SACRAMENTO — An usher with “Maloof Sports & Entertainment” sewed into the left chest of his striped light purple shirt fired up his two-way radio to summon another chair.
Press row in Sacramento was swollen Thursday night and extra seating was being jammed next to courtside tables to accommodate demand following Wednesday’s reports that the sale of the NBA’s Kings to Chris Hansen’s Seattle-based ownership group may be coming soon.
There were no such space concerns for fans. The struggling Kings are last in NBA attendance, dragging an average of just 13,177 per game into aptly named Sleep Train Arena.
Thursday was the first game for the Kings since the initial Yahoo Sports report that a sale of the team was near with a price tag around $500 million. The Kings now start down the rambling path of uncertainty that the Seattle SuperSonics wandered on their road to relocation to Oklahoma City following the 2008 season.
“I’ve shared with (the team) that we have control over two things,” Sacramento coach Keith Smart said. “Yesterday’s practice and today’s game preparation, and eventually the game. Basically what we try to communicate to them all the way through, we can control what we control.
“Play the game, try to get out and play as well as we possibly can. Let’s get back on the winning track. That’s been the focus and will continue to be that way. As you know, this thing and all the conversations continue to move. We’re going to hear this over and over again, we have to make sure our guys are focused and playing the game.”
Shortly after finishing that statement, Smart, who was an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors when relocation rumors hit those franchises, admitted a truth that pervades these clouded proceedings.
“It’s definitely going to be a distraction,” Smart said. “(Wednesday) was.”
Tacoma’s Isaiah Thomas was encircled by cameras in the Kings’ locker room, dealing with the distraction. His hometown as a young man and home as a professional are colliding.
Thomas said he was heartbroken when the Sonics left. He went to watch the Sonics with his dad, James, when he was a boy. He went to KeyArena during the Sonics’ final season with friends.
“It just wasn’t the same,” Thomas said.
Which is what many Kings fans are saying about the Kings.
Some point to Vlade Divac’s tip-out in the 2002 Western Conference Finals as the franchise’s turning point. The Kings were on the brink of beating the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 for a 3-1 series lead. But, Divac tipped the ball out to the 3-point line where L.A.’s Robert Horry was standing alone. Horry knocked down the buzzer-beating 3-pointer to cap a rally from 24 points down by the Lakers, who went on to win the series and sweep the New Jersey Nets in the Finals.
Everything for the Kings has been downhill since. Their last playoff appearance was 2006. Their highest win total since the end of the 2008 season is 25. The massive parking lots around the arena are empty and the owners, the Maloof family, are drawing the ire of fans.
Ryan Cramer, 41, has lived in Sacramento for 19 years. He’s been bartending in downtown Sacramento at River City Brewing Company for 10. The bar was packed when Horry smashed hearts throughout Sacramento. Now, he and his friends have sold their season tickets.
“When the owners don’t care, why should we?” Cramer said.
There were few signs in the arena during Thursday’s game between the Kings and Dallas Mavericks. A grass-roots organization Here We Stay has become the Sacramento equivalent of Save Our Sonics. It started an online petition to keep the Kings in Sacramento and have an expansion team sent to Seattle. Typically, such efforts have little influence on what is often a heavy-handed process solely reliant on finances.
Smart said he has the Maloofs “on speed dial.” Several reporters do, too, but the once very visible owners aren’t returning calls from the press or hamming it up courtside any longer.
“I have talked to them,” Smart said. “I’m not going to talk to you about what I’ve talked to them about, right here in this setting. But, I’ve talked to them. They said just focus on your team. Coach your team. We like what you’re doing. Just keep doing that job.”
This is just the beginning of what is sure to be an arduous process. Relocation paperwork has to be filed to the NBA by March 1. In one of the oddest elements of all this, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett is the chairman of the league’s relocation committee.
“We’ll be able to continue this song and dance tomorrow,” Smart said.
And well beyond that. The move of the Sonics proved this process is not simple or direct. It’s only guaranteed to produce one thing for both fan bases: Hope.