Mike Bibby: From Kings Leader to Workout-Warrior

One of the most clutch players in the Sacramento era talks legendary shots, memorable pranks and around-the-clock workouts.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

For six and a half seasons in Sacramento, Mike Bibby – listed at 6-foot-2, a lean 195 pounds – did a lot of the heavy lifting on the floor, orchestrating some of the Kings most prolific, run-and-gun offenses and knocking down clutch jump shots with no hesitation.

Nowadays, Bibby, captain of the BIG3’s Ghost Ballers, lifts for hours on end in the weight room, rotating from dumbbells to squat racks to leg-press machines – and it shows. The 41-year-old point guard, the sleeves of his slim-fitting white polo shirt stretched tightly over his toned biceps, is built more like a hulking middle linebacker.

His muscular physique, the product of his herculean training regimen combined with genetics and a protein-heavy diet, caused an internet frenzy when he shared a since-viral photo.

“I’m always working out,” he said. “In the morning, I do full-body lifts for three hours, three days a week, and the other two days, with bands. I go to the gym and play (basketball) later in the day and do some more drills at night.”

Pumping iron helps the Cherry Hill, N.J. native battle with former NBA adversaries such as Gilbert Arenas and Quentin Richardson in the more physical, slower-tempo BIG3. The Kings legend led the Ice Cube-founded, 3-on-3 league in assists in 2017 and 2018, and ranked near the top in rebounding at his position.

Besides, he insists, the transformation isn’t nearly as dramatic as it seems. Now that he’s long retired from the NBA, he simply has the time and motivation to ramp up his routine.

“I was always built like this; it’s just (NBA teams) never wanted me to lift,” he said. “That’s what I do. I love lifting weights, I love to workout and I love extra work.”

Throughout his pro career, each October, he’d enter training camp after bulking up in the summer, and, like clockwork, his coaches would insist he slim back down to his typical playing weight. Bibby would begrudgingly relinquish the bench press in favor of the treadmill, but while his slimmer frame may have looked less imposing, he imposed his advantages, athletic and mental, just the same.

A 1997 national champion and 1998 Pac-10 Player of the Year at Arizona, the proven winner was drafted second overall by the Grizzlies and increased his per-game points and assists averages in each of his first three years. One of the League’s most highly-regarded young point guards, he secured All-Rookie First Team honors and still holds the Vancouver-Memphis franchise single-season assist record (685 in 2000-01).

Yet, the Grizzlies struggled to climb out of the Western Conference cellar, winning only 53 of 161 games, and then-owner Michael Heisley began exploring trade possibilities to reshape the roster.

“Michael Heisley gave me a choice,” Bibby recalled. “He told me to pick five places I wanted to go and I gave him five places. He asked, ‘What’s the No. 1 spot you want to play in?’”

Bibby, who’d long admired Sacramento’s fast-paced playing style and share-the-wealth ball movement from afar, voiced his top choice and crossed his fingers.

“I think in less than a week, (the trade) was done,” he said. “I didn’t think it would happen. Just to be put in that situation, that was probably the biggest point of my career.”

With his steady-over-spectacular, substance-over-flair game, the new Kings floor general had early trepidations about replacing his predecessor, and in many ways in polar opposite, Jason Williams. No. 55’s improvisation – from through-the-legs or behind-the-back passes to pull-up, 35-foot three-pointers on fast breaks – made him one of the city’s and League’s most popular personalities and fixtures on national-TV highlight shows.

Those concerns were soon put to rest; first, when Bibby was first introduced at ARCO Arena to a rousing ovation from the home crowd, and in the coming weeks, as the Kings accumulated wins, and more and more jerseys with his name and number on the back emerged in the stands.

“Greatest fans around,” he said. “I knew Jason Williams was a fan favorite, and to be traded for him, I didn’t know what to expect from the fans. They treated me like I was there the whole time, too, and they made me feel at home.”

For No. 10, directing a title-contending team – championed by an established, veteran nucleus whose biggest assets were immeasurable chemistry and teamwork – proved to be surpassingly seamless, too.

The Kings flourished while running the Princeton offense, emphasizing movement without the ball, open looks from the perimeter and lay-ups off backdoor cuts. With Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, two of the League’s best passing big men, operating out of the high post, Bibby wasn’t tasked with traditional point guard duties. His assists dipped from 8.4 to 5.0 per game, but the Kings won a franchise-record 61 games – eight more than the Grizzlies during his entire three-year tenure.

The biggest difference, and what epitomizes those early 2000s Kings squads, Bibby says, was how little any of the players, from the MVP candidates to the last men on the bench, cared about personal statistics and individual merits. As the second or third scoring option on one of the most complete starting fives, the point guard wasn’t named to a single All-Star team; but he never had an issue deferring to his teammates and was just as happy each time one of them was recognized with an accolade.

“Going there made me realize how basketball is supposed to be played,” he said. “No one ever had an ego if they didn’t get their points. It was pretty easy to fit in with the types of guys that were on the team. They all made me feel like I was there for five, six, seven years.”

Those close relationships evolved into a teamwide, heartfelt camaraderie. On road trips, a contingent of players would often head together to the nearest malls, dining at fast-food eateries, scanning through CD racks and picking snacks to bring back to the hotel.

“There are a lot of guys on the team I still talk to ‘til this day,” Bibby said. “If we ever cross paths, it’s always family.”

When it came to practical jokes and innocuous pranks – oftentimes steered by a single culprit – nothing was off limits.

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“He has to lift.”

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One day, Bibby arrived at the practice facility in a shiny, gray jump suit; the next morning, taped on his locker was an image of his face superimposed on the body of Mini-Me, a character popularized by Verne Troyer in the “Austin Powers” franchise.

“Everybody joked around, but I think Vlade led a lot of it,” Bibby chuckled. “He was the prankster. He’s one of the best teammates I ever had. He always liked to have fun … whether we lost or we won, he was the same person.”

The tight-knit Kings, all-business and no-nonsense once the 2002 Playoffs commenced, cruised past Utah in the first round and faced little resistance from Dallas in the conference semifinals, setting the stage for a third-consecutive showdown with the longtime-rival Lakers.

In the fiercely-competitive, back-and-forth series, Sacramento exploited one of L.A.’s biggest defensive weaknesses by running the Bibby and Webber screen-and-roll and utilizing its point guard’s quickness to create three-point opportunities for Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie.

In the closing seconds of Game 5, two nights after Lakers forward Robert Horry hit a stunning game-winner, Bibby pulled Webber aside while walking out of the team huddle after a timeout. With the Kings trailing by a point, he knew that if he'd get the ball on the final possession, with the game – and conceivably, the season – on the line, he wouldn’t miss.

“C-Webb was our alpha dog,” Bibby said. “I told him, ‘If you fake-handoff to me and you shoot it, we’ll win or lose by that … But if you don’t take the shot, I’m going to knock it down.’”

Running a perfectly diagrammed play, Bibby inbounded the ball from the baseline to Webber, who set a hard pick on Lakers guard Derek Fisher and passed it back to No. 10 for an open look from the right wing. Bibby, true to his word, took one calm dribble before firing a 22-foot jumper that found the bottom of the net, giving his team a bounce-back victory and silencing outsiders who insisted Sacramento’s confidence was irreparably rattled by Horry’s miracle.

Bibby’s dagger will forever serve as a testament to his and the team's resiliency and unflappable poise, even though the celebration would be short-lived. The Lakers outlasted the Kings in overtime of Game 7; Bibby, to this day, believes the better team didn’t prevail in the end.

“That was the worst feeling,” he said. “Unfortunately, there were some things that didn’t go our way ... I don’t think it was meant to be, but I know we were the best team in the NBA that year. I think everybody knew it around the NBA at that time. I think we could’ve won a championship that year. It was just heartbreaking that we didn’t.”

The Kings reached the postseason in each of Bibby’s following four seasons, but Webber’s career-altering knee injury in May 2003 proved to be a debilitating setback. Sacramento infused younger talent and traded its mainstays, one after the next, to balance its roster and pry open its title window, before fully committing to a rebuild.

Bibby was the last of the greatest-show-on-court-era stars to depart, when a February 2008 deal sent the Sacramento-era assist leader to the Hawks. As the elder statesman on a youthful team making a second-half postseason push, along with his passing and outside shooting, he brought lessons he learned from the ultimate veteran and locker-room glue-guy.

"To go to Atlanta and play the Vlade Divac role for those guys, that made it fun from the beginning,” he said. “I’m not saying that I’m the reason why we made it to the Playoffs, but I think I came in and (helped) turn that team around. I kind of showed them that, look, you can play basketball, (but) we’re with each other so much, so have fun while you’re here and we’ll see where it goes.”

After finishing his NBA career with brief stints in Washington, Miami and New York, the 14-year veteran retired in 2012 to focus on coaching. He began on the AAU circuit, forming his own program, Team Bibby, that included his then-nine-year-old son, as well as future Kings forward Marvin Bagley III. The next year, Bibby returned to his high school alma mater, Shadow Mountain High School, and as head coach, led the school to four consecutive state championships.

When the warmer months roll around, he accelerates his conditioning drills, pushing his body through those around-the-clock weight training routines and basketball practices. His frame is bigger and his first step a bit slower, but his desire to lead his squad to an elusive pro title is as strong as ever.

“I love the game,” he said. “At home, I still work out until it’s time to play, and I get out there and do what I can. I’m still going to get out there and give it all that I’ve got.”

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