I am well-aware that this article is much more Noam-y than it is Kings-y. If this bothers you, I will gladly reveal to you the punchline – I am a former Kings fan who was drawn back into the world of Sacramento basketball by a team so fun it makes you believe in unicorns – and send you on your way. However, the punchline as of itself is quite stale. It is the journey that brought me to re-embrace my Kings fanhood that I felt the urge to share with you, this being my first “full” season writing for Cowbell Kingdom. If you would be so kind as to tolerate the ramblings about Israeli sports teams you’ve never heard of and bad attempts at sophisticated jokes, I think you’ll have a better understanding of what the hell I’m doing on this cyberspace, anyhow.
As most sports fans worldwide would probably testify about themselves, the development of my sports fandom is the result and intricate combination of random circumstance and my father.
In college sports, I possess the ever rare double-edged fandom of the Florida Gators and the Ohio State Buckeyes. No, not because of recent success combined with bandwagon tendencies, but because my father’s work led to me spending 3 years of my childhood in Gainesville and 2 in Columbus. In major international soccer competitions – which, by definition, do not include Israeli squads – my allegiance is forever reserved for the Italian teams, after years of Dad teaching me that “the Italians are just so, so nice”. And of course, my one true love, Hapoel Jerusalem (both soccer and basketball), is based in the hometown of both mine and my father’s, and has been a cause of happiness and mental distress for him long before I was present on this planet.
However, as my father constantly laments, my sports education includes one glaring failure: my favorite sport is only second in his hierarchy.
He has only himself to blame. Despite the flaming passion for soccer that he has successfully conveyed to me as well, basketball has been the clear alpha dog in my book ever since my 4th birthday. That was when, as a present, I was given a small plastic basket, the type you can adjust in height so little kids can dunk on them. Thanks to me, he used it almost as much as I did. Our living room became the scene of some of the world’s greatest one-on-one games, with me assuming the role of Hapoel’s then superstar Adi Gordon (widely considered as the best player ever to play for the team), while Dad would play Gordon’s teammate, Doron Sheffa. As the 4 year old Gordon drove the 32 year old Sheffa into the ground again and again, it was clear that for me, soccer could never rank higher than second.
However, unlike the Israeli basketball league, I was not equipped with an NBA franchise at home. Not that my father wasn’t interested in the NBA – I’ve yet to see him turn down a good NBA game, and he hates the Lakers as much as the rest of us – but once we left the US and returned to Israel, he voluntarily gave up the wear-and-tear of sleepless nights for box scores and recaps.
As such, my NBA fandom was left abandoned, susceptible to the ever-changing impressions of a young child. And who do you like in the NBA when you’re a young child in the late 1990s?
Yup, I was a Bulls fan. Except, I wasn’t really a Bulls fan. I had no association with the red-and-white jerseys, or the past antics of Artis Gilmore. What I loved was that bald dude wearing number 23 who killed everybody else. Not that I didn’t grow to love every other Bull. I loved Pippen’s all around brilliance, the kind clear even to a child; I loved Rodman’s hair, tattoos, and general craziness; I loved just how white Luc Longley was. I especially loved Steve Kerr, for the clutch shooting that helped seal the deal so many times in the playoffs. But MJ was a step above everybody.
But what happens when a little kid who just wants to root for MJ finds himself in an MJ-less world?
Well, in my case, the bizarre answer was rooted in the summer of 1997, and the small town of Davis, California.
The summer of ’97 saw a 6 year old me travel, by van, from our then Columbus home to sunny California, staying for 2 months in Davis before driving all the way back. Not unlike the rest of my life, I remember that trip for the constant basketball occurrences throughout – watching Karl Malone almost singlehandedly tie the finals from my uncle’s home in Rochester, Minnesota, worrying me out of my mind that MJ might just lose; my fears happily slipping away as I watched the Flu game at a Wyoming hotel, knowing then that game 6 will go to Chicago; the kind man at the (then named) Delta Center, who offered my father and me a short, free tour of the Jazz’s legendary arena when we just showed up there to look at it from the outside; and the pink and green plastic courts set outside the aforementioned Delta Center, who witnessed Adi Gordon yet again beating Doron Sheffa in a game of one-on-one.
But the highlight of the trip was, without a doubt, the Sacramento suburb. Maybe it was the vacational vibe, or the fond memory of a young child, but Davis remains one of my favorite places in the world to this day. The ever-present sun, always warm but never relentless, the laid back attitude that leaves you without a care in the world, and of course, Silver Dragon, which has reached legendary status in the Schiller family ranks (I dream of their cashew nut chicken on a nightly basis). My second and third visits to the city are just as magical as the first, and I count on visits 4-through-hopefully-a-lot to live up to the same standard.
More importantly to our Sacramento-basketball related story, it was during this Davis stay that my father took me to the Californian capital to witness my first live, pro ball game. Except that if you’ve been reading until now (if not, I don’t blame you), you’ve probably noticed a glitch: the NBA Finals were over before we arrived at Davis. The Kings don’t play in July.
Indeed, the first time I was in attendence for a professional basketball game (I saw a few college one’s before), the league under which the game took place was the WNBA.
Now, this is the part of the story where the narrative takes a turn to the bizarre, so you’ll just have to believe me that this is how a 6 year old thinks. At the time, I was still all Jordan, all the time. Heck, a few months later, on October 31st 1997, I went to sleep crying after second year pro Antoine Walker scored 31 points to beat the Bulls on opening night (no amount of “Noam, it’s the first game of the season, it’s all right” could console me). But the seeds were planted. I remember not who the Sacramento Monarchs played when I was in the building (I do remember they won) or the names on the back of the home jerseys, but from that moment on, I had a strong sympathy for all Sacramento basketball teams. I swear, when I found out the Monarchs franchise folded, I was legitimately sad, even if I discovered it something like 2 years after it actually happened.
After Jordan’s second retirement, it only made sense to me that the Kings were now my favorite team. As if to solidify my feelings, the Kings drafted Jason Williams in the 1998 draft. I was in attendence for White Chocolate’s final home game with my beloved Gators, when he scored 26 points off a ridiculous 8 for 12 showing from 3 to defeat Auburn. Even when the Kings traded Jason for Mike Bibby, I remained a King – the franchise had grown on me, and besides, I enjoyed Bibby’s run at Arizona and didn’t mind rooting for him at all. Seems funny saying that today, doesn’t it?
And yet, the foundation was severely weakened by my return to Israel. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to be an underaged NBA fan living 7 time zones away from the East coast of the US in a pre-internet era, but it ain’t pretty. My NBA fandom was pretty much reduced to dial-up-based box score scouring, and the extremely rare occasions when a game was broadcast, and it wasn’t a school night, and I managed to stay awake. This is also the reason that even though I was a Kings fan at the time, I can still hear conversations about the 2002 WCF Game 6 without running away in tears – I loved those early decade Kings teams from the bottom of my heart, but as far as actually experiencing them, I was hardly a part of it.
My re-fanaticization, to invent a word that describes the situation better than any existing one, of the NBA took place during the 03-04 season. I’m not really sure why – if I had to give a reason, I’d say it was a combination of my new school having constant internet access in the library, thus enabling me to go on my box score runs without incapacitating our phone (yeah, laziness made my family kind of late on the technology train), and that NBA Live 2004 was just a really good game (if you disagree, don’t tell me. I realize in retrospect that it may have sucked, and I made the transition to 2K sports like everybody else, but Live 2004 has too many happy memories in my head).
The great thing about my enhanced interest in the NBA in 03-04 was that it coincided with a career year from my favorite King. Peja Stojakovic dominated that campaign, scoring 24 a night on a ridiculous 62% true shooting. If you take nothing else from this post, at least reflect for just a few minutes how damn good Peja used to be. He was by far my favorite player in the league at the time (he was also the first “real” player to join the roster of my imaginary basketball team “The Supers”. Yeah, I kind of wish you didn’t read that), and never truly recovered from the recurring back injuries, but before he was dead weight on the Hornets, this dude was the truth.
Sadly, this wasn’t to last. I spent another year in the States during the 04-05 season, raising my NBA awareness and fandom to new heights (you’d be amazed how much easier it is to watch basketball when you’re awake during the games). The Kings part, on the other hand, was on a steady decline. Vlade was done, Peja was breaking down, the remnants of Chris Webber were stuffed into a duffel bag and mailed to Philly. Nothing was right anymore. And while I realize this sounds like a bandwagoner’s diary, the bottom line is that my original connection to the team was rickety at best. I had watched very few Kings games (and NBA games in general) during this episode of my fanhood, and my connection was to the names I saw on the box score, and not so much the color of the jerseys or the name on up front. Thus, as the core group who led that team slowly disintegrated, so did my interest. The sympathy always stayed, but once Peja finally left for a nutjob I had no interest in rooting for, it was all that remained.
And so I became the dreaded “players fan”. The NBA nomad who wanders the streets of basketball, knocking on car windows and asking for spare change, occasionally finding it in players both transcendent and just plain entertaining. I rooted for the Cavs because of the way Lebron James made my jaw drop. I rooted for the Suns because of how Steve Nash made me want to take a ball, go to the nearest court, and practice no-look passes to the molecules standing on the three point line at the other side of the court. I rooted for the Hornets because of how I won my 2006 fantasy league thanks to rookie Chris Paul (sixth round, son!) and Most Improved Player runner up David West (waiver wire). But the satisfaction of watching 82 games of one team just to see what they do on every given night wasn’t there any more.
Until last season, when once again circumstance decided to play a funny game with my NBA loyalties.
First and foremost, I was luckily presented with a boatload of free time, which happilly coincided with the NBA’s rapidly evolving online presence. Given the ability to do absolutely nothing, I purchased League Pass Broadband, gave up sleep, and dove head first into the everyday NBA world. And while I had been reading big name blogs like Ball Don’t Lie and Truehoop before hand, the booming blogosphere along with the emergence of Twitter and the successful new Daily Dime Live chats allowed me to surround myself with the NBA 24 hours a day, while giving me a voice to chime in with. Obviously, after delving into this world I now realize that LPBB is here to stay even if life tries to get in the way, but I think you’d agree with me that making a conscious decision to be awake from 2 A.M. to 8 A.M. on a nightly basis is something that one has to arrive at, and not a natural state of being.
My newfound exposure to the online NBA world and the many incredible writers who contribute to it not only expanded my knowledge and love of the game of basketball, but also raised the question of my fanhood from the dead. Now provided with more voices than only Marv Albert, AP recaps, and whatever I was reading at the time, I started missing that unique perspective of monogamous basketball. I still had it at home – cut to me beaming at my Hapoel Jerusalem season tickets – but not in the NBA. And it was sorely missed. Coming in constant interaction with dozens of voices swirling in a never ending roller coaster of emotion, I couldn’t help but feel like the cold, toneless robot that wasn’t invited to the party. Specifically, this fantastic post from Matt Moore regarding his own venture towards supporting the Grizzlies was a big influence on this piece, since it echoed so many of my own sentiments regarding my placement as an NBA fan. If you didn’t read it at the time, and even if you did, I recommend you do so.
The second factor was, obviously, Omri Casspi. The second Omri’s name was called by David Stern, I immediately knew two things: 1. I would be watching a lot of Sacramento basketball for the next few years. 2. I will never be able to root for them again. It felt too much of a bandwagon jump for me, with so many people in Israel who had no idea what NBA basketball even was all of a sudden declaring they bled purple and white – this assuming that they actually bothered to find out what colors the Kings wore. Besides, I had just spent the past few years despising Casspi as he bore the Maccabi colors (I think anyone who watched the Kings last year can understand how Casspi is the kind of player one absolutely loathes when he’s playing against you), and while I had no doubt that I would be rooting for his success, making the jump towards rooting for his team seemed too extreme.
And yet, as I watched Omri, and by proxy, his new teammates, I felt myself slowly gravitating into that once familiar territory. No, this wasn’t Peja pulling the ball to that sweet spot just behind ear before slingshotting in another three, and it wasn’t Bibby pulling up for a clutch three pointer when all logic says to wait things out. This was different. But still, it was those same colors that had me jumping up in my seat. The more the season went by, the more my interest expanded from just “tell me when Casspi is in the game”, to the point that I was actually looking forward to watching the Kings even when Omri fell out of favor late in the season.
I was yelling in glee as Tyreke Evans turned fourth quarters into layup lines, and in frustration as Spencer Hawes just refused to show any semblence of a will to enter the paint. I was in awe at how Beno Udrih managed to flick up floaters above people that seemed poised to consume him every second, and in shock at how Andres Nocioni just didn’t realize that shooting isn’t his thing. I was clutching at my chest as this young squad took the Lakers and Cavs to overtime, crushed at how they just couldn’t pull it off. And of course, no matter how much the rest of the team found it’s way into the roundball dimensions of my soul, nothing could compare to the sense of pride at watching Omri knock down a three, or get fouled while converting a tough layup, or smashing Danilo Galinari’s face, and then yelling to the skies, his fist repeatedly asking his chest “what’s up?”
When the Kevin Martin for Carl Landry rumors started rushing in the night before the trading deadline, it was after all of that night’s games were done. Around 8 A.M. local time. And yet, I was transfixed, glued to the refresh button, with my twitter account spread out on the screen, unable to quench my thirst for more information. And then it was official. And I was ecstatic. “The Kings got Carl Landry!” By the time the draft came by, and David Kahn passed on DeMarcus Cousins, the sentence that resulted was similar, but so, so different. “We got DeMarcus Cousins!”. We.
When Zach offered me to write here last February, I found it ironic. The Truehoop blogger who writes for the team he doesn’t root for, asking me, who doesn’t root for anybody, to write for him. In the perspectively diverse NBA blogosphere, the perspective of Cowbell Kingdom was, and will remain, that of an outsider.
Not anymore. You’ve got a Kings fan on your hands.