SACRAMENTO, Calif. — “Here We Stay” goes the chant of Kings fans hoping the team remains in Sacramento.
“There They Go,” though, more accurately describes the history of the franchise that might soon call Seattle home.
No NBA team has moved more often than the Kings, who have played in three time zones – from Rochester, N.Y., to Cincinnati to Kansas City and Omaha and then to Sacramento – during a history that dates to the 1920s.
“It’s certainly pretty remarkable,” said Neil deMause of the website FieldofSchemes, which tracks off-field sports happenings. “Every time they have moved it’s been to another marginal market. It’s nothing particular about the franchise, really. It’s just that they have never landed the big brass ring of ending up in a big market that they wouldn’t want to leave.”
So maybe it makes some bizarre sense that one of basketball’s most star-crossed and vagabond franchises suddenly finds itself at the center of a tug-of-war between Sacramento and Seattle. It’s a battle that figures to result in the highest price tag ever paid for an NBA team.
High above the court at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena hang jerseys honoring nine players in the history of the franchise, at least one from each of its four homes (or five, if you count the three years they were the Kansas City-Omaha Kings).
Should the Seattle group led by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer succeed in buying the team and moving it to KeyArena beginning next season, no one really knows what will happen to that history.
Hansen has said the team would be re-christened the Sonics, apparently picking up where the Sonics left off in 2008 when they moved to Oklahoma City.
“It’s a franchise with an interesting history,” said former Sonics announcer Kevin Calabro, who got his NBA start calling one season of games for the Kings in Kansas City in 1983-84.
A history that includes the fact the team almost died before the NBA was born.
In the freewheeling early years of pro basketball, the Rochester Seagrams – sponsored by a local distillery – began play in the 1920s. In 1943, the team changed its name to the Pros. After two years the team changed its name again, to the Royals, and joined the National Basketball League, a collection of teams in the Midwest and East that had begun play in 1937.
The post-World War II sports boom led to the formation of the Basketball Association of America in 1946, which led to the inevitable infighting between leagues. Two years later, a few NBL teams in larger markets were asked to join the BAA – Rochester, deemed not big enough, was initially left out, momentarily destined to an uncertain fate.
But Rochester’s owners, according to an early history of the NBA, titled “24 Seconds to Shoot” by Leonard Koppett, “begged and pleaded” to be included. Their trump card was the fact they were one of the best teams, led by guard Bob Davies – one of the players whose jersey flies high at Sleep Train Arena.
The Royals were eventually invited into the league for the 1948-49 season, along with three other NBL teams. The next year, the remaining NBL teams were added by the BAA and the league began play in the 1949-50 season as the National Basketball Association. Rochester won the league title in 1951, still the only NBA championship in franchise history.
Shortly, though, the small market and accompanying small arena took its toll, forcing the Royals to make a fateful personnel decision, the kind of sad twist of fate that would become all-too-common in their history.
Holding the first pick in the 1956 draft, the team decided not to draft Bill Russell, deciding it couldn’t afford the $25,000 salary he was asking. The Royals, instead, drafted Sihugo Green, a 6-foot-2 swingman. While Russell went on to lead the Boston Celtics to 11 titles in 13 years, Green would never average more than 12.7 points in a nine-year career that defined the term “journeyman.”
A year after drafting Green, the Royals left for Cincinnati.
There, the team briefly threatened as one of the best in the league thanks largely to superstar guard Oscar Robertson, still the only player to average a triple-double for a season, in 1961-62 (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists).
But the Royals could never get past the Celtics dynasty. They endured one of the great tragedies in NBA history when promising young center Maurice Stokes contracted encephalitis, which resulted in paralysis. The tragedy overshadows the tantalizing what-might-have-been pairing of Stokes and Robertson.
In 1971, with the team losing and Robertson gone to Milwaukee, a group of 10 Kansas City businessmen bought the team for $5 million – the first of three times the team would be purchased by a group that bought it to move it.
Off to Kansas City in 1972, the team’s nickname was changed to Kings to avoid confusion with the then-infant Royals baseball team. For its first three seasons, the team was known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, playing some games in Omaha in an attempt to become a regional brand.
The team, though, struggled to find a foothold despite the presence of star Nate “Tiny” Archibald, another player whose jersey hangs in Sleep Train Arena.
In 1983, 27-year-old Calabro signed a one-year contract to join the Kings’ broadcast team – his first major-league play-by-play job. Unbeknown to Calabro, the reason the team didn’t want to sign any long-term deals is that it was already en route to being sold to a group of businessmen from Sacramento for $10.5 million.
The sale was announced later that season, though Calabro says he doesn’[t remember any real fan backlash. Calabro’s contract was not renewed the following season, and he returned to his native Indianapolis while the Kings played one last season in Kansas City.
The Sacramento-based owners initially said they intended to keep the team in Kansas City. But as did the Kansas City owners who bought the team in Cincinnati, they immediately began plotting a move. The team moved to Sacramento after the 1984-85 season.
Calabro, noting that Kansas City’s Kemper Arena was ahead of its time in featuring luxury suites and other amenities, says he still thinks the team could have succeeded in Kansas City.
“It was just an issue of out-of-town buyers sweeping in and wanting to move it to their own hometown,” he said.
There was apparently little protest, though, when the Kings ultimately moved to Sacramento.
“Frankly, I thought I would catch a lot of flak on it because they left very abruptly,” then Kansas City mayor Dick Berkley once told The Sacramento Press. “I got four or five phone calls. I thought I would get hundreds.”
Finding a home
While their departure from Kansas City might have been little noticed, the Kings were an immediate hit in Sacramento.
“It was an area that was starved for professional sports,” said Gary Gerould, who has been part of the team’s broadcast crew for its 28 years in Sacramento. “I’m not sure if anybody can fully appreciate how phenomenal that support was.”
That support continued through losing seasons – the Kings have won just five playoff series in their time in Sacramento, advancing as far as the conference finals just once (2002).
The original Sacramento ownership group sold the team in 1992 to a Los Angeles-based group led by Jim Thomas. A few years later, the new owners began campaigning for a new arena and also asked for – and received – a $77 million loan from the city to help pay its bills (that loan remains to be paid off). In 1998, the Maloof family bought a share of the team. The family patriarch, George Maloof Sr., had owned the Houston Rockets at the time of his death in 1980. The family sold the Rockets shortly after George Maloof Sr.’s death, immediately regretted that decision and searched for years trying to find another team.
In 1999, the Maloofs gained controlling interest of the Kings. Initially, they were greeted as saviors, pledging to turn the team into big winners.
It almost happened in 2002 when a Kings team led by Chris Webber and Vlade Divac needed only to beat the Lakers in a home Game 6 to get to the NBA Finals. But in one of the more controversial games in NBA history, the Lakers used a wide free-throw advantage (shooting 18 more in the fourth quarter) to hold off the Kings. Referee Tim Donaghy, who in 2007 pleaded guilty to betting on NBA games, alleged that the game was fixed, with two officials conspiring to force Game 7.
Some in Sacramento wonder still how the course of the franchise might have changed had the Kings won the title that year.
“That certainly would have made it easier in attempts to get a new arena funded,” Gerould said.
Back on the brink
A turning point came in 2006 when the Maloofs – whose family fortune had begun to dwindle – killed an arena proposal, in part over disagreements over parking revenue. The general feeling in Sacramento is that since then, the Maloofs have been looking for a way out of town. The feeling is also that since then, the Maloofs have done only the bare minimum with the roster, not bothering to spend money on player moves to improve the team.
“They have run the team into the ground,” said fan Joe Barankin, who attended a game Wednesday wearing a T-shirt that read “Charter Member Loud And Proud” from the team’s first home game in Sacramento in 1985.
The Maloofs tried to take the Kings to Anaheim in 2011, and many in town said goodbye to the team when it played its final home game that season.
But the NBA didn’t approve the move, in large part due to the protests of the Lakers, who didn’t want the Kings infringing on their territory. An impassioned plea by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson – a 12-year NBA veteran – to give the city more time also helped.
Throughout, the Maloofs publicly insisted the team was not for sale. Many in Sacramento feel other local owners could have been found long ago.
Now, with the Maloofs having apparently decided their only option is to sell, and having reached an agreement with the Seattle group, the Sacramento Kings are back on the brink.
The great hope is Johnson, who was easily re-elected last June and has made it a priority to keep the Kings in Sacramento.
“There’s not much else going on in Sacramento,” said longtime Kings fan Steve Greene. “The Kings are the biggest attraction around. If this was to fold, it’s like that would take a big chunk of Sacramento away from us.”
|1||1932-33||Rochester Seagrams||District Basketball Association|
|3||1933-36||Rochester Seagrams||District Basketball League|
|1||1942-43||Rochester Eber Seagrams||Independent|
|3||1945-48||Rochester Royals||National Basketball League|
|1||1948-49||Rochester Royals||Basketball Association America|
|8||1949-57||Rochester Royals||National Basketball Association|
|15||1957-72||Cincinnati Royals||National Basketball Association|
|3||1972-75||Kansas City-Omaha Kings||National Basketball Association|
|10||1975-85||Kansas City Kings||National Basketball Association|
|28||1985-||Sacramento Kings||National Basketball Association|