Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
Every Sacramento Kings season exists along a narrow spectrum that spans the gap between “Remarkably Bleak” and “Replacement-Level Bleak.” One of the worst stretches (again, relatively) happened to be the one I paid the most attention to and attended the most games within, between 2009 and 2011, because I was finishing up high school and thus had a stat tree perfectly tuned-up for maximum Sacramento Kings attending: I had a car, not much else to do in Sacramento, and a budget that could handle the Maloof brothers’ new $10 tickets. A 17-win season in ’08-’09 netted the Kings the best lottery odds, and a chance at Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet, or Ricky Rubio, all of whom would assuredly become stars and lead the Kings back to playoff glory. I was ready to get in on the ground floor of a Kings renaissance, the first true rebuild since the glory days at the turn of the Millennium. I told myself I was buying low. I’d never been a more dedicated fan.
This obviously did not end well. The Kings would win 49 combined games over the next two seasons, pass on Steph Curry, and debase themselves to make the biggest possible deal about Tyreke Evans accruing a historically novel yet materially meaningless 20-5-5 average, in what would turn out to be an unfortunate career year rather than a foundation for stardom. It’s embarrassing, in retrospect, how big of a deal this all felt to me at the time, but when you are young, you don’t have the tools to put anything in context or resolve the inherent contradictions of being a fan of a sadsack team. You just blindly believe until they either win or you reach a healthier place with it, as I did, thanks to an all-time moment of hubris from DeMarcus Cousins.
My robust roster of Kyles and I probably attended 25 Kings games during the ’09-’10 season, fully believing we were bearing witness to the NBA’s next megastar. Only Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Oscar Robertson had hit that 20-5-5 mark! Surely Evans would join their company! Tyreke could get to the rim whenever he wanted! We did not see a hilariously misshapen group of outcasts getting rolled every night as the team’s sweaty owners plotted to leave town, but the beginnings of something great. When Cousins was drafted the following summer, it felt like the Kings had added their second superstar.
Here is where we get to the fateful night of Dec. 21, 2010. I was back home after my first semester of college in the Bay Area, a semester spent yawping about the Kings, arguing with anyone who’d listen that Evans was better than Steph Curry, and going to as many Warriors games as I could (tickets were cheap then). It barely feels true now, but up until, say, 2013, the Warriors were inarguably a far more embarrassing franchise than the Kings. They’d won exactly one playoff series in the previous 20 years, where at least the Kings’ early-aughts glory days went somewhere. I attended to the first regular-season meeting of the two teams fully expecting to be have my fandom justified. Instead, this happened.
Here we have Cousins (who had made just two buckets all night) mocking a missed Reggie Williams free throw while the Kings were in what looked to the entire arena like an unassailable position. Williams made his next free throw, and even then, the Kings looked safe. Barring something going horribly wrong, you do not tend to lose games when you’re up four with under 20 seconds left. But several somethings went horribly wrong: The Kings surrendered an offensive rebound, Carl Landry fouled Dorell Wright on a three-pointer, Beno Udrih kept the Kings up four with a handful of free throws interrupted by a Vladimir Radmanovic bucket, and the Kings were back up four with eight seconds left.
My friends and I weren’t nervous at this point. The arena still fully expected that the story of the night would be Udrih’s big game in a close win over our sad little rivals. Instead, Williams got to the line again, cashed the first, intentionally missed the second, and watched who else but Cousins fumble the rebound out of bounds. Then Radmanovic nailed a game-tying three to send the game to overtime. Naturally, Cousins spent the extra frame flailing around as the Warriors doubled up the Kings and won running away.
The fallout came swiftly for Cousins. He was benched by then-coach Paul Westphal, who spent his entire tenure waging an unsuccessful power struggle against his best player and said after the game, “There’s a line in this league when you think you can’t get any lower, it gets lower.” Of course, the loss itself was on Cousins (at least karmically), but Westphal’s huffy paternalism was just as off-putting, and it helped crystallize for me how broken the whole organization was. While Cousins quickly became an all-star, the Maloof brothers kept producing the conditions for further embarrassment, like that time when a sponsor decided they’d rather cover up their in-arena ads rather than have their name associated with the team as they tried (and eventually failed) to leave Sacramento, only for the trash bag the Kings used to cover the ad to fall to the court in the middle of the game, forcing coach Keith Smart to run out and get it as the fans chanted for a new arena.
I do not remember much else about this night. Maybe I drove, maybe my mom picked us up from the arena, which was then out in a big empty field, flanked by the shells of hotels and retail buildings that were abruptly abandoned when the economy melted down two years earlier. The only thing that stuck with me after I watched the Kings lose like this was a feeling of regret that I’d ever let myself get so psychotically invested in a team who was this rotten. I am still a fan, and I still am hopelessly attached to this godawful team, though it’s a different kind of godawful and I am a different kind of fan. It made sense that I’d get so into a team this bad when they were the only game in town and had a facade of real promise, though it was impossible to uphold the mask of pure dedication after watching DeMarcus Cousins call down his own destruction.
The odd thing is, this Cousins moment wasn’t anywhere near the top-five bleakest moments of the late-Maloof/early Ranadive eras. Jimmer Fredette was picked between Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson, and five spots ahead of Kawhi Leonard. George Karl got to use the team to sputter across the line on the all-time wins list, with Rudy Gay greeting his arrival by telling him, “Welcome to basketball hell.” The Georgios Papagiannis pick really happened. Vivek Ranadive floated playing 4-on-5 basketball. It was all bad, but the Cousins choke came at just the right time for me. It allowed me detach myself from this poisonous team just enough to maintain my sanity.