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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Since last season, Kings fans have made a passionate push to make sure the team doesn't leave town.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Clock ticks on Sacramento's NBA future as league goes quiet


Posted Nov 3 2011 10:07AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- This isn't any other lockout-implications story because this isn't any other NBA city. This isn't any other situation.

This is about the Kings and their future in a region that considers them family. An unwanted, embarrassing family member recently, granted, but one of their own . This is emotional.

The 2011-12 NBA season going into a mid-air stall hurts. The city has been in rally mode for months, generating enough energy to push the chances of keeping the team from highly unlikely to absolutely realistic, putting a new wave of pressure on city leaders to get an arena deal done, making the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in league history seem possible ...

... and now nothing.

No October excitement for the start of camp, no November burst for the opening of the season, no spirited debates on lineup decisions. No schedule analysis, no raspy throats the morning after attending a game at Power Balance Pavilion. No basketball to talk about.

Mayor Kevin Johnson contends the lockout is not a major setback, which makes sense on two fronts: He has to say that, and the push to make hundreds of millions of dollars appear out of thin air must continue no matter what. The clock is ticking even if the NBA schedule has gone quiet. The league will hold the door open for the Kings to leave in spring or summer 2012 if there is no new arena, whether there is a 2011-12 season or not. And, though unrelated to basketball, Johnson and others feel the city needs a new entertainment facility to replace the former Arco Arena no matter what.

"I'm going to frame it slightly different," the Sacramento native and former All-Star point guard said. "When the playoffs come about and your team is not in the playoffs, that usually cools things down. Our team was not in the playoffs, but we were fighting for our lives. Our community has had a grassroots 'Let's keep going.' There is a sense of urgency. So even with a lockout, we're going to still have that mentality, that even if basketball games aren't going on, we're playing a game to save our team."

So the lockout, in Johnson's mind at least, changes nothing.

"We'll still be talking about basketball and the Kings," Johnson said. "When we didn't make the playoffs, we as a city were showing up at the airport, we were talking about our Kings and what we needed to do. This whole groundswell of grass roots Here We Stay, Here We Build, now Think Big. All these people are working toward building a facility.

"We know our end game. It's not even about the Kings and a season right now. It's about a building, and we've got to figure out a way to finance it. We feel that sense of urgency. If a lockout happens [deep into the season] -- Lord forbid, hopefully it doesn't, but if it does -- that's still going to give us more time to be focusing."

What Johnson undoubtedly knows but can't say, as the city's Cheerleader in Chief, is that the mood could swing the other way if the Kings lurch from the gate. Maybe the bandwagon gets lighter if there's a 2-8 start and the Kings become a consensus pick for last place in the Pacific Division and one of the worst clubs in the West.

As long as the Kings play hard and smart, though, that can be avoided. They can go 2-8 and maintain the progress in the community as long as it's with a roster that carries itself well and remains competitive. Unlike too many of the Sacramento roster members in recent years, in other words.

People here want to be in love with their Kings again. The events of last spring -- the Maloof family trying to close a deal with Anaheim for relocation, an emotional crowd attending the season finale with the guillotine hanging overhead, subsequent rallies -- became a scared-straight moment that reminded a lot of fans how important their team was to them. Apathy had reigned for years as bad conduct and poor management decisions combined with a historically bad economy to drive attendance to the basement of the league.

But the alarm still went off. Whether it was too late remains to be seen.

Staying has proven to be the right move for the team, at least for now. Imagine being the Anaheim Royals now, with no way to market a few promising players, with no way to ramp up to the start of the season because no one knows when that will be, the no-doubt third-best team in the Los Angeles area.

There is a case to be made for leaving. It's just that leaving in the summer of 2011 would have been the worst of the self-inflicted wounds of recent years.

Will be they be leaving, eventually?

It is far too soon to tell. The new arena has a good chance of happening, thanks to the enthusiasm of a fan base that changed the mood. Supporters didn't keep the team in Sacramento after last season -- the Kings stayed only because ownership and Anaheim could not close a deal -- but they may be the turning point in keeping the NBA here in the long run.

The certainties now are that the Kings will stay if an arena deal gets done, and that promising play would continue the momentum. That excitement on the court would help. A season would help.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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