The Lost Champions: The 2002 Sacramento Kings and the Fixed Western Conference Finals

Editor’s note: With the 2010 NBA playoffs in full swing, we felt it was time to tell this story. Eight years ago, the Sacramento Kings were robbed of an NBA championship in one of the most lopsided officiated series in sports history. The author will never be the same.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Part 2  Part 3

Eight years ago, I lost my sports innocence. The little kid in my sports fan soul suffocated and died. He’s never coming back.

I saw basketball’s version of The Devil. It stared back at me, with its big doofy bald head and oversized XXXXL Lakers number 34 jersey. It barked in my face and shouted defiantly, almost as though it had actually, legitimately won something.

The Los Angeles Lakers were celebrating after their “victory” over the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

Only, they hadn’t really won.

There were no words to describe how the Kings felt after Game 7. (AP Photo)

The Kings had been robbed more blindly than a Bernie Madoff client.

And the worst part? There was no doubt that Sacramento was the better team. The Kings had gone 61-21 in the regular season, finishing three games ahead of the Lakers in the Pacific Division. They had earned home court throughout the playoffs, and had dominated the Lakers for long stretches of their seven-game war.

Chris Webber said before Game 7 that he felt like the Kings had already won five games in the series. They pretty much had.

They won Game 2 in easy fashion. They led Game 3 by as many as 27 points, cruising to a 13-point win.

They had a 24-point lead in Game 4, with a chance to take a 3-1 series lead, before giving it all back (with some help from the refs), as Robert Horry hit a game-winning, gut-busting three at the buzzer.

(Ed’s note: Right before Horry hit the shot, Kobe Bryant missed a potential game-tying jumper, and Shaquille O’Neal missed the putback layup from about three feet away. Kings center Vlade Divac, in probably the dumbest move of his career, tipped the ball back to the top of the key where a wide-open Horry had been standing, almost as if he was cued up to break the hearts of Kings fans. Thus, it goes without saying ….)

Horry’s three sent the author to the floor, where he laid motionless for approximately twenty minutes. ( Photo: Hector Amezuca/The Sacramento Bee)

I’ll never forget that three. I was at my cousin’s birthday party, watching as my beloved Kings imploded. I was irate when the referees inexplicably allowed a Samaki Walker half-court buzzer-beater to count at the end of the first half, even though NBC’s Marv Albert had already hit the snack bar by the time Walker released it.When Horry’s shot happened, I fell off the couch and collapsed to the floor. In front of everyone. Including  grandmas I didn’t know. (Ed’s note: Maybe that’s why they don’t like me.) I didn’t get up for a solid twenty minutes.

“It was the luckiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Kings reserve Hedo Turkoglu said about Horry’s shot. “Vlade hit the ball and it went straight into his hands and he was wide open. The whole game, he was going for offensive boards, but at that moment he was waiting right there. You could never see this type of game in your life.”

“It was a blessed day for us,” said Shaquille O’Neal, whose missed layup gave birth to  Horry’s shot. “Thank God for Robert. Thank God his father met his mother, too.”

Despite what was then the most devastating loss in franchise history, (It’s hard to say whether or not Games 6 or 7 surpassed it), the Kings stormed back in championship fashion in Game 5.

Chris Webber came through with a virtuoso performance, scoring 29 points and ripping down 13 rebounds, in what would have been a critics-silencer had Sacramento gone on to win the series.

Bibby’s game-winner in Game 5 should have clinched the series for the Kings. (AP Photo)

And Mike Bibby refused to let them lose.

Bibby had 23 points, including the in-your-face game-winning shot off of a Chris Webber screen with 8.3 seconds left.

The Kings had righted the ship. All was going to be right with the world.

And then there was Game 6.

Game 6 changed everything. It really deserves its own article, maybe even its own book one day.

I really don’t even know how to describe the officiating in that game.

If it was simply ineptitude, it was so inept that it’s beyond comical. Think a professional NASCAR driver not being able to get the car into first gear. Or a barber accidentally shaving someone’s eyebrows off. I think a bunch of sixth graders who have never picked up a basketball before could have pulled off a better officiating performance.

There were six or seven egregious calls in the fourth quarter, all of them going against the Kings. Watch this Youtube video to see some of them. (I know…the beginning is long, but fast-forward to about 1:25.) And how’s this for a telling stat:

The Lakers averaged 22 free throws per game during the first five games of the series– then shot 27 alone in the fourth quarter of Game 6.

Allow some of these quotes to wash over you.

“Why don’t they (the refs) just let us know beforehand? We didn’t have a chance to win.”–Vlade Divac

“We didn’t have a chance tonight…I’m not gonna say what I really feel. I’ll get fined. I’ll keep my opinions to myself.”–Chris Webber

” If you care about basketball, Friday night’s Game 6 was a rip-off. The Kings and Lakers didn’t decide that this series would be extended until Sunday, the referees did.”-Michael Wilbon, in the Washington Post

“If there was ever a time for conspiracy theories to be given new life, it’s now. It’s difficult to ignore the Kings’ claim that NBC does not want them in the Finals. Because of [Game 6], many things will be said if the Kings fall. NBC will be a culprit, as will the NBA. Both will be accused of going Hollywood, which is hard to argue with right now.”–Steven A. Smith, in the Philadelphia Daily News

“Who do these players think they are? Do they actually think fans buy tickets to go and watch [them] play basketball at its best? Don’t they realize people flock to arenas to watch guys named Dick Bavetta, Bennett Salvatore, and Eddie F. Rush try to keep the big guys in line by enforcing their version of the basketball rulebook?”–Kevin Modesti, in the Los Angeles Daily News

And finally…Bill Simmons of, wrote this article after the series concluded. (Scroll down to the Question: What was the most disturbing subplot of the playoffs?)

Whatever happened that night in Los Angeles, it cost the Sacramento Kings the NBA championship. And it cost me my sports soul.

Editor’s Note: This is the end of Part 1 of a 3-part series.  Part 2  Part 3