Sunday, April 17, 2011

Basketball's Gypsy Kings: Sacramento's relocation crowns Anaheim Royals

As the Sacramento Kings prepare to exit stage left and re-enter existence as the Anaheim Royals, it's worth examining their twenty-six year stint in California's capital and how this latest move reflects the very existence of the franchise.

The Kings' existence since their last title sixty years ago has been a hurtsome one. Since the NBA instituted the salary cap, even their sprinkling of great players has dried up: from the early days of Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes, through their great two point guards Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald and finally their modern-era stars Mitch Richmond and successor Chris Webber. Just as Anaheim looks likely to replace Sacramento in a chain leading from Rochester through Cincinnati, Kansas City and Omaha, the likes of the Big O and Jerry Lucas look upon Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins as their Royal descendents. Anaheim, Orange County even, looks to be the next NBA destination for pro basketball's most vagabond team.

No team has moved more often - or farther - than the Royals/Kings. Their 5000km journey has encompassed several cities but no titles and the closest the franchise has come was 2002, where they were eliminated in the Conference Finals by the Lakers. The story of the Royals/Kings has been a nomadic tale and the nomads rarely claim the prize. They've been everything from unfashionable - like the 40-42 1981 club who were led by Scott Wedman to the Conference Finals against Moses Malone's Rockets - to the glitzy, when Rick Adelman led the West's glamour team of Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby Doug Christie and Vlade Divac.

It's been a long road for the Kings, but hardly a lonesome one. Their number six jersey is retired in honour of their sixth man, the fans of California's capital. Cowbell Kingdom will grieve the loss of the city's only major league franchise, who they've nursed through the early days of Otis Thorpe, Eddie Johnson, Reggie Theus and Mike Woodson. The fans remained staunchly supportive of their adopted team through the bad times of Ricky Berry's suicide, Bobby Hurley's horrible car accident and even more recently where headlines weren't made by off-court mishaps but by Paul Westphal's nonsensical coaching and the immaturity of the face of the franchise, Evans and Cousins. They've been responsible for two sellout streaks - one of 497 straight games (over twelve years) and another of 354. It's not their fault - and probably not that of the owners, the Maloof brothers - that they're looking at the lucrative Honda Centre in Anaheim: the all-important corporate entertainment structures simply don't bear comparison.

Whether the move will be a commercial success is still debatable. Although Anaheim has the strongest combination of arena-plus-drawing region, twenty-two of thirty NBA franchises lost money last year and suggestions clubs will relocate are rife. Over the past ten years, the Vancouver, Charlotte and Seattle franchises have moved cities while rumours persist over whether the Hornets, Pacers, Hawks, Kings and even Bobcats will remain in their current homes. Neither the Grizzlies nor Hornets have reaped major financial benefits since relocating which must surely play heavily on the Maloof brothers' collective intelligence.

While the NBA is in great shape on the court, the business minds behind it appear to be struggling more than at any time since the drug-crazed days of the 1980s or even the Bad Old Times during the ABA wars. No matter how appealing the product is now, it would pay to remember that during Michael Jordan's initial fourteen years in the league, only the Kings moved locations. Even that happened after his rookie year. The twenty-year Golden Age of Pro Basketball - from the first rumblings of the Magic/Bird rivalry in 1979 to Jordan's retirement in 1998 - saw only two teams move digs. In the ten years before there were six relocations and in the thirteen years since a further four, plus the Nets' impending move to Brooklyn for the 2012 season.

The Kings have remained - like Rick Barry - a team of basketball gypsies. Which is, ultimately, fitting. Gypsies are either loved or loathed, the element of society which provides entertainment to the more established portions; a part of our culture who sometimes have come to terms with their nomadic existence and are happy and sometimes not. The Kings/Royals are the NBA's gypsies, moving anew to pastures fresh. They'll be welcome in Anaheim, surely, but will they come to terms with their ancestry there and thrive? For the hope of those basketball fans hoping to snag a relocated team in Vancouver, Cincinnati, Kansas City and most obviously here in Seattle, our prospects depend on the latest station of these pro sports vagabonds.

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