Andrew Unterberger is traversing the West Coast, seeing basketball games, taking pictures and writing. Here’s his report from Sacramento…
Compared to my recent trek west, waking up at 4:30 am to drive ten hours to Sacramento for a 3:00 game at ARCO Arena actually seemed like a relatively benign task. The roads were clear, the weather was nice, and the scenery was beautiful — I actually stopped at one of those overlook things to take a couple pictures, something that my dad would probably find hilarious, given how much shit I used to give him for making us do the same countless times on road trips. Impressively tranquil, at least for the first 300 miles, after which a hike up one of the mountains in Northern California suddenly landed me in the most intense fog I’d ever driven though for about thirty seconds, after which it was all good. Much geographical weirdness to be found in this country, I suppose.
The only real bummer about the drive was that I got to spend barely any time at all in Portland, a city I’ve never been to and obviously heard much about. But, duty calls, and no quality of sight-seeing was going to keep me from watching the Kings take on the Hornets in their Sunday matinee. Consider PDX earmarked on my US road-trip map for later reference.
The Stadium: “I heard that place is a dump,” one of the Blazers fans told me the night before when I said I was headed to ARCO the next day. I don’t know if I’d be quite so uncharitable, but there’s no denying that it’s pretty far from the sexiest of the arenas I’ve been to thus far. Walking up the arena, I could barely believe that there was actually a basketball court inside of it — it looked more like an office headquarters, the kind of flat, boxy, unassuming building you’d drive by on the highway and not look at twice. The insides weren’t much better, most of the stands looking kind of tacky and outdated, and the color scheme coming off cartoonish. (I like purple and black, but for whatever reason the combination just seems kind of garish.) “It’s a horrible, horrible relic of a stadium,” confirmed Zach Harper of Kings blog Cowbell Kingdom.
From the stadium, the marketing focus behind the team is fairly obvious: Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings certainly seem to believe that they have their contending core of the future in ‘Reke and DMC, and rather than try to square the focus on team, city and community like several of the other stadiums I’ve visited, Sacramento places all of its chips on these two young’ns. The two are on all the posters, overwhelming all the jersey stands, and getting the biggest sells from the PA announcer. The Kings especially waste no opportunity to remind you that Evans won Rookie of the Year last season, which after a while begins to make him look like one of those random Best Supporting Actress nominees who film promoters forever get to bill as “Academy Award Nominee Juliette Lewis.” It’s understandable that a team hurting in attendance and in the standings would want to get fans pumped about its new young players, but the Kings better just hope that the duo improves enough to not make those signs seem cruelly ironic in a couple years’ time.
The Game: Ouch, babe. After a sloppy and underwhelming contest between the Jazz and Blazers the night before, I was hoping to see some professional hoops on display between the Hornets and Kings, but instead what I got would barely even register as a college game. The Hornets struggled shooting the entire game, ending at 32 percent, but were never that far out of the game thanks to only marginally better shooting (38 percent by game’s end) and an obscene amount of turnovers (21 total for their five starters and Cousins) by the Kings. Both teams looked sluggish and largely unmotivated, an NBA worst-case scenario of Sunday Morning Coming Down that you kept hoping they’d wake up from, but never quite did.
Neither of the players I was most looking forward to seeing had especially strong showings. At least Chris Paul’s struggles were solely scoring-related — he finished with only nine points on an extremely uncharacteristic 2-12 shooting night, but still managed 14 assists, seven rebounds and five steals. There weren’t many of the kind of jaw-dropping plays you’ve almost come to expect from CP3, but every time he was within five feet of the ball, you just knew that good things were going to happen for the Hornets. But aside from a tomahawk fourth-quarter dunk and a key final-minute and-one, DeMarcus Cousins’ performance was absolutely irredeemable. Not only did he have a horrible stat line — seven points on 3-11, five rebounds, four turnovers and three shots blocked — he looked out of shape, he lazed back on defense, he sulked when he didn’t get the ball and he squawked at the refs repeatedly. It’s a necessary reminder that there was, in fact, a reason DMC slipped to No. 5 in the draft, and example No. 57323 of why the Summer League, while useful to an extent, is still far from foolproof in predicting rookie performance.
It was obvious that the longer the Kings let the Hornets hang in the game, the more likely it would be that the Hornets would eventually seize control. I kept waiting for Chris Paul to hit that final dagger to put the game away — he always seems to when my teams play him — but instead it was David West who sank the big jumper and corralled the key offensive board in the final minute to seal the W for New Orleans, 75-71 (barely even an acceptable college hoops final). Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, for me, I get to see these two teams play each other again in New Orleans in December, so I’m willing to grant them something of a mulligan. Just, uh, get some sleep before the next game, guys. Maybe get some Five-Hours in you in the locker room.
The Fans: I doubt you need to tell me that the turnout wasn’t great — multiple people told me that the crowds at ARCO haven’t been good since ’06-’07, and a fan named Scott said that between Friday and Sunday’s game, he doubted that 1/3 of the (already-small) stadium was filled. To the fan base’s credit though, the arena might have had the highest volume-to-attendance ratio that I’ve witnessed thus far. The fans that were there cheered for everything — opponent foul calls, jump ball whistles, good rebounds … no Kings accomplishment was too small to receive a nice burst of appreciation from the crowd, and as Zach pointed out to me, the stadium’s size and structure make it so that the crowd is right on top of the court. “When it’s packed, the energy is awesome,” Zach told me. “It can get loud, and the energy is always good if the team is playing well.”
Of course, that’s not happening so much these days. “They’re young, they’ve got talent,” Scott told me. “But aside from Tyreke, still no idea who’s going to show up from night to night.” Inconsistency was probably the main complaint with the team, and unsurprisingly, the brunt of that falls on the rookie DeMarcus Cousins. “He’s a lot like the team,” said Scott. “Some nights he comes out, scoring, crashing the boards, making good decisions. Other nights…” (Zach wouldn’t even let Tyreke off the hook, saying he hasn’t looked like he’s improved since his rookie year.) Still, optimism was relatively high for the team’s future around their two young stars. “Give ‘em another year,” a fan named Vince told me. “We’re getting there,” echoed Scott, “This year’s still going to be a lot of giving young guys playing time and building chemistry … it takes a while for guys to really know each other as well as Vlade, Webber and Bibby.”
(Hanging over the entire game for me was the lingering idea that it was probably a good thing that I was seeing the Kings in Sacramento now, because they might not be there much longer. Nobody thought that the threat was imminent, but a couple agreed that without some sort of franchise re-invigoration, it might only be a matter of time. “If they don’t get a new stadium, they’re gone,” said Zach succinctly.)
Most Popular Jerseys: Good variety for old and new, but clearly Evans wins out among the currents and Weber among the veterans. I was surprised to see how many jerseys the Kings had retired in the rafters, though, and some big names, too — with the franchise’s relatively underwhelming history, you forget how long this team has been around, and in how many different cities and name incarnations. (Which makes me wonder if it was really necessary for them to retire “The Sixth Man” as well — someone might need that jersey number someday.)
Also Worth Noting: Between Andre Miller at the previous night’s game and Samuel Dalembert on the Kings (as well as Willie Green and Jason Smith on the Hornets) tonight, it’s been a veritable tour of the roster of the ’07-’08 Sixers for me the last few nights. As much as Andre reminded me of how I missed him on my team, Dalembert did an excellent job of reminding me just how much I wanted him gone, racking up a bad foul, a goaltend and a flubbed alley-oop in the game’s opening minutes. (Sadly, as I tweeted from the game, we’d probably still rather have him at center than our current cavalcade of underwhelming and often undersized bigs.) I also had myself a nice chuckle at Green getting some minutes at the backup point for New Orleans. Slick Willie may have a handful of selling points, but no opposing defense has ever really cowered in fear of his play-making ability.
And hey, Rodney Carney tomorrow night in Golden State! The reunion tour continues.
Swag Acquired: Needed at least one giant foam finger from the trip, so I got a Sacramento one with “Casspi” written on it in Hebrew. (Omri’s only notable presence during my Sacramento visit, by the way, as he was a DNP for the game.) Figured my parents would appreciate it, if nothing else.
Sirius / XM Jam of the Day:
REO Speedwagon – “Time for Me To Fly” (Classic Rewind, XM 49) Nice little early second-tier hit from the arena-rock greats. Notable for its use of the Durstian vocab word “intoleration.”