Healing process ahead of schedule for NBA fans
SACRAMENTO – Forgive and forget. Time heals all wounds. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Pick your cliche. NBA fans – evidently a resilient lot – already have.
With the league’s first-ever work stoppage fresh in the minds of most pro basketball fans, more than 17,000 northern California hoops loyalists took part in step one of the healing process last Thursday night at Arco Arena. The event will go down in the books as a preseason battle between Sacramento and Golden State, but it resembled a free group therapy meeting more than it did a hoops game.
“I’d still be an NBA fan even if they didn’t play this year,” said 16-year
old Robby Porter of Folsom, Calif. “If you love the NBA, you stick with it no matter what. No matter what happens!”
Fans slowly filtered into the arena as the 7:30 p.m. start time approached, many wearing cautious, half-nervous expressions as if they were grudgingly showing up for a blind date. After all, it was time for a ‘rebound’ date. The six-month breakup took its toll on both sides, though both parties seemed willing to overlook the past. Kings players obliged, canvassing the venue’s lower level 20 minutes prior to the game for a meet-and-greet session with Kings supporters. Smiles and sighs of relief broke out from both sides. And so did half apologies as NBA players stood face-to-face with fans for what seemed like the first time in ages. For many Sacramento players, it marked the first time they’d met a sit-in-the-stands, face-painting Kings fan.
“I think part of it is marketing, but I think in the Kings situation it was genuine,” said Sacramento attorney Michael Skala of the pregame olive-branching. Skala, wearing a “Diehard Kings Fan” T-shirt, is a Sacramento season ticket holder. “It was a good move because I think there were a lot of fans probably turned away because of the lockout. Plus, it kind of builds momentum for sellouts for the rest of the year.”
Momentum for sellouts? For the Kings, owners of a 15 straight seasons with a sub-.500 regular season record?
The free agent signing period began Jan. 21, and in the days that have followed, the Kings have inked four players, including free agents Vlade Divac and veteran Vernon Maxwell, and signed draft picks Jason Williams and Jerome James. The May 1998 addition of Chris Webber, the re-signing of fan favorite Corliss Williamson and the proven winning tradition of first-year coach Rick Adelman have many Sacramento fans thinking hard about the playoffs. And not too hard about the recent lockout.
“I was going to have a hard time getting over the lockout initially, but I’m actually pretty excited now about the team they have put together,” said Rick Ellsworth, a Sacramento commercial real estate broker and a lifelong Kings season ticket holder. “Sacramento has been a dedicated sports town, especially to the extent it’s the only game in town right now.”
Some fans think that the lengthy work stoppage might even be a blessing in disguise for the league and its fans.
“I know the fans didn’t like the lockout, but I think it’s going to bring a lot more people to the game because they’ll appreciate it more now that it’s back,” said airman Vince Porter, stationed at nearby Beale Air Force Base. “It’s just like anything – you don’t miss it until it’s gone.”
Sacramento’s NBA fans have returned to their jilted lovers with newfound zeal and enthusiasm. Maybe the time off gave them an opportunity to assess the nature of their relationship. What did they want from the game and its players?
Put us first and stop worrying about the money so much, NBA diehards responded.
“Personally I didn’t feel sorry for them at all,” said Shelley Schefler, who owns and operates a restaurant in Tahoe City. “I think the (players) make too much money as it is. They need to worry about the fans a little more. We’re the ones that fill up the seats.”
And fill they did. Exactly 17,311 for a sneak preview of the 1999 Kings. As the league’s reconditioned marketing slogan states, “The NBA is still fantastic.”
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