SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Two thousand two hundred forty-eight.
Two thousand two hundred forty-eight previous regular season and playoff games in Sacramento Kings history, 1,161 at the original Arco Arena barn followed by Arco II/Power Balance Pavilion/Sleep Train Arena, and never has there been anything like the one played Wednesday night. No. 2,249.
It was another game, except that it wasn’t. It was the opener of the season that wasn’t supposed to be, with 17,317 customers in the building representing the hundreds of thousands from the region who were not. This was a celebration of beating Seattle and beating the odds much more than beating the Nuggets 90-88 to start campaign No. 29 in California’s capital city.
The greatest comeback in NBA history complete by overcoming the strong bid to buy the Kings and move them to Washington state, a passionate fan base danced on the unused grave a lot of others built for them. It had screamed its redemption before, when the Board of Governors denied the Seattle bid on May 15 and again when the unpopular Maloof family sold the team to a group headed by Vivek Ranadive, but that was different. That was the offseason. Wednesday night was the tangible: their team back on the court.
Jerry Reynolds, with the franchise ever since the move from Kansas City as a coach, executive and, now, television analyst, spoke for the masses when when he said, “It’s a new beginning. It really is. I really equate it to the first home game in the history of the Sacramento Kings. The excitement and the optimism looking forward and all that, and I think that’s exactly where we are 28 years later. New owners, new front office, new coaching staff, a change in players. And more importantly, it’s a new enthusiasm for our fans. I go to the grocery store and people want to the talk basketball with me, and it’s different. It goes back to, ‘Wow, we’ve got our team. It’s our team.’ ”
It was a basketball game, and so much more.
“Oh, yeah,” Reynolds said. “No question. It’ll be nice to get to where it is basketball moments, but right now, it’s just way more than that.”
Minority owner Shaquille O’Neal showed up and, obviously delirious while caught up in the moment, started talking playoffs and even the No. 6 spot in the Western Confetence. (He also said of some former teammates who actually did make the postseason and then some: “There’s a lot of guys on that Lakers team that couldn’t play. Couldn’t play at all.”) Mitch Richmond, the former Kings All-Star who also owns a small portion, was there. So was advisor Chris Mullin, the ex-Warriors great among the many Golden State connections in the new-look Kings. John Doleva, the president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, came from Massachusetts. Mayor Kevin Johnson, the biggest local hero, the mayor who made Season 29 possible, was of course in attendance.
Commissioner David Stern was too. He walked the purple carpet set up for the occasion outside one of the entrances, high-fived some fans and shook hands with others. He generally got a hero’s welcome after many years of being wrongly cast as a villain in the raging Sacramento inferiority complex that the NBA was out to get the small market. It was never close to true – the reality is the Kings would have been gone long ago if Stern didn’t keep standing in the way.
Now that the NBA had backed the California capital, what may be his final trip to town before his retirement was as a hero. He got a loud ovation between the first and second quarters, as he stood at center court with Johnson on his left and Ranadive on the right and received the key to the city from Johnson. The mayor also declared Oct. 30 as David Stern Day, indicating it would be a permanent distinction and not simply this Oct. 30.
“I would say that we have a pretty appreciative group of fans here,” Stern said when asked about his new popularity. “For the NBA. I don’t take it all personally. The owners did the right thing. They had a vote to cast and they cast it in favor of Sacramento. They did it because of what the mayor and the new ownership promised and Senator (Darrell) Steinberg (a representative from Sacramento and president pro tempore of the state senate) promised and the city council promised. Every promise was kept that was made to the NBA and the NBA kept its promise that if these things happened we’ll keep the team here. It’s a grand bargain in the best possible sense.
“This is a very important opening night, and I go to important opening nights. Expansions. Rings. New buildings. And new beginnings. And this is a new beginning, just as I went to Memphis last year on opening night because they had new ownership. I try to get all of the places where there’s new ownership, but I also try to get to places that are worthy beyond that even of celebrating. This is a celebration of the Sacramento fans and what they’ve meant to the league and to this franchise.”
The game was broadcast live in India, Ranadive’s birthplace. The Kings dancers did a routine to Indian music and in native dress. Johnson hugged Stern with a stronger hit than KJ put on Magic Johnson when they rumbled in the Suns-Lakers days, jostling the commissioner. Ranadive presented Stern with a construction helmet to signify the planned new downtown arena. The crowd cheered everything, including, and deservedly, itself.
No, there definitely had never been anything like it. It was the night the city had been waiting for. It was Game 2,249 and Season 29 after all.