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

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

THE AFTERMATH

When it was over, I could barely move. I just sat on the couch, slack-jawed, staring at the television. I had just been through the most heartbreaking series of my fanatical sports life. After seven games, two sweat-drenched jerseys, three or four smashed television remotes, a destroyed living room, and the cold-blooded murder of my sports innocence, I was spent.

I threw off my black, road C-Webb jersey, spiked my Kings hat onto the floor, and knocked over a few things as I stormed outside.

I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe they had lost.

Vlade Divac reacts after the Kings’ heartbreaking Game 7 loss. (Photo courtesy: ESPN/Getty Images)

When your team is in the middle of a series like that one, you try not to think about losing. You’re getting screwed out of call after call, but your guys are still fighting. Still making shots. Improbably sticking it to the man even when many championship teams would have folded.

You try to think about how your team can pull it out. You try to think about what that championship t-shirt would feel like if you ever actually got the chance to put it on. This one wouldn’t have felt like cotton. It would have felt like cashmere. It would have felt like revenge. (Revenge, I think, feels like cashmere.)

I never allowed myself to consider what losing would feel like. After Games 4 and 6, losing wasn’t possible. The universe couldn’t allow them to lose. It had to be on my side. After all, it was almost impossible to argue– the Kings were the better team.

They were three games better in the regular season. They had dominated for long stretches of the series. They led Game 4 by 24 points before a referee-aided meltdown. They would have won Game 6 if any other group of basketball referees this side of Mongolia had been officiating. Even the Lakers acknowledged that the Kings probably should have won the series.

Just look at some of these postgame quotes:

“The Kings were the better team and they deserved to win. But somehow we did.”–Phil Jackson.

“They humbled us in a lot of ways,”–Rick Fox, insufferable Lakers pretty boy forward

“The Kings were playing better basketball than us,”– Kobe Bryant

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

Yet somehow, for some cosmically cruel reason, they weren’t going to the Finals. They were going home.

I felt like someone had hit me in the balls with a 3-wood, stolen my grandma’s car and ran over my dog.

I remember watching Shaquille O’Neal and his invisible, Dick Bavetta-created forcefield mouthing off, “Sacramento thought it was their year. But it wasn’t.”

I wanted to jump through the T.V. and punch him in the jujunum.

This photo never should have happened. (Michael Conroy/AP)

The thing is, it was our year. We didn’t lose. We had the championship stolen.

I took a walk outside, looking up at the stars and trying to think about how insignificant the whole thing was. (Editor’s Note: I also did this after the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. In other news, I take sports way too seriously.)

But it wasn’t insignificant. This team was different.

These Kings were brilliant. They passed and cut like Princeton on steroids. (Legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril was an assistant.) They ran the fast-break like the Showtime Lakers. They were the most unselfish NBA team I’ve ever seen.

The Kings led the league in scoring, throwing behind the back passes, and buying into a coach’s system. Sports Illustrated even put them on the cover a year earlier, proclaiming, “The Sacramento Kings: Basketball the Way It Oughta Be.”

Best of all, they were doing it all for a team that had been one of the league’s signature doormats for much of its history.

These were the new Kings. They were the coolest team in basketball. They had become my favorite team.

Like most sports fans my age, I grew up on the Chicago Bulls. I couldn’t help it. Michael Jordan meant more to my childhood than any person who doesn’t share my blood. He was my idol, my own personal demigod years before I even knew what the word meant. (All right, I just looked it up online, but let’s focus here.)

When His Airness retired (the second time), I found myself, like many young fans, without a team to root for. I was in a basketball no-man’s land.

I couldn’t go back to the Bulls; management had basically forced Jordan out.

So I tried the Knicks, my dad’s old favorite team. Too much Sprewell. I tried Barkley and the Rockets. Too many old guys. I even tried the Pacers before I realized Reggie Miller was the least cool superstar since Stockton. And then, all of a sudden, there they were.

Cue the Barry Manilow music.

Divac, Webber, and the Kings were fun to watch. (AP Photo)

They had everything I wanted in a team. Cool jerseys. A great playing style. An underdog feel. Chris Webber was my new hero. And Vlade Divac captured my imagination more than I ever dreamed a 7-foot foreign white guy could.

The 1998-99 Kings went 27-23 in the lockout-shortened season, and posted their first winning season in my lifetime. They got a 6-seed in the playoffs, and took the eventual Western Conference champion Utah Jazz to a fifth and deciding game in the first round.

They took the eventual Western Conference champ Lakers to five games the next year, as an 8-seed. In 2001, they reached the second round before being swept by L.A. They had earned my loyalty, and had gone from a perennial doormat to a pretty good team.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Kings went from good to great.

C-Webb became a bona-fide superstar and transformed into quite possibly the best-passing power forward in NBA history. Predrag Stojakovic became ‘Peja’, and started knocking down threes like he was the Yugoslavian Larry Bird. Bobby Jackson turned into a mini-“Microwave” off the bench, and Vlade Divac became the old, wily veteran, almost like your favorite uncle who always knew just the right tricks to beat you in a video game.

They traded away fan-favorite (and ballhog) Jason “White Chocolate” Williams for Mike Bibby, who was a tough-as-a-meat-grinder little point guard who wasn’t afraid of anybody. All of a sudden, the Kings were built to win a championship right away.

They dominated the 2002 regular season, finishing with the league’s best record by three full games. They dispatched those old, annoying, short-shorts wearing Utah Jazz, 3-1, in the first round of the playoffs. Then they pounded the Dallas Mavericks, 4-1, in a series that pitted the two most exciting teams in the NBA.

Los Angeles was the only thing standing between the Kings and an NBA championship. The New Jersey Nets were the class of the Eastern Conference, but won only 52 games in the regular season and would have been a 5-seed had they played in the West. They would be swept in the Finals. They weren’t going to beat Sacramento.

This was the most pivotal series of my young NBA fanhood. Why? Because as much as I loved the Kings, I may have hated the Lakers even more. They had won two straight championships. They had beaten Larry Bird, my other basketball idol, and the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 Finals. I hated Shaq. I hated Kobe. I despised Rick Fox. There was absolutely nothing about the Lakers I could stomach.

The Kings lost Game 1 because they were overwhelmed by the situation. I’m absolutely positive of this. But after that, they had been the best team in that series. Yet, because of guys like Dick Bavetta and Bob Delaney, they would never get the chance to prove that.

It takes time to get over things like that, and there wasn’t a moment during the entire 2003 season that I didn’t think about it. I remember watching the first preseason game between the two teams, thrilled that the Kings had beaten the Lakers, 93-88, and that Doug Christie had brawled with Rick Fox in the tunnel after both had already been ejected for fighting.

The Kings won the Pacific Division for the second straight year, going 59-23, and earning a 3-seed in the Western Conference. Once again, they bounced Utah from the playoffs in the first round, and matched up with the 60-22 Mavs in round 2.

Sacramento won Game 1, but lost Chris Webber to an ACL tear in Game 2. They would never be the same. The Kings lost the series in seven.

Sacramento would fight valiantly the next year, winning 55 games and finishing one game behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division. But they weren’t quite the same. Webber was a step slower, less explosive, and not the same offensive threat. Bibby had lost the killer instinct he had in 2002, and he has yet to get it back. Divac wasn’t the old, wily uncle anymore, he was just old. The Kings did get a measure of revenge on the Mavs, ousting them 4-1 in Round 1, but then fell to Kevin Garnett and the top-seeded Timberwolves in Round 2.

Webber will never be able to shake his legacy as a big-game loser, thanks to the officials in Game 6. (AP Photo/ Susan Ragan)

In a fitting bookend to his star-crossed career, Webber missed a potential game-tying 3 at the buzzer. That would be the final shot the Kings would take as contenders.

It didn’t have to be this way.

It could have all changed in Game 6. NBA title on the line. Webber’s legacy and possibly his Hall of Fame candidacy on the line. And Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt decided the outcome.

Webber will be remembered as the most ill-fated/unlucky athlete of his generation, instead of one of the best basketball players of his generation.

The 2002 Sacramento Kings will be remembered as the team that came up just short.

And young Kels Dayton, of Thomaston, Connecticut, will remember the night he lost faith in the NBA.

I’m still not sure which is the biggest crime.

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