Remember the Kings

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It was an NBA team in a city that had no NFL or Major League Baseball representation. Having relocated not all that long ago, the team endeared itself to a community in ways that measured beyond game night, beyond logo or brand, beyond winning streaks and All-Star appearances. The faces of the franchise gained national acclaim only through what they did on the court in that one-horse town. And those faces were better as a collection than any one of them could be individually.

And finally, after years of futility — either 50-loss seasons or cursory postseason impact — that team reached the NBA’s final four, in its case the Western Conference finals. The Larry O’Brien Trophy became more than a symbol of another kind of basketball, played by the elite, those Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, or Spurs. The NBA championship, for the first time in that city, was within reach.

Then it all faded. Within five years, futility returned to that team and that community. Today, it resides on the boundaries of NBA relevance, more newsworthy for merely staying in that one-horse town than for any recent achievements on the hardwood.

As the disappointment of a sweep at the hands of San Antonio fades to happy memories of an historic season, the new Memphis Grizzlies ownership group and its management team would be wise to heed the lesson of the 2001-02 Sacramento Kings. If you’re older than 20, you surely remember that club, led by Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac, and Bobby Jackson. They won 61 games, finished second in the league with 104.6 points per game and, more tellingly, led the NBA in pace (a team’s number of possessions per game).

It might be blasphemous to suggest such in Los Angeles, but those Sacramento Kings were a northern California version of Showtime. They were the most exciting team in the NBA, and came within a single win (twice, actually) of the NBA Finals. Alas, they fell in overtime of Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals to the reigning champs, the Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Showtime 2.0 met its match in the city where Showtime was born.

And the Kings haven’t gotten close to the NBA Finals in the 11 years since. They reached the playoffs the next four seasons after their conference-final appearance, but never again won two series. By the 2005-06 season — the Kings’ last postseason appearance — Webber, Divac, and Jackson were long gone, replaced by the likes of Ron Artest, Brad Miller, and (gulp) Bonzi Wells. Over the last seven seasons, Sacramento hasn’t scratched a .500 record and hasn’t won as many as 30 games since 2007-08. To the credit of the team’s fiercely loyal fan base (one of whom is a former NBA star, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson), it appears the Kings will remain in the California capital despite efforts from Seattle to lure them to the Emerald City. But the Kings have lost any semblance of Showtime. You won’t see them on a Thursday-night TNT broadcast anytime soon. They’re as relevant to championship talk as the New Orleans Pelicans.

For now, the 2012-13 Grizzlies are to Memphis what the 2001-02 Kings were to Sacramento. It’s up to owner Robert Pera, managing partner Jason Levien, and (maybe, hopefully?) coach Lionel Hollins to determine whether this unforgettable season is a significant step toward the ultimate goal . . . or a culmination of sorts. Can the faces of this franchise — Z-Bo, Marc, Mike, and Tony — be retained (and motivated) for the necessary climb ahead? Can pieces be found to supplement the team’s established core and close the gap — and there is a big one — with the likes of San Antonio and Miami?

By some measures, the hard part is behind the Memphis Grizzlies. The franchise has gained a seat at the NBA’s royal table, one where no more than seven or eight teams can sit comfortably one winter after the next. But to sit on the throne itself, to wear the crown that has fit so comfortably atop Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and most recently, LeBron James? That’s a challenge of its own kind, still unmet by the residents of the Grindhouse. How heavy is the challenge? Just ask the Kings.

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