 games since our last postseason appearance and it may very well be 998 more. We hedge. We question the validity and sustainability of the wins. We wait for the house of cards to collapse before us. Someone has to get fired. There’s going to be a huge blunder. The players will regress. Opposing teams will figure this out. It’s a fluke. It’s gotta be a fluke. It’s going to fall apart.
Crashing against those waves of habitual pessimism is the evidence from games like Monday night’s victory over the San Antonio Spurs, a team featuring two All-Stars and the best coach in the NBA. The Kings had fallen to the Spurs 14 times in a row, but Sacramento’s young squad simply outplayed the historically steady team for 48 minutes. Greg Popovich even had nice things to say about the organization. It’s a different look for our beloved franchise. We wildly celebrate the victories over the Spurs and the Thunder and the Grizzlies while also glancing around the room waiting for the other shoe to drop. Have we boarded an elevator, working our way toward the top of the Western Conference, or is this just another gnarled twist of the roller coaster that is Kings fandom, building up and up and up until we plunge violently downward? Our collective stomachs drop at the thought.
And now a choice sits before us. On one side is the world we’ve seemingly always known. The universe of disappointment and despair fits as cozily as a well-worn sweater. We are world-renowned experts in dealing with devastation. That doesn’t frighten us. The other path, however, presents an intimidating world of positivity. Playoff hopes in place of lottery odds. Smiles in place of scowls. Competence in place of foolishness. It’s a fantasy land that seems as ridiculous as a circus clown at a wedding. Most choose to straddle the fence in the interim, waiting for the collapse or the triumph.
Some will elect to hang back and wrap themselves up in their blanket of familiar skepticism, a perfectly justifiable reaction to current events. 10 years of disaster is not easily shrugged off. It’s certainly possible, and maybe even likely, that everything we see building toward a significant something will collapse before our very eyes. It’s happened time and again to this manic group of supporters. Doing everything within reason to avoid the whiplash of a 13th year of soul-trampling shenanigans isn’t the attitude of a crazy person. It may very well be the sanest course of action.
But there’s something to be said for hopping on this ride of hope and white-knuckling it down the road of possibilities until it takes off or bucks us back into the muck of despair. We’ve had a dozen years of misery. We’ve served our penance and then some. We may as well have some fun while it’s there to be had. Sure, the Grinch may come steal Christmas for the hundredth time, but let’s enjoy the decorations while they’re up and shining.
Sports are meant to be fun. Not fun in the ironic sense of constant disappointment and cynical predictions and waiting to see what will go wrong next, but fun in the vein of gathering the family around the TV or hanging with friends at the bar to cheer on your hometown team. The enjoyment stemming from rooting for something meaningful, a postseason appearance and a chance at the trophy: a long lost art in the world of Kings fandom. We have that all too rare opportunity right now. We can track our positioning in the standings, rather than our placement in the draft. We can celebrate the wins, rather than worrying about what they’ll cost us come lottery selection time. We can enjoy the season for what it is, rather than what it’s not.
Do we know if this impressive start will continue? No. Should we expect to eventually be crushed? Probably. Have we been tricked before? Absolutely. Dare we believe? I say, why the hell not?