Were the Kings cheated out of a win in the '01-02 Western Conference Finals? Maybe. But the loss undeniably echoes in the organization today.
You notice nine seconds of dead air when you hear it on the radio; there is just no radio there, all of a sudden, and as the quiet seconds roll over the whole experience flattens and stretches. Chris Webber made a sound of hesitation somewhere in there, but otherwise there was a palpable stretch of nothing between when Dan Patrick asked Webber if he had ever played in a game he believed to be fixed and the moment when Webber finally got around to answering that question. "Uh, I played a game," Webber finally said. "I played one game in which, yes, something definitely smelled weird about the whole situation.
"But I didn't think that was the NBA," Webber hastened to add. "I didn't think the league was purposely out to get me, or trying to make my team lose, or stay within the spread." Patrick asks Webber if Tim Donaghy, the NBA referee who was fired and convicted for betting on games and taking money from gamblers, was officiating the game Webber was talking about. "You know what, I'm not sure. I'm not, I'm not sure...I really haven't watched that game, out of knowing that I didn't foul, out of knowing that it was offensive fouls on other players, after seeing blood run down [Mike] Bibby's nose, after other things like that."
As it happens, Tim Donaghy was not refereeing the game that Webber is talking about, which was Game 6 of the '01-02 Western Conference Finals. If there was any confusion about that on Webber's part, it probably owed to the fact that Donaghy talked about that game at length. The game Webber can't quite talk about and hasn't been able to re-watch has long been rumored to be fixed; a homemade mini-documentary that seeks to prove it has more than 897,000 views. In Game 6, the Lakers took 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, against just nine for the Kings. That quarter's most infamous call, in which Mike Bibby was called for a foul after receiving a swift elbow from Kobe Bryant, did indeed leave the Kings guard with blood running down his nose. The Lakers outscored the Kings 31-27 in the fourth, with 21 of those points coming at the line, and won the game 106-102. They went on to win Game 7, and then the third of their three straight NBA Championships.
Donaghy asserted, in a 2008 court filing, that Game 6 was in fact fixed, or "manipulated," at the behest of the league itself. "It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series," the filing read. "However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew referees A and F to be 'company men,' always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F heavily favored Team 6." Webber's Kings were Team 5; the Lakers were team 6.
NBA Commissioner David Stern denied it, and was quick to point out Donaghy's major credibility issues, but in certain suspicious circles it was accepted as confirmation of something long suspected to be true. "I knew it," the former Sacramento Kings forward Scot Pollard told ESPN's Chris Sheridan after Donaghy's allegations were made public. "I'm not going to say there was a conspiracy. I just think something wasn't right."
People with far less of a partisan interest than Pollard came to a similar conclusion. "You and your league have a large and growing credibility problem," the consumer advocate and veteran author of similar letters Ralph Nader wrote in an open letter to David Stern days after the series ended. "Referees are human and make mistakes, but there comes a point that goes beyond any random display of poor performance. That point was reached in Game 6 which took away the Sacramento Kings Western Conference victory."
The heavy seconds of dead air that preceded Webber's answer to Dan Patrick's question came a little over 14 years after that Western Conference Finals was decided, and that loaded negative space was filled with the sense of something unfinished. "I've been on a team in the Wizards that played against the Bulls," Webber said to Patrick later in the interview. "And all I wanted was for the refs to treat us fair because Jordan didn't need the help...You just want to be sure it's fair." The slippery specifics of the moment aside, there is the unmistakable sense that Webber, among many others, did not believe it had been.
For all the facets that are unknown or unknowable about that Game 6, the facts of it are known. The box score says what it says, and has said it for years; the outcome is a matter of public record and basketball history. But the sense of injustice has lingered not just because those Kings teams were so beloved—in their fluidity and emphasis on ball movement, they were in many ways ahead of their time and in every aesthetic sense a total fucking blast—but because of everything that came after, or didn't.
What makes the Sacramento Kings defeat in that series stand out with every year that passes has less to do with the mistakes that were made in that series than the misfortune that followed. In a very real sense, this series undeniably broke the Kings. There is more to it than that, but again the facts of it are what they are: the Sacramento Kings have not been the same since that Western Conference Finals, which began 15 years ago this week.
The most peculiar and arguably saddest thing about the collapse of those Sacramento Kings' dream teams is that the same people that put them together were also around to oversee the process through which it all came apart. The Maloof family bought the team in 1998, the same year that GM Geoff Petrie hired coach Rick Adelman, who had also run the brilliant Portland teams that Petrie had assembled in the early 1990's. Adelman built Sacramento's open, free-cutting offense around Webber and Vlade Divac—"those two guys were our point guards, basically," Peja Stojakovic told Grantland's Jonathan Abrams in 2014—and Petrie won a pair of NBA Executive of the Year Awards, first after the 1999 season for building the raggedy, romping, super-fun iteration of the team that ran through Jason Williams, and then again in 2001 for shaping that into the comparatively more efficient but equally entertaining juggernaut that peaked at 61 wins in '01-02.
Petrie and Adelman had collaborated on teams that made the NBA Finals before, but those Kings marked a singular peak. No team in the league won more games during the '01-02 and '02-03 seasons, and no team won them more wonderfully; in a league that was still bogged down in grunty, old-fashioned stylistics, the Kings played a fast, protean, unselfish style of basketball that seemed somehow to have more basketball in it than any other team's. There were reasons to believe that it could not last—the owners were distractible and overleveraged featherweights and "the core of that team wasn't one that started out in its early 20s, it started out in their mid-to-late 20s," as Petrie told Deadspin's Kevin Draper last year—but none of them were visible when the team was on the floor. The Kings declined from 61 to 59 wins in '02-03, but Greg Wissinger, an editor at the Kings blog Sactown Royalty, told me that it "was, I feel, the best Kings team ever assembled. And I still believe the Kings would have been able to win the title that year if Chris Webber hadn't blown out his knee. And that was really the catalyst for the collapse."
When Webber wrecked his knee during the postseason in '02-03, it marked the beginning of a decline that shaded quickly into collapse. Including that marginal decline from 61 to 59 wins, the Kings won fewer games than they had the year before in each of the five seasons following '01-02. After a brief bounce back to 38 wins in '07-08, the pace accelerated. It was seven more years before the Kings even managed 30 wins in a season, and the team has not made the playoffs in 11 years and counting. There are caveats and nuances and various circumstantial particulars to all this, and there are the usual tricks that hindsight plays. But there is also no escaping the fact that the organization still has never really recovered from what happened in the '01-02 Western Conference Finals.
There are hard, material reasons for this, but the long shadow of those Western Conference Finals hangs over all of it. The injustice of Game 6 suggested that the team had been failed more than it had failed; that this felt true, and arguably actually was, kept the Kings from fully reckoning with either an on-the-fly retooling or rebuilding. "A good way to think about this is through the lens of conspiracy," Deadspin writer and lifelong Kings fan Patrick Redford told me. "The kings deserved to win that series and everyone knew it, so you sort of saw the same power structure stay in place almost because they thought that they would inevitably be served justice." The core was worn down by age and free agent attrition and injury, but the Kings were always just close enough to defer the realization that they were drifting further away by the day. Before that hope curdled and finally evaporated, it kept the team in a sort of suspension. When the team dealt Stojakovic to Indiana during what was shaping up as a lost '05-06 season, it looked like the first move of a rebuild. "But Artest lit a fire under the roster and the team snuck into one last playoff hurrah," Wissinger says. "Adelman left after that year, but the Kings thought 'hey, they made the playoffs, maybe we don't need a full rebuild.' They built on the fly around Artest, Kevin Martin, Mike Bibby, and Brad Miller, but it wasn't enough."
When Petrie belatedly began the work of taking that team apart, he did so with the intermittent support of an increasingly checked-out ownership group. The Maloof brothers were the sort of dippy, monied, outwardly talentless bon vivants that defined popular culture during the George W. Bush years; they banked reality show credits, got photographed a lot, and eventually launched a vodka that tasted like red velvet cake. In 2006, Joe, George, Gavin, and Phil starred in a Carl's Jr. ad touting themselves—a title superimposed on a shot of them climbing out of a limo reads "Net Worth: $1 billion"—and the $6,000 Combo Meal; it was available only at the Palms Hotel, which the family then owned, and paired a Carl's Jr. burger with a 24-year-old bottle of Bordeaux.
When the economy soured, the Maloofs unsurprisingly found themselves not nearly so flush; they didn't have the patience for a rebuild, and Petrie has claimed that he didn't have the wherewithal to pursue anything like the necessary overhaul. The Maloofs spent the final years of their stewardship in open conflict with the city of Sacramento and attempting to sell the franchise to an ownership group that aimed to move the team to Seattle. When they finally sold in 2013, to a group headed by software billionaire Vivek Ranadive, the price was $535 million, an NBA record. This year's Kings finished with a winning percentage under .400 for the eighth time in nine seasons, and the nicest thing that can be said about Ranadive, after four busily dysfunctional years as team owner, is that he kept the Kings in town and has no known association with Carl's Jr.
There are reasons why the Sacramento Kings have been among the NBA's most lurid Superfund sites, and they are knowable—bad luck and bad ownership, fecklessness and hesitation and the simple cruelties of gravity. But there is a deeper sense in which what happened in the last Western Conference Finals the Kings have reached has both colored everything since and forced the grinding failures that followed into a broader narrative shape. That the loss came after the team's wild Game 5 victory is convenient, in a sense; it clearly marks Mike Bibby's Game 5 game-winner as the last happy moment in team history. "To lose the way they did in Game 6, it was heartbreaking in a very real sense," Wissinger says. "If it had just been that, the Kings and the city would probably have been fine. But coupled with Webber's injury the following year, it definitely creates a sense of helplessness, like we've somehow angered the basketball gods and are no longer allowed to have nice things."
There is nothing in that sense of helplessness that concretely explains or excuses the mistakes that have made those Kings into these; for all the corrosive effects of victimhood earned or unearned, none of them quite explain drafting Jimmer Fredette over Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. When the team hired the beloved but visibly overmatched Vlade Divac as its chief executive in 2015, it seemed somehow both like an attempt to wrap up some unfinished business and another unconscious return to the scene of the crime.
The only thing that's undeniable about the impact of the '01-02 Western Conference Finals on the Kings is that it orders all the chaos that came after. Whatever it truly was, whoever was wronged and however it happened, the 15 years that followed have made it into something like an original sin—the crime that made all this punishment feel so heavily inevitable.
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