2023 Playoffs: West First Round | Kings (3) vs. Warriors (6)

As Kings' postseason drought ends, Sacramento readies for playoff bedlam

Sacramento is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and is ready to make up for lost time.

Kings All-Star Domantas Sabonis takes part in the team’s new ‘Light the Beam’ tradition after a home win.

SACRAMENTO — It’s springtime and the locals are presented with a series of annual events that are sure to please. There’s the All-Breed Dog Show hosted by the Sacramento Kennel Club featuring full-blooded Shih Tzus and Chow Chows. The BerryFest Strawberry Festival is right before Mother’s Day in nearby Roseville, where the Little Miss Strawberry pageant will be held, and organizers are encouraging everyone to grab a fresh baked strawberry pie before leaving because “they are delicious.”

Oh, and hold up … there’s a new entry on the sleepy spring calendar this year. Word is this might be big.

The Kings will host playoff games! Yes, basketball will actually be played around this time in Sactown. Perhaps you’ve heard?

While other places — such as San Francisco just down I-80, where the defending champion Golden State Warriors live — have a sense of entitlement in April and May, here in Sacramento there’s finally a sense of excitement. Not since 2006, the last time the Kings made the playoffs, has there been any civic pride from a sports standpoint, given the Kings are the only game in town.

Well: A 16-year dry spell, the longest drought in North American team sports this century, can revive feelings that were once buried deep. The No. 3-seeded Kings awakened the considerable basketball beast here in a city that almost lost them 10 years ago, to the point where the atmosphere in and outside Golden 1 Center is festive.

Folks line up for purple-and-black gear from the busy team store. They flood the bars and restaurants in “DOCO,” short for Downtown Commons, the splashy new complex where the beautiful people hang and the arena is located.

The poster child for this resurgence is Carmichael Dave, a local radio host who is beloved for driving his van across the country in 2013 to roust up support for Sacramento when it appeared the Kings would leave for Seattle. Because of his successful efforts back then, he’s now a celebrity who can’t walk to his seat without feeling a slap on the back or taking a selfie.

“We’ve had a great season and people saw this coming since February, but the vibe leading to actually clinching a playoff spot was extreme caution, even when the magic numbers for clinching dwindled down,” he said. “A lot of us were deathly afraid of jinxing anything. We had several chances to clinch, and it didn’t happen. So when we finally did clinch, there was bliss.”

Yes, it’s post-Easter in Sacramento and the basketball season continues. It’s been a long time coming, and the playoffs will now replace a previous springtime basketball activity that wasn’t so much fun.

“Here’s what Kings fans do in April,” said Carmichael Dave. “They do mock Drafts with the lottery ball to see where we might land. We start researching Draft picks. We start praying we can get high Draft picks. We become little, mini-Draft experts because normally we’re looking for the next great savior of the franchise.

“That’s an activity that happens in April that will be ignored now.”

So good luck with the dog show, and the Honey Festival, and Earth Day, and especially to the gorgeous girl who’ll be crowned Little Miss Strawberry. Attendance might be down this year for those events because the Kings are up.

It’s no longer about salivating for the next draft pick, it’s about the last one, Keegan Murray, who just set a rookie record for 3-pointers made. And De’Aaron Fox, the turbo point guard who’s masterful in fourth quarters. And Domantas Sabonis, one of the best big men in the game. And Mike Brown, a cinch for Coach of the Year. And of course the victory beam which screams from the rooftop of the Golden 1 Center and how that purple saber pierces the nights when all is well with Sacramento.

It’s about the Kings and how far they’ve come, and even if they travel only for a round in these playoffs, that’s plenty far enough … for now.

‘Light the Beam!’

The Kings’ purple victory beam above Golden 1 Center has taken the NBA by storm this season.

The last time there was such a fuss about the Kings, it was made by the cowbell. It was the symbol of success, exclusive to Sacramento, and an irritant to (among others) Phil Jackson, who coached the Lakers and complained. Those playoff games with L.A. during the early 2000s were intense and fans at the old ARCO Arena would clang those bells constantly.

Doug Christie can still hear them banging in his eardrums, even after all these years; that’s how much the sweet siren meant to him and his Kings teammates during those glory days. Christie was the starting two-guard and defensive ace next to Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic, still considered one of the best teams never to reach the NBA Finals.

“I’m a cowbell guy through and through,” said Christie, now a Kings assistant coach. “I love, love the beam, but the beam don’t make no damn noise.”

Well, actually, noise is made when fans chant “Light the Beam!” right before the final buzzer of a Kings home win. And about the beam: It’s six lasers fused together and fueled by 1,800 watts. It shoots further through the sky than the eye can see and stays lit until midnight local time. Because of its power and reach, it needed approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The beam was first used on Oct. 29 against the Heat. After a home win, a player does a ceremonial “lighting” by pressing an oversized button at courtside, but that’s really a prop. The actual switch is flipped by a team employee in the attic, alerted by radio to make everything simultaneous. Once it’s lit, fans convene outside at the main entrance and … stare. It’s not only a beam, it’s a magnet, given how it brings people together. And it instantly became the hottest trend in the NBA this season.

“We brainstormed about how to incorporate purple lights into our post-game celebrations,” said Maurice Brazelton, the Kings’ VP of entertainment. “We took inspiration from the Anaheim Angels who light the halo after a win and threw around a lot of ideas: Could we light the Tower bridge? The state capitol building? Ultimately, we decided to focus back on Golden 1 Center and I connected with a laser company I used to work with on other Kings activations. And from there, the beam came to life.”

But the beam wouldn’t have such an impact without the product on the floor. After losing their first four games, the Kings caught fire, had a seven-game win streak in November and never looked back. Their offense is historically efficient. Fox averaged 25 points per game in the regular season and carried the load in fourth quarters of close games. Sabonis lead the NBA in double-doubles as a post player who also handled the ball. Others filled in and loomed large, such as Harrison Barnes and Malik Monk.

“It’s been amazing and a lot of good things have happened,” Sabonis said. “Multiple players getting recognition, been a lot of good things around the Kings and I think that’s awesome. It’s been a long time, the fans deserve it. We all felt we knew how good we can be, and the more games we played, the more the chemistry was built.”

The Kings always seemed to Draft poorly even when given high picks, the main reason for the playoff drought. It was just a few years ago when they chose Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, the mother of mistakes. And that was the norm. The Kings’ draft graveyard is filled with the bones of Willie Cauley-Stein, Nik Stauskas, Ben McLemore, Thomas Robinson and the unforgettable Georgios Papagiannis. They passed on, among others: Klay Thompson (for Jimmer Fredette), Damian Lillard (Robinson) and Zach LaVine (Stauskas).

A franchise notorious for personnel blunders is in better hands with GM Monte McNair, who drafted Murray No. 4 overall last summer. Whenever the rookie scores, the public address announcer mentions his first name —KEEE-GAN” — and lets the fans shout the last —MURR-REE!

McNair swung an inexpensive trade with the Hawks for Kevin Huerter, giving the Kings another much-needed shooter with range. The Kings are probably not in this position if Sabonis didn’t arrive from the Indiana Pacers in 2022 via a trade for Tyrese Haliburton. While Haliburton has thrived with the Pacers and is among the league assist leaders, the Kings already had an ace point guard in Fox. Sabonis gave them front-court balance.

Rookie guard Keegan Murray and coach Mike Brown have been critical additions to the Kings’ mix.

Oh, and McNair also hired Brown as coach. And how’s that working out? Brown is the fourth coach in Fox’s six years, so there was a cry for stability. It appears the Kings finally got it right with Brown, who served the previous six years as Steve Kerr’s assistant with the Warriors and once coached LeBron James in Cleveland.

“Every little success we’ve had has added fuel to the fire,” Brown said. “Starting out 0-4, we knew we weren’t playing well in a lot of areas. We really felt it was a matter of time for us to start clicking. Not panicking helped out. Just clawed our way back. We’re sitting where we’re sitting because the guys believed.”

Brown came ready to win and sold the players on thinking big, which is a novel idea in a city where winning is, or was, a challenge.

“When you just focus on making the playoffs, you miss the playoffs,” Christie said. “When we played 20 years ago, we never focused on the playoffs. We focused on the championship. Since then, Mike is the first one to come in here and use championship as the goal. Got to speak it into existence, and when you do, this is what you get.”

What you get is a seven-year-old arena that not only is a gem cosmetically but already a noisy home-court advantage.

“This building is beginning to define itself,” Christie said. “ARCO Arena had a defining presence about it. It’s getting to the point here where people are looking around and wondering, what the hell’s going on? I can feel it. You can feel the atmosphere and inside the community that it’s starting to get to that level again.”

Community steps up

Kings fans haven’t experienced the postseason in Sacramento since 2006, the last time the Kings made the playoffs.

The best way to contextualize the Kings and the playoffs is to cite the great change over the last 16 years. You couldn’t tweet about the Kings and the playoffs back in 2006 because there was no such social media app. You couldn’t use your iPhone because, nope, that device wasn’t around, either. America still didn’t have a Black president yet.

Oh, and speaking of politics: The man who ran the state Capitol in Sacramento the last time the Kings were in the playoffs was Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has of course left the governorship and made not one, but two “Terminator” sequels between then and now.

“People who were born the year the Kings last made the playoffs are now legally able to drive,” said Carmichael Dave.

Remember, the Kings teetered most of those lean years because the franchise was in trouble, unable to get a new arena under old ownership and all but packed for Seattle. But David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, and then-mayor (and Sacramento native) Kevin Johnson, the former Phoenix Suns star, fought hard to anchor the team in Sacramento, with the help of Carmichael Dave and thousands of loyal fans.

Which means: This playoff appearance is about the fans.

“It’s for all the people who pledged money to buy season tickets to ensure David Stern we had a viable fan base with financial security,” said Carmichael Dave. “People who stepped up to sponsor a team that was terrible just to keep it from moving. It’s one thing to save a team from moving when they’re good, and another to save a team from moving when it was arguably the worst team in the sport and yet this community stepped up. Blind loyalty, passion and a high fan IQ is what ultimately saved this team, and those are the folks who I’m most happy for.”

Everything’s seemingly in place: Proven stars in Fox and Sabonis, solid instruction from Brown, and a packed house nightly. Therefore: What can Sacramento expect when the playoffs begin?

When we played 20 years ago, we never focused on the playoffs. We focused on the championship. Since then, Mike is the first one to come in here and use championship as the goal. Got to speak it into existence, and when you do, this is what you get.”

— Assistant coach and former Kings standout Doug Christie

“It’s like you asking me what’s going to happen when I walk through the pearly gates,” Carmichael Dave said.

He added: “This was before my time, but when the Beatles came to America, there were times when fans would pass out on the aisles. I’ll bet you, and I hope I’m wrong, that we’re going to get a couple of those experiences in Game 1 for the first playoff game because people are going to be overcome with everything that has transpired over the last 16 years. We may not know how to handle it.”

That extends to the staff as well. Wes Wilcox, the Kings’ assistant GM, approached Brown one day this season to say Miquel Lopez, the equipment manager, was in tears.

“Immediately I’m wondering if his wife’s OK, and I’m panicking,” Brown said. “Wes goes, ‘No everything’s fine. He’s just been here so long, and to see this?’ I was like oh, OK. It hits people different, especially the people who’ve been here a long time.

“I’ve been just so fortunate and blessed to be a part of so many playoff runs in other places I’ve been and I want to celebrate this because this organization deserves it. More importantly, everyone in this flipping city deserves it because they’re hard-working people who spend their money on this team and they’ve been supporting this team from back in the day, and you appreciate that. I’m excited for everybody.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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