In downtown Sacramento last Thursday, an hour or so before the start of the NBA draft, there was enough of a loopy buzz in the air outside of Golden 1 Center to make me a little bit worried that the $2 beers sold inside could cause some legitimate chaos. It wasn’t that the Sacramento Kings fans lining up to watch the draft broadcast on the arena’s big screen didn’t deserve cheap, meaningful drink specials priced to celebrate the second overall pick. It was that—having endured the grueling set of conditions that had yielded such a plum draft position—they definitely deserved them too much.
Loving the Sacramento Kings has long required an advanced degree in misery management. The team hasn’t finished higher than 10th place in the Western Conference in a dozen seasons, and in that time, the Kings have had nine head coaches; one ugly and protracted relocation ordeal; a 2013 change in ownership from the Maloofs of Real Housewives infamy to techxecutive Vivek Ranadivé; an openly though rightly frustrated star in DeMarcus Cousins; and, most relevant on this particular evening at Golden 1 Center, a grab bag of bad drafts.
So thorough is the Kings’ organizational bad luck that it strikes in times both flush and lean, a true equal-opportunity destroyer. In the heady Lady Bird–era days of 2002, when the team’s roster included Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, and current Kings GM Vlade Divac, Sacramento finished with the best record in basketball and was rewarded with a soul-crushing seven-game Western Conference final against the Los Angeles Lakers that featured a Robert Horry rainbow 3 in Game 4 and an officiating fiasco in Game 6 that would, years later, be cited in court documents filed by match-fixing official Tim Donaghy. In 2009, when Sacramento finished with the league’s worst record, things somehow spiraled further when the team defied all odds at the draft lottery and fell to the fourth pick. The Kings couldn’t even lose correctly.
This spring, however, some good karma finally came back around. When the Kings closed out their season with three big wins in their last five games (two of which were by one point) it seemed like another Pyrrhic victory: The wins were good experience for a young Sacramento roster and an exciting showcase of the team’s potential, but also total sabotage of the Kings’ lottery odds. (A local radio host known as Carmichael Dave told me that when Sacramento beat the Rockets to finish the season, it was so annoying that “I had my breaking point.”) But things broke the team’s way for once, and the Kings wound up with the second pick in the draft despite having only an 18 percent chance of landing in the top three. Now, the combination of kid-on-Christmas morning anticipation and hard-earned fear had everyone at the Golden 1 Center all wound up: Sacramento has its highest draft pick in three decades; how would the team use it?
Seeing all the eager faces around the plaza and all the nervous, bouncing bodies, I imagined the same scene hours later, everyone three to 10 $2 beers deep. Would it be an ecstatic street carnival atmosphere, like the developers of the surrounding Downtown Commons area had surely envisioned, with drunken fans Googling the Slovenian national anthem and going on about how you can’t spell “Go Doncic” without DOCO? Would it be an eerie apocalyptic nightmare, with starved souls in De’Aaron Fox jerseys staggering around like zombies and muttering obscenities about Mo Bamba to no one in particular?
With the second pick in the 2018 NBA draft, and the ability to shape the nights and the futures of pretty much the entire league, only the Sacramento Kings front office knew the answer. And as I understood it, to many longtime, loyal Kings fans, this was pretty much the whole problem.
It’s always a trip to walk among another team’s diehards as they reckon with their complicated realities, and to see how their shared joys and calluses and disagreements and enthusiasms unite them in small, daily, and often inscrutable ways. Watching a game with them can be like learning the nuances of colloquialisms in a new language, or going on vacation with a friend’s family and admiring the way everyone cuts their sandwiches. It can’t always be explained why you are supposed to fly into a white-hot rage when Player A tosses the ball out of bounds yet laugh merrily and share GIFs about it when Player B does the same thing; it just has to be learned through the osmosis of constant exposure. And so I spent the night of the draft trying, and mostly failing, to properly calibrate myself to the people around me. (I had figured that, as a beleaguered Knicks fan, I would have plenty in common with everyone.) My first surprise came when Adam Silver announced Sacramento’s selection with the second overall pick—Duke’s Marvin Bagley III—and just about everyone in my vicinity seemed happy about it.
That this struck me as unexpected was my own fault. In the weeks leading up to the draft, I’d spent too much time checking out the vibrant and extremely online community of Kings fans who dwell on Twitter and in blog comment sections (and at The Ringer dot com). I’d listened to Carmichael Dave talking Luka Doncic with callers on KHTK. (The radio host, Dave Weiglein, is kind of the Joe Benigno of Sacramento radio; as a 14-year-old, he used to call into Grant Napear’s radio show as “Dave in Carmichael.”) I’d learned about “The Prophecy,” a Reddit thread in which a user with the screen name “KingsSelectDoncic2nd” laid out exactly how the elders had foretold that the Kings would earn the second pick and use it to take the Slovenian teen Doncic. (The account was ultimately deleted, presumably by some sort of ancient, mystical forces.)
I’d seen forensic analyses devoted to painstakingly tracking the appearance of the surf’s-up emoji around the internet as though it were a serial killer’s scrawled signature. And I’d been exposed to a sense of preemptive sorrow among pessimists who were certain, based on the Kings’ recent history of frustrating and even straight-up failed draft decisions, from Nik Stauskas to Thomas Robinson, that they’d botch this choice, too.
There was undoubtedly a performative element to all of this, but the fixation was also sincere: In Doncic, the Kings had an opportunity to draft not only a player deemed by many to be one of the most compelling in the draft, but also to draft an identity. With Divac as GM, Peja Stojakovic as assistant GM, and the breakout Serbian player Bogdan Bogdanovic in the on-court “guitarist with mystique” role, adding Doncic could turn the Kings into an interesting experiment in international theory: What if EuroLeague, but NBA?
Still, it was clear that my worries about an angry, alcohol-fueled Doncic hive disrupting the draft watch party were overblown, even after the Hawks and Mavericks immediately pulled off a trade that sent Doncic to Dallas. Maybe it was the restorative golden-hour sunlight flooding the airy, open halls of the Golden 1 Center keeping people chill. Maybe it was the fact the Kings had, in hindsight, been tipping the Bagley pick for days and it didn’t really come as that much of a surprise when it happened. Maybe it was part of the phenomenon identified by local Sacramento rapper Hobo Johnson in a YouTube short he released last week about being a Kings fan that was called, relatably, “We’re Not That Bad!” Maybe it was all that beer.
Maybe it was genuine, deserved excitement for Bagley himself, a player in the mold of a young Amar’e Stoudemire whom Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had compared favorably to Kyrie Irving, and who—unlike some other top prospects—had happily come to Sacramento for a workout during the predraft process. “We’re all super stoked about the kid,” said Carmichael Dave, who a few days earlier had been on the radio declaring his love for Luka. “We want him to kill it. I mean, seven out of 10 Kings fans wanted Doncic, but I would say eight out of 10 Kings fans are perfectly fine with Bagley, and hopeful.”
Daniel Fuchino, a superfan who attends Sacramento games elaborately dressed as royalty, told me on draft night he was “very happy with Bagley,” that “the whole hype” with Doncic had gotten overblown, and that the team’s recent energy would make free agents want to come. As we talked, we were interrupted several times by fans wanting a photo; everyone was in excellent spirits. Fuchino handed me a “The King” business card with a Salvador Dali quote on the back. “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings,” it said. Maybe this was all fine.
During the Kings’ post-draft press conference, Divac went through what seemed to be pretty standard post-draft platitudes deployed by all front-office types about the future of their team. (Other than Rob Pelinka, I guess!) Bagley was the best fit for the Kings, he explained, and it had been an easy choice. The team would have taken him even if it had the first overall pick, he said. When someone asked about the team’s logjam of big men, Divac pointed out that he was impressed by what he perceived to be Bagley’s ability to play three different positions.
When I asked Divac how long he felt was necessary to evaluate a draft, he answered that it varied, but was generally a couple of years. (Though not always: Georgios Papagiannis, the Kings’ lottery acquisition in 2016, was waived after roughly a year and a half with the team.) When I followed up by asking about how, or whether, Kings management took into consideration the state or direction of the NBA’s various “superteams” when planning its strategy, Divac smiled. “My team is a superteam,” he said. “Just young.” I enjoyed this response and figured Kings fans might, too, which was my second total misjudgment of the evening; it was already being mocked on Sacramento sports radio when I got in my car to drive home.
As is so often the case when a beloved player from franchise history moves into a front-office role, Divac’s promotion in 2015 was a nostalgic blessing but also a potential bridge-burning curse. It’s easy to hire a legend; what happens after can get messy. “It just seems like our front office marches to their own drummer,” Carmichael Dave told me. “And just, do you stay quiet and trust everything as the years go by?”
It’s not Divac’s fault that in 1989, the franchise opted for Pervis Ellison with the first overall pick over a group of players ranging from Shawn Kemp to Tim Hardaway (to Divac), or that Geoff Petrie ended up with Jimmer Fredette instead of Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard in 2011. But he also hasn’t yet earned much benefit of the doubt with his own draft and trade history. The unprotected 2019 first-round pick that will go to either Boston or Philadelphia a year from now is going to loom large with every loss next season. And it didn’t help matters when, last February, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a detailed tick-tock account of the trade deadline that contained, as an almost offhand remark, the observation that “the management structure in Sacramento can make deals dicey, because Divac seldom gets on the phone for the trade-building parts.”
In a soulful, insistent rant on the Kings blog Sactown Royalty, Tim Maxwell outlined the longtime frustrations he had with what he termed the “confident incompetence” of team management. To my untrained ear, Divac’s draft-night praise of Bagley as a player who can position-hop sounded like a promising enough evaluation of a guy just entering an increasingly innovative league. To Maxwell, it was another reminder of the team’s weakness at small forward, and another echo of Divac’s past inaccurate assessments about big men, from Skal Labissiere’s potential to Willie Cauley-Stein’s defense. “Frustration and anger bubbles to the surface when unneeded descriptions are thrown about the room,” Maxwell wrote. “Don’t call this core a super team; they won 27 games last year.”
Divac was not yet working for the Kings when Ranadivé sold his ownership share in the Golden State Warriors in May 2013 in order to buy the Kings from the Maloofs, following a lengthy, acrimonious, and passionate fight to keep the team from departing to Anaheim or Seattle. (The move had seemed so imminent at so many points that at the end of the Kings’ last game of the 2010-11 season, broadcaster Napear burst into tears as he bid farewell to “the love affair between this team and this city.”) Ranadivé’s early tenure had plenty of moments that turned into running jokes among Kings fans and NBA fans at large: in 2014, he clumsily referred to his team as “a Sousa marching band” that needed to “shift to a jazz band” and pitched an idea for a four-on-five cherry-picking defense that he’d cribbed from his daughter’s rec team. But earlier that year, he had also been one of the first NBA owners to speak out against Donald Sterling. And his ownership group’s purchase of the Kings was also a substantial investment in the city of Sacramento.
Sleep Train Arena (once ARCO Arena), where the Kings played from 1988 until the end of the 2016 season, is the kind of building that feels like it fell out of the sky and landed on a parking lot that had fallen out of the sky seconds earlier; last fall, when I absentmindedly asked my GPS to take me there for a morning shootaround, I arrived to an empty expanse of dead, swirling leaves that was almost too on the nose. Golden 1, meanwhile, is an anchor part of Sacramento’s ongoing growth, and part of a trend in which new stadiums and arenas are being constructed well inside city limits. Bars and restaurants and an obligatory place where you can play giant-sized Jenga and drink adult milkshakes while waiting for tipoff have sprung up too. A new 250-room hotel has opened with a rooftop pool, views of the arena, and a few residential condo units that include as an amenity an underground tunnel directly to Kings games.
The Kings-Hawks game in Sacramento is being played without a crowd after security shut down all entrances due to protestors for Stephon Clark gathered outside of the arena. pic.twitter.com/spTZTk9sgu
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) March 23, 2018
The new arena has not been without its own issues, both literally—the city of Sacramento issued over $200 million in bonds as part of the financing arrangement—and figuratively. Golden 1 represents the successful determination of locals who fought hard to keep the team from moving, but it’s also a however-permanent reminder that the leader of those locals, back in the early part of this decade, was former Sacramento mayor and NBA star Kevin Johnson. On a prominent wall inside Golden 1 is a big quote from Johnson: “Let’s do this, Sacramento.” But accounts a woman gave of Johnson sexually molesting her when she was a minor, during his years as a player with the Phoenix Suns, ultimately led him to leave office mostly in disgrace. A nearly-completed ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the NBA and Sacramento called Down in the Valley was scrapped. (A Change.org petition exists with the goal of getting ESPN to release it; so far it has failed to yield the required thousand signatures.) A ceremony to “honor” Johnson at a Kings game in 2016 was excruciating to watch.
But after just one year in operation, the Kings arena and the DOCO neighborhood that surrounds it have already become significant enough spaces in Sacramento that this spring, when citizens protested the shooting of unarmed 22-year-old Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard by police, they chose to congregate outside Golden 1. With entrances blocked, only a few thousand fans made it inside the building for home games against the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks. A pair of strange NBA games became powerful images of protest. Ranadivé’s supportive on-court statement following the Hawks game resonated with his players; “It was great,” Fox said. “Just to know that management has your back—and not just the owner, but the NBA.” It also showed how the team and the town could continue to forge a deep, thoughtful relationship.
“My family was always outspoken for social justice,” Ranadivé told The Sacramento Bee in March, “so when people protest peacefully, I recognize that we have a right to do that. [Golden 1] has become a communal gathering point, and I always say the Kings belong to Sacramento.” In a way, both Ranadivé’s tenure as Kings owner and his downtown development have followed a similar arc: a wayward collection of mismatched ideas that is slowly being rehabilitated into something representative of the city.
On the Saturday afternoon two days after the draft, a lonely robot puttered around the hot and now mostly-empty plaza outside Golden 1, looking like the lost lovechild of R2-D2 and a Roomba. As it approached me, I wondered if it was going to try to peddle season tickets. When it paused before me, gazing silently at me with its camera eyeball, the word “RECORDING” printed underneath, I waited for it to print out an expensive novelty souvenir photo of my face on Zach Randolph’s body, or something. Instead it turned and rolled away toward a group of teen boys, who took selfies with it. When I looked it up, I learned that the robot is a security system that incorporates facial recognition and is trained to notice things that appear out of the ordinary, though it didn’t appear to notice itself.
Inside the building, Bagley’s introductory press conference was about to begin. The newest face of the franchise posed for photos with Divac and Kings coach Dave Joerger, answered questions about his musical projects and how great it had been to be met at the airport and fêted by Sacramento fans, and said he’d already been to the gym twice to work out since the draft. (Joerger noted that when Bagley had come for his workout several weeks back, he hadn’t gone easy on him. “I did not do exactly a beauty-shop workout for Marvin,” he said.) I asked whether he’d seen any clips from his new general manager’s playing days. “Oh yeah,” Bagley said. “When I was younger, I used to watch basketball, all different types of basketball, and I remember the era that had Peja, Vlade, Mike Bibby, and those guys, I remember the playoff runs they made, and I definitely have flashbacks of those games.” Bagley would have been about 3 years old then, but the studied sentiment was a welcome touch.
The Kings are the type of franchise about whom “I think they’ll make important strides this year!” is a clichéd, if well-intended, annual refrain. But if you squint, maybe this time it can be true! Joerger was often criticized by Kings fans last season for his overreliance on veterans and for his chosen systems; Sacramento was not only the league’s lowest-scoring team, but also ran the NBA’s slowest pace. Not ideal for a cornerstone point guard whose most elite NBA attribute is his agility. As Fox pointed out to me, however, the team started to speed up late last season. “I really expect this year for us to have one of the fastest paces in the NBA,” he said. “As far as the athleticism we have, the youth we have, it’s only right that we play like that.” To hear Joerger tell it, last season he was consumed by trying to instill basics in his young squad, and this year he can deploy his players differently. This is, admittedly, the type of thing that sounds very different to a true jaded Kings fan than it does to me; they have heard this all before.
But hope springs eternal in the summertime. Fox had an understated rookie season, by his standards, averaging 11.6 points and 4.4 assists; by the time the next season begins, he hopes to be “an all-around better player” who can catch the eye of anyone who glossed over his first year. “I’m transforming my body and just really taking this game seriously,” he told me. Bogdanovic was a bright spot for Sacramento last year in his own delayed rookie season, averaging 11.8 points, while Buddy Hield was a top-10 NBA player in 3-point shooting percentage; both still have room left to grow. Harry Giles, once the most highly-touted recruit in the nation, remains something of a mystery figure. Even in college, because of injury, “people didn’t really get to see the real Harry Giles,” the former Duke assistant Jeff Capel said in a KHTK radio interview. Any upside he might still possess upon his return to the court would feel like house money.
Over the weekend, Kings broadcaster Napear called out ESPN’s Jay Bilas on Twitter for comments he had made about Fox having walked into a “dysfunctional locker room” last season. Napear, Carmichael Dave, and much of Kings Twitter took offense: They had no argument with the organization being described that way, but pointed out that the team’s culture seems to have noticeably improved since the Cousins days. “What kind of banana boat is this[?]” a Redditor asked when pictures circulated of Hield and Bogdanovic hanging out in Belgrade with Clint Capela this past weekend. When Bagley came to Sacramento for his workout in the middle of June, Fox flew into town specifically to meet up with Giles so the two could greet him. “He’s hungry and ready to go,” said Fox, who watched the draft in Los Angeles with his brother. “We just talked to him, and said playing together will be fun, and that we’re just trying to change this to a winning culture.”
Next week at Golden 1, Bagley will suit up for the Kings for the first time when the team plays host to the Lakers, Warriors, and Heat for a series of offseason games called the California Classic. The rookies will show off, and the veterans will talk about how great they’re feeling. The fans will drink more-than-two-dollar beers and commiserate and overreact and talk themselves into and out of various players and rotations and general outlooks, the way they always have and always will. (A security robot will eavesdrop, rudely.) The Golden 1 Center will have that sweet, sweet summer light filtering in, and it will feel, just a tiny bit, like it would if the Yung Superteam ever had any home games past April.
“I think about it every day,” Carmichael Dave said when I mentioned this. “I think about the way it spills out onto that strip of bars and restaurants. I think some day, some day in my life, I hope when I’m still breathing oxygen, you’re going to see that entire strip, from the Golden 1 entrance all the way back, filled with fans hanging off of light poles and the national media carrying that live. The Sacramento people are nuts. We will lap that up.” And he isn’t the only one who has allowed himself to think this way. “We haven’t had the best seasons in the last 10 years,” Fox said. “But everything can always be turned around. And I wanted to be part of the young group that does that.” It’s a beautiful thought.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Pete D’Alessandro acquired Jimmer Fredette; Fredette was acquired by Geoff Petrie.