Game time is more than an hour away, but Nick Bryant’s eyes are transfixed on the Sleep Train Arena court, where various Sacramento Kings are performing their pregame shooting ritual in preparation for the March 30th game against the Washington Wizards.
Dressed in a vintage Kevin Martin, No. 23 Kings jersey and wearing a “Vote for Boogie” sweat-stained headband, Bryant and approximately 120 fans have converged behind the courtside seats to get a close-up look at their basketball heroes.
Like most of the fans, the 23-year-old Bryant will try to secure autographs and perhaps banter briefly with a player, then make the long trek to his seat located high in the second level of the aging arena.
“The Kings are my team and this will be the last game I will ever see them play in Sleep Train Arena,” says Bryant, who became a Kings fan when he moved to Antelope nine years ago. “I come to the games and support them because I’m a diehard fan. I love this building, but it’s been here since 1988. The arena is old; it’s time for a change.”
No one seemingly disagrees about the arena that made its NBA debut Nov. 8, 1988 and houses 17,317 fans when filled to capacity. Still, fans like Bryant, current players, ex-Kings, and even opposing coaches have cherished memories of Sleep Train, which was formerly known as ARCO Arena.
A smile comes to the face of Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle when he’s asked about his reflections of Sleep Train Arena.
“This is one of the few arenas left where I played – here, the Palace (Detroit) and the (Madison Square) Garden, that’s it,” Carlisle said. “This building has enjoyed a good run for a nice period of time when it was one of the loudest, raucous places to play. But we’ve driven downtown and gone by the new arena. It looks like something out of the Jetsons (a futuristic, animated 1960s TV sitcom).”
Kings Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Vlade Divac has his jersey proudly hanging in the rafters at Sleep Train Arena. He experienced many exhilarating games at the arena, first as a youthful rookie with the Lakers and later when he was a vital cog for six glorious seasons when the highly successful Kings were among the best teams in the NBA.
“Sleep Train will always hold a special place in my heart, and I’m sure fans feel the same about the building,” Divac said. “The memories created there will last forever. But as the door closes here a beautiful one opens at Golden 1 Center – one of the best arenas in the world.”
In his first season as a member of the Sacramento Kings, Kosta Koufos chose to live downtown and has taken a keen interest in the progress of Golden 1 Center.
“The players are excited about the arena. It will be the start of a new basketball era in Sacramento,” Koufos said. “The new building looks fabulous and will have all kinds of new technology. But we will miss Sleep Train. Not a lot of arenas have great history – this one does.”
Ex-Kings guard Reggie Theus will be one of the 40 or more former players who will return to the arena for the final game Saturday (April 9) against Oklahoma City. Theus was a member of the first Kings team in 1985-86 and had the Sacramento-era single-season assist record until it was broken this year by Rajon Rondo.
Theus, who later coached the Kings, can recall many proud moments in the powder-blue uniforms that have returned this season for Friday home games. He can also recollect some off-the-court pursuits as well, which included pheasant hunting in what was then rural North Natomas. Driving to practice in his red convertible, he would sometimes spot pheasant in the surrounding fields near the arena.
“When it was pheasant season, I would shoot a few on my way to practice, bring them to Jonesie (trainer Bill Jones) and he would clean them and they would be ready for me afterward,” Theus said. "That was incredible!”
When it comes to memories, no one has more than Jerry Reynolds, who arrived with the team in 1985 and has never left the organization. Reynolds started as an assistant coach, became head coach, director of player personnel, served in the scouting department, was General Manager of the Sacramento Monarchs, and has been a TV color analyst for more than a decade.
“At one time or another I’ve had about every office in this building,” jokes Reynolds.
Although Reynolds says there are numerous special moments at the arena, one really stands out. In 1996, the George Karl-coached Seattle SuperSonics came to the arena for a playoff game. The Sonics won 64 games that season and were the top-seed in the Western Conference. But the inspired Kings were in a 1-1 tie when the best-of-five series switched to ARCO Arena, which was hosting its first playoff game in 10 years.
“I think that was the most fun game we ever had here,” Reynolds said. “It was the loudest I ever heard it. The noise was off the charts. Fans were screaming a half hour before the game even started.”
Peja Stojakovic was a star-struck, 21-year-old from Yugoslavia when he made his NBA debut in a 1998 preseason game against the Warriors. Kings fans were anxious to get their first glimpse of the sharp-shooting rookie, who was unaware a packed arena was not the preseason norm.
“It was sold out – a preseason game! I didn’t know how unusual that was. But that’s how Kings fans are; they really support the team,” said Stojakovic, who played seven and a half years in Sacramento and has returned this year as director of player personnel. “Sacramento is one of the best NBA cities to play. No matter what the record the fans support the Kings every year. Vlade and I want to put a good team back on the court and hopefully we can do that in the new arena.”
Cynthia Skoglund of Citrus Heights wanted one final memory at Sleep Train Arena. A Kings fan since 1990, she’s attending the late March game with her daughter and grandchild.
Situated a foot from the court, Skoglund is happily wearing a Kings jersey, is holding a “Go Kings” sign, and is among a throng of people watching the Kings go through their pre-game shooting an hour before tip off. Like thousands of Kings fans, in good seasons and bad Skoglund says her support has never wavered.
“I come to about six or seven games a year and support the Kings as much as possible,” Skoglund said. “We’ve been coming to this arena since 1990. It will be very sad to see them leave. It’s such an intimate place to watch a game. We’ll miss it here. But we can’t wait to watch them in the new building.”
Jeffrey Weidel is a freelance writer who has covered the Kings for the Associated Press for nearly two decades.