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Kings Fans Have Waited So Long For This

9:02 AM EDT on March 30, 2023

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 20: De'Aaron Fox #5 and Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings celebrate after a three-point basket in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Golden 1 Center on November 20, 2022 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The last time the Sacramento Kings made the playoffs, in the 2005-06 season, the Great Recession was still 18 months away. I was in the seventh grade (here is a picture of my basketball team). California had experienced only one of its four multi-year mega-droughts, and fire season was not a thing. Kurt Vonnegut, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Bill Walsh were all still alive. We were still four years away from the founding of Instagram, and two years away from the founding of WikiFeet. Elon Musk was not yet the CEO of Tesla Motors. The Nets still played in New Jersey, the Sonics still played in Seattle, and the Thrashers still played in Atlanta. Global sea levels were about seven centimeters lower. The Kings' next playoff game will be as far from their last playoff game as their last playoff game was from the Tiananmen Square massacre. Weed was not yet decriminalized in San Francisco. Every single member of that 2005-06 Kings team was out of the league by the time De'Aaron Fox was drafted in 2017, and only four NBA players who played that season are in the league today. The No. 1 song in America on the day the Kings were eliminated by the Spurs in May 2006 was Daniel Powter's song about having a bad day, "Bad Day"; the number one movie in the country was Mission: Impossible III, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was still alive and was still seven years away from being photographed at a Knicks game with his young son Cooper, who was still eight years away from starring in his first movie.

Sixteen empty seasons, one abortive relocation effort, and 13 coaches later, the longest postseason absence in major American sports is over. The Sacramento Kings are going back to the playoffs after clinching Wednesday night with a 40-point win in Portland.

In a league where more than half the teams advance to the playoffs, and now a full two-thirds will at least play an 83rd game, failing to do so for longer than a decade and a half is a world-historic feat of ineptitude, as bad as or worse than the Mariners' now-dead 21-year drought. And it's not like the Kings ever even came close; their high-water mark was 39 wins, nine games short of the eighth seed. They never finished better than 20th in defense during that stretch (they still won't this year). To be a fan of this team felt like being a member of a cargo cult.

So many things have to go wrong for an NBA team to be that bad for that long. You have to hire the wrong coach, over and over again. You have to pass on Steph Curry for Tyreke Evans, Kawhi Leonard for Jimmer Fredette, and, of course, Luka Doncic for Marvin Bagley. You have to trade two first-round picks to clear cap space to overpay Kosta Koufos, Rajon Rondo, and Marco Belinelli. You have to swap your doofy, underwater casino dipshit owners for a tech guy mostly interested in limp Warriors cosplay for a few years. You have to watch that owner embarrass himself by floating the idea of defending four-on-five, then allowing Grantland into his draft room when he drafts Nik Stauskas and boasts that he has "size like Klay, shoots like Steph!"

Rudy Gay termed Sacramento "basketball hell," though as someone who was there through it all, I will say it was much funnier than Gay makes it sound. How can you carry Kings fandom any other way than lightly when you've seen this team up close? When you attend what is supposed to be the team's last game in Sacramento, watch them lose to their most dreaded rivals in overtime, watch the longtime announcers shed tears on air, and then watch the team stay in town anyway, what are you supposed to do but laugh? What is former coach Keith Smart running onto the court to retrieve an errant tarp (that an advertiser paid to cover up their ad with in the Kings' decrepit old arena), if not whimsical? Isn't Jason Thompson's career one of the strangest bodies of work in recent NBA history?

Putting all that nasty history in the past feels incredible, and while it would still feel incredible if the Kings had shimmied their way into the playoffs through the side door and set themselves up for exactly two home playoff games before summarily getting the shit kicked out of them by a Western Conference juggernaut, they're in position to host a first-round series and maybe win 50 games. The Kings team responsible for ending the fallow years was widely expected to finish in the bottom third of their conference, as they were fresh off a trade that certain national NBA media members characterized as "malpractice" and had defied conventional wisdom at the NBA Draft by picking a 21-year-old super-sophomore over the most athletic player in the draft.

Instead, they'll probably ride the best offense in NBA history to the third seed. There are some significant stylistic differences between the 2022-23 squad and the early-aughts contenders, though it has been immensely satisfying that the drought-breaking team has turned out to be equally incendiary. Everyone in Sacramento would love it just as much if the team was winning 100-94 instead of 130-124, but this is more fun. Perhaps the lineage would be smudgier if any good basketball was played in the intervening years, yet Kings fans who fell in love with Chris Webber's slick passing and Peja Stojakovic's spectacular shotmaking can surely see the echos of that team in Domantas Sabonis's handoff game and De'Aaron Fox's fourth-quarter heroics, because what else was there to grab hold of?

If Sacramento were a normal city and the Kings fanbase were a normal group of basketball fans, perhaps some critical part of their collective spirit would have been broken during the bad times. Not even close. Perhaps it's because they're the only team in town, perhaps it's because they glimpsed the oblivion of relocation, or maybe it's a simple matter of the Central Valley Inferiority Complex, but Kings fans have consistently, irrationally shown up for their team during the worst of times, which is part of what's made this year so special. You never want to go 16 years between winning seasons, though the high of winning after such a long time of losing the tolerance for it is profound. Yesterday's "BEAT LA" is today's "LIGHT THE BEAM." The nouns are different; the feral intensity is the same.

Do you understand how loud it is going to be in the building when Game 1 tips off? Imagine a thousand fireworks going off at once, or every rooster in the world crowing at the same time, or a two-hour-long powerviolence song. The team has added more standing-room only sections so the games have become even more raucous, though something that's become hilariously clear over the past few weeks, as the team's horizons have expanded dramatically, is that nobody really knows how to act. As the games have gotten more meaningful, I've sensed a vibe of giddy inexperience and light anxiety.

After the Kings beat the Suns last week, Kevin Huerter stepped into his post-game press conference and mentioned that in the team's grim first half, "the energy just kind of felt weird." When the Kings hosted the Wolves on Monday and, again, lurched through an uncharacteristically anxious half, the building was weirdly muffled. A crowd can only do so much when the game on the floor isn't going their way, and in both cases, it was apparent that Kings fans are so ready to ritually excise 16 years if pain through sheer force of screaming that there's an edge of nervousness.

The Kings didn't get to clinch at home; they clinched Wednesday by destroying the fake Blazers. The win in Portland is technically the most meaningful of the season, though it pales next to the double-overtime, 351-point bacchanalia against the Clippers that cemented the Kings as legitimate, and the aforementioned Suns win that sealed the three seed. I was in the arena for the latter, and all that squirming and sighing during the dry first half went away early in the third quarter when the team rallied. As the Kings showed their might, running and attacking the glass and keeping the ball moving like an electron, the crowd rose to a frenzy. Huerter, coach Mike Brown, and Harrison Barnes all paid tribute after the game. Huerter mentioned that the team has learned to use the crowd as a weapon, and all that channeled energy helped propel him and his teammates during a 45-26 third quarter. This is a playoff crowd.

In two weeks, it is going to be significantly louder in the arena. At the Suns game, I talked to several fans who are hoping for a chance to be in the building for the first playoff game, which figures to be prohibitively expensive. After all, there have been four U.S. presidents since 2006, and zero playoff games in Sacramento. All of the bad times have to be cleansed somehow, and I can't think of a better way than tossing them all directly into the Beam. No matter how it ends, this is how it started.

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