I am not proud to admit this, but when I was writing pro bono for my first newspaper, the prestigious American River College “Current” on the outskirts of Sacramento, I committed a major no-no in sports journalism:
I asked a player for his autograph. (Okay, I’m lying. I asked 12 players.)
Each of the Boston Celtics signed his name on the folded newspaper clipping I had covertly pulled from my pants pocket after the real reporters had left the night of Feb. 11, 1986, inside the visitor’s locker room at the old Arco Arena.
After the first 11 had signed an article about Larry Bird, written by then-Washington Post writer Anthony Cotton — Bird; Bill Walton, legs stretched out like longboat canoes in front of a television playing a VCR tape of an NBA game; Robert Parish; Kevin McHale — I asked Dennis Johnson if he could sign his name smaller to conserve space.
“Hell no,” D.J. said as he stood in the doorway. “Give me that damn thing; I’m signin’ right on the Birdman’s head.”
And so he did.
It was the last and only time I had used a press credential to essentially be a fan. But then, I was attending my first NBA game.
It was the maiden season of the Sacramento Kings, who, barring a last-minute reprieve, on Thursday night likely played their last game in the Northern California city they gave a genuine, pro-sports identity to 26 years ago.
How maudlin or emotional can you get over a franchise that will now have moved four times since they were christened the Rochester Royals? Clearly the Kings had neither the history nor pedigree of the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Cleveland Browns, and their current owners, the Maloof family, certainly aren’t Peter O’Malley or Art Modell.
But that minimizes the nostalgic pain for people such as Jerry Reynolds, the Kings’ former coach, team official and broadcaster. Having been there for the entire run, Reynolds wept on the air with his partner, Grant Napear, as fans chanted behind them on Thursday night.
Arco Arena (which I refuse to call Power Balance Pavilion) may turn out to be their Ebbetts Field.
Mine, too. The old, 10,000-plus, seat facility was literally cobbled together before the 1985-86 NBA season began. The same goes for the now-outdated, 17,317-seat arena that opened in 1988, both of them literally rising from a cow pasture.
Between schlepping to high school games in the hinterlands, I first covered the exhilarating title fights of Tony “The Tiger” Lopez there, where blood splattered my notebook during a prelim; Jason Kidd winning a high school state title; and the NBA during its 1980s renaissance.
Oh, there was more losing than winning, absurd tales of their woe. The time No. 1 pick Pervis Ellison was made to walk to practice a half-mile from the arena after an assistant coach refused to give him a ride after Pervis’s own car broke down. Danny Ainge once heard shotguns popping outside the arena, in the middle of many weeds, after the team acquired him. Ducking for cover, Ainge heard someone yell, “Duck season.’’
Wrenching tragedies, too, including the suicide of rookie Ricky Berry and the late-night, near-death automobile crash of Bobby Hurley.
But there was also the gradual climb to prominence, and then the absolutely enrapturing feeling that a former outpost might win the NBA championship, which the Lakers yanked from their grasp in an heirloom Western Conference finals series in 2002. (Whoever won Game 7 was going to handily beat the Nets, who indeed were swept by the Lakers, in the NBA Finals.)
When the Kings were good — really good, candy on the eyes from about 1998 to 2004 — there was no more artistic, electrifying basketball being played in the NBA.
They had shooters and slashers, posers and passers — oh, they had passers; Jason Williams, his pasty complexion belying his improvisational playground game; Chris Webber, zinging behind-the-back darts toward the fingertips of teammates under the rim, the best hands of any big man in the game at the time; Vlade Divac, the Serbian center who along with Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu, gave them a Euro bent. Blending with American-born black superstars, the Kings became the global-obsessed NBA’s team of the future. When Mike Bibby was added to the mix in 2001, they had the ingredients to hoist a banner in a small NBA market once referred to by a former player as a “damn cow town.”
Of course, it ends the way it always does now in pro sports: frustrated owners want cash-strapped city to pony up for a new arena so they can turn a profit again. They grow tired of hearing “civic pride” as a reason to not sell or move. And, after the bond measures don’t pass and the financing can’t be found, they’re gone, just like that.
The end still does nothing to dampen the memory of a college kid who still wanted to be close to the game after he knew he couldn’t play it for a living. (Real question in 1985 I posed to rookie center Joe Kleine: “I think you really hustle a lot and battle for rebounds. What do you think?”)
My highlight was walking up to Bird after practice at Arco Arena in November 1991 and asking him to lunch in what would be his last season. To my astonishment, he said, “Sure. Meet me at the hotel in the lobby after practice tomorrow.” He gave me a 45-minute compelling interview, and I never had the guts to tell him I was the yahoo who posed as a reporter to get the Celtics’ autographs years earlier.
The games feel so ephemeral as an adult, no? Fleeting. Teams. Players. Franchises.
They will roll up the Kings soon and take them to Anaheim, Calif., like they rolled up the Sonics in Seattle and put them in Oklahoma or rolled up the Grizzlies and shipped them from Vancouver, B.C., to Memphis.
Someone else had more money. And money matters more than memories to the people who bring the circus and all its imagination and possibility to town.
We are left with yellowed newspaper clippings signed by the athletic heroes of our youth, collecting dust in our attics.