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Home > Featured Articles, Lost Champions: 2002 Sacramento Kings > The Lost Champions: The 2002 Sacramento Kings and the Fixed Western Conference Finals

The Lost Champions: The 2002 Sacramento Kings and the Fixed Western Conference Finals

Editor’s Note: With the NBA playoffs in full swing, we felt it was time to tell this story. Eight years ago, the Sacramento Kings were robbed of an NBA championship in one of the most lopsided officiated series in sports history. The author will never be the same.

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Part 1 Part 2

THE AFTERMATH

When it was over, I could barely move. I just sat on the couch, slack-jawed, staring at the television. I had just been through the most heartbreaking series of my fanatical sports life. After seven games, two sweat-drenched jerseys, three or four smashed television remotes, a destroyed living room, and the cold-blooded murder of my sports innocence, I was spent.

I threw off my black, road C-Webb jersey, spiked my Kings hat onto the floor, and knocked over a few things as I stormed outside.

I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe they had lost.

Vlade Divac reacts after the Kings' heartbreaking Game 7 loss. (Photo courtesy: ESPN/Getty Images)

When your team is in the middle of a series like that one, you try not to think about losing. You’re getting screwed out of call after call, but your guys are still fighting. Still making shots. Improbably sticking it to the man even when many championship teams would have folded.

You try to think about how your team can pull it out. You try to think about what that championship t-shirt would feel like if you ever actually got the chance to put it on. This one wouldn’t have felt like cotton. It would have felt like cashmere. It would have felt like revenge. (Revenge, I think, feels like cashmere.)

I never allowed myself to consider what losing would feel like. After Games 4 and 6, losing wasn’t possible. The universe couldn’t allow them to lose. It had to be on my side. After all, it was almost impossible to argue– the Kings were the better team.

They were three games better in the regular season. They had dominated for long stretches of the series. They led Game 4 by 24 points before a referee-aided meltdown. They would have won Game 6 if any other group of basketball referees this side of Mongolia had been officiating. Even the Lakers acknowledged that the Kings probably should have won the series.

Just look at some of these postgame quotes:

“The Kings were the better team and they deserved to win. But somehow we did.”–Phil Jackson.

“They humbled us in a lot of ways,”–Rick Fox, insufferable Lakers pretty boy forward

“The Kings were playing better basketball than us,”– Kobe Bryant

Before Game 7, Chris Webber had said that he felt like the Kings had already won five games in the series. They pretty much freakin’ had.

Yet somehow, for some cosmically cruel reason, they weren’t going to the Finals. They were going home.

I felt like someone had hit me in the balls with a 3-wood, stolen my grandma’s car and ran over my dog.

I remember watching Shaquille O’Neal and his invisible, Dick Bavetta-created forcefield mouthing off, “Sacramento thought it was their year. But it wasn’t.”

I wanted to jump through the T.V. and punch him in the jujunum.

This photo never should have happened. (Michael Conroy/AP)

The thing is, it was our year. We didn’t lose. We had the championship stolen.

I took a walk outside, looking up at the stars and trying to think about how insignificant the whole thing was. (Editor’s Note: I also did this after the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. In other news, I take sports way too seriously.)

But it wasn’t insignificant. This team was different.

These Kings were brilliant. They passed and cut like Princeton on steroids. (Legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril was an assistant.) They ran the fast-break like the Showtime Lakers. They were the most unselfish NBA team I’ve ever seen.

The Kings led the league in scoring, throwing behind the back passes, and buying into a coach’s system. Sports Illustrated even put them on the cover a year earlier, proclaiming, “The Sacramento Kings: Basketball the Way It Oughta Be.”

Best of all, they were doing it all for a team that had been one of the league’s signature doormats for much of its history.

These were the new Kings. They were the coolest team in basketball. They had become my favorite team.

Like most sports fans my age, I grew up on the Chicago Bulls. I couldn’t help it. Michael Jordan meant more to my childhood than any person who doesn’t share my blood. He was my idol, my own personal demigod years before I even knew what the word meant. (All right, I just looked it up online, but let’s focus here.)

When His Airness retired (the second time), I found myself, like many young fans, without a team to root for. I was in a basketball no-man’s land.

I couldn’t go back to the Bulls; management had basically forced Jordan out.

So I tried the Knicks, my dad’s old favorite team. Too much Sprewell. I tried Barkley and the Rockets. Too many old guys. I even tried the Pacers before I realized Reggie Miller was the least cool superstar since Stockton. And then, all of a sudden, there they were.

Cue the Barry Manilow music.

Divac, Webber, and the Kings were fun to watch. (AP Photo)

They had everything I wanted in a team. Cool jerseys. A great playing style. An underdog feel. Chris Webber was my new hero. And Vlade Divac captured my imagination more than I ever dreamed a 7-foot foreign white guy could.

The 1998-99 Kings went 27-23 in the lockout-shortened season, and posted their first winning season in my lifetime. They got a 6-seed in the playoffs, and took the eventual Western Conference champion Utah Jazz to a fifth and deciding game in the first round.

They took the eventual Western Conference champ Lakers to five games the next year, as an 8-seed. In 2001, they reached the second round before being swept by L.A. They had earned my loyalty, and had gone from a perennial doormat to a pretty good team.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Kings went from good to great.

C-Webb became a bona-fide superstar and transformed into quite possibly the best-passing power forward in NBA history. Predrag Stojakovic became ‘Peja’, and started knocking down threes like he was the Yugoslavian Larry Bird. Bobby Jackson turned into a mini-“Microwave” off the bench, and Vlade Divac became the old, wily veteran, almost like your favorite uncle who always knew just the right tricks to beat you in a video game.

They traded away fan-favorite (and ballhog) Jason “White Chocolate” Williams for Mike Bibby, who was a tough-as-a-meat-grinder little point guard who wasn’t afraid of anybody. All of a sudden, the Kings were built to win a championship right away.

They dominated the 2002 regular season, finishing with the league’s best record by three full games. They dispatched those old, annoying, short-shorts wearing Utah Jazz, 3-1, in the first round of the playoffs. Then they pounded the Dallas Mavericks, 4-1, in a series that pitted the two most exciting teams in the NBA.

Los Angeles was the only thing standing between the Kings and an NBA championship. The New Jersey Nets were the class of the Eastern Conference, but won only 52 games in the regular season and would have been a 5-seed had they played in the West. They would be swept in the Finals. They weren’t going to beat Sacramento.

This was the most pivotal series of my young NBA fanhood. Why? Because as much as I loved the Kings, I may have hated the Lakers even more. They had won two straight championships. They had beaten Larry Bird, my other basketball idol, and the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 Finals. I hated Shaq. I hated Kobe. I despised Rick Fox. There was absolutely nothing about the Lakers I could stomach.

The Kings lost Game 1 because they were overwhelmed by the situation. I’m absolutely positive of this. But after that, they had been the best team in that series. Yet, because of guys like Dick Bavetta and Bob Delaney, they would never get the chance to prove that.

It takes time to get over things like that, and there wasn’t a moment during the entire 2003 season that I didn’t think about it. I remember watching the first preseason game between the two teams, thrilled that the Kings had beaten the Lakers, 93-88, and that Doug Christie had brawled with Rick Fox in the tunnel after both had already been ejected for fighting.

The Kings won the Pacific Division for the second straight year, going 59-23, and earning a 3-seed in the Western Conference. Once again, they bounced Utah from the playoffs in the first round, and matched up with the 60-22 Mavs in round 2.

Sacramento won Game 1, but lost Chris Webber to an ACL tear in Game 2. They would never be the same. The Kings lost the series in seven.

Sacramento would fight valiantly the next year, winning 55 games and finishing one game behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division. But they weren’t quite the same. Webber was a step slower, less explosive, and not the same offensive threat. Bibby had lost the killer instinct he had in 2002, and he has yet to get it back. Divac wasn’t the old, wily uncle anymore, he was just old. The Kings did get a measure of revenge on the Mavs, ousting them 4-1 in Round 1, but then fell to Kevin Garnett and the top-seeded Timberwolves in Round 2.

Webber will never be able to shake his legacy as a big-game loser, thanks to the officials in Game 6. (AP Photo/ Susan Ragan)

In a fitting bookend to his star-crossed career, Webber missed a potential game-tying 3 at the buzzer. That would be the final shot the Kings would take as contenders.

It didn’t have to be this way.

It could have all changed in Game 6. NBA title on the line. Webber’s legacy and possibly his Hall of Fame candidacy on the line. And Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt decided the outcome.

Webber will be remembered as the most ill-fated/unlucky athlete of his generation, instead of one of the best basketball players of his generation.

The 2002 Sacramento Kings will be remembered as the team that came up just short.

And young Kels Dayton, of Thomaston, Connecticut, will remember the night he lost faith in the NBA.

I’m still not sure which is the biggest crime.

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  1. Matt
    May 30, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    I could have written that article. That’s not to be taken as an insult, but as a teenager who was born and raised as a King’s fan, my sports innocence was also maliciously taken from me by Dick Bavetta. Everything I remember about that series was cogently summed up in this piece, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to recover or watch an NBA game with the same passion I once had.

    • May 30, 2010 at 11:04 PM

      Thanks Matt. I agree, I still can’t watch it the same way. Every time there’s a big game I’m always dubious about the refs, and that sucks. It really shouldn’t be that way. Basketball is my favorite sport, and the last thing fans should have to worry about is whether or not the refs are crooked. But apparently David Stern doesn’t care about guys like us. People still hail him as a great commissioner. It’s ridiculous.

    • bronson Grubbs
      March 10, 2011 at 8:02 AM

      same dude. i was just 7 and one of the biggest kings fans and my heart was torn. when they lost. i pretty much broke everything in my room. i get a knot in my stomach everytime i think about it. the nba is so rigged. its always a big market team that wins. and now its a damn shame the kings are moving.

  2. Dan
    May 30, 2010 at 8:06 PM

    Great article. I too watched this game in disbelief, and I’m glad people are still talking about it. That 2002 team should be ranked as one of the greatest of all time.

    • May 30, 2010 at 11:10 PM

      Thanks alot Dan. I’m still hoping that more news comes out about Donaghy. I just hope that we can all one day agree that the 2002 championship wasn’t fairly contested. I think Webber’s legacy, as well as Rick Adelman’s, would be completely different had the Kings been given a chance in that game. I think the record should reflect that, especially if anyone can corroborate Donaghy’s claims.

  3. Kitecurse
    July 10, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    this was a great article. I still get angry thinking about that series. I couldn’t believe my eyes because the kings of 2002/2003 were so much fun to watch because it was basketball how it should’ve been played but they weren’t headliners that stuck out because they played together and there wasn’t a SUPER key figurehead player like Kobe or Shaq on the team.

    SOOOOOO ANGRY!!!!!

    • July 17, 2010 at 3:07 AM

      Thanks kitecurse. I agree, that was one of the great things about that team. They could have revolutionized basketball by changing the formula on how you can win a championship. It could have led to –gasp– actual team basketball in the NBA.

      I thought the 2006 Mavs could have done the same thing; no completely dominant player (although Dirk was close.) Unfortunately, in large part due to the refs in that series as well, the star studded teams prevailed. Maybe that’s why LeBron and Bosh ended up signing with the Heat.

  4. Sliced Bread
    July 16, 2010 at 11:13 AM

    I feel the same way man. You nailed it right on the head. This series cost not only the Kings the NBA championship, but Webber his nod into the Hall of Fame. Just like you man, I grew up a Bulls fan and found it hard to find a team after he retired. Webbers Kings are my favourite team of all time. It’s a damn shame what happened. A real damn shame. I especially feel bad for Webber as his legacy takes the biggest hit. He would have been a sure-fire Hall of Famer had they won that championship. Instead, Shaq and Kobes legacy grew even more… damn shame. I too cannot stand Kobe. That year they gave him one extra ring. Now he’s a ring closer to Jordan (which he’ll never be). Man, this is a great article. I really hope they get to the bottom of this and find those who cheated the Kings go down.

    • July 17, 2010 at 2:51 AM

      Hey I couldn’t have said it better. And you know if Kobe wins another one, people will say he’s Jordan. Which should be considered sacrilegious by anyone who knows anything about basketball. Thanks alot man.

  5. Holey-Moley
    July 23, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    Great article! The Kings are truly the lost champions. My heart goes out to that team. They were royally screwed. You know the funny thing is Donaghy didn’t even ref the infamous game 6 too? That means the other refs who refereed game 6 were in on it. Because if they found Donaghy guilty, and he didn’t even ref game 6, THE OTHER REFS WERE IN ON IT TOO. The NBA is rigged!!!!!!!!!!!!! They only care about big market teams doing well. Even Larry Bird has went on record saying that David Stern is corrupt!

  6. Jon b.
    October 11, 2010 at 8:24 AM

    Great article , i felt the way as described in your article and was brilliantly written . You hit the nail on the head about everything . I thank you for doing this peace and i want to spread this article out more but i think alot more people need to see it .

    • October 13, 2010 at 6:23 PM

      Thanks alot Jon. I agree, I’m hoping a lot more people will see it haha. I think it is a shame that only diehard Kings fans and people within the NBA will continue remember this every time someone mentions the Lakers winning 3 straight championships. I really do think there needs to be an investigation, especially after the Donaghy revelations.

  7. October 11, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    Great article! I’ve gone through all the tape and did my best to show the disparity in calls throughout that series on youtube. Here are some mind boggling stats regarding that series.

    -Vlade Divac averaged only 1 foul per 12 minutes during the regular season. Against Shaq he averaged 1 foul per 6 minutes and didn’t hack a shack ONCE!

    -The Kings shot 2-3 more FT’s per game than their opponents during the regular season due to their potent offense and ‘soft’ defense. During 27/29 quarters of the 2002 WCF, the Kings averaged 1.5 more FT attempts than the Lakers. HOWEVER in the 2 most pivotal quarters (4th quarters of games 4 and 6) the Lakers averaged a MIND BLOWING 12.5 more FT’s than the Kings.

    • October 13, 2010 at 6:19 PM

      Thanks alot NFLranking. I really enjoyed your series on Youtube, although it made me want to throw my computer across the room on several occasions. Thanks for making that video; I think more people should know about what happened in that series, and just how much the Kings were robbed.

  8. asmanuel
    December 14, 2010 at 6:40 AM

    The greatest article that I’ve read about this controversial playoff games. I was really sad about what happened to the KINGS. Stern should be fried in HELL, I lost my two months salary for betting on the KINGS to win the series!! David Stern and the 3 devils interfere with history and altered it by making the LA 3peat champs. The NBA is fixed. That is why I pity the Kings for playing their hearts out. The fact is plain and simple THEY WERE ROBBED BY STERN!!

  9. Haris Ashraf
    February 7, 2011 at 9:42 PM

    may god increase you for writing this. my love for the nba will never be the same.

  10. Binesean
    February 23, 2011 at 8:34 PM

    The most depressing year of my life. I haven’t been able to be an NBA fan since.

  11. March 14, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    Funny how this article conveniently leaves out the number of flops Vlade got away with in this series. Were there more or less than 30?

    The Kings were absolutely screwed in Game 6, and Kings fans have a right to be upset. The Lakers also had to contend with questionable whistles in Game 2 & Game 3. It does not even out, though it isn’t as one-sided as this author makes it out to be. If the Kings deserved to win this series, they would have won the series.

    There’s a lot of conjecture but very little substance when discussing other officiating woes from this series. “The Lost Champions” is also misleading and arrogant. The Kings wouldn have been guaranteed an NBA Championship as much as the Lakers were guaranteed the 2004 NBA Championship.

    This author has done a good job of re-entering that vein of the damaged Sacramento sports psyche, but does not pass the test of numbers and facts and actual journalism.

    Listening to Sacramento sports radio while driving from the Bay Area back to LA the morning after Game 7 was one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable sports experiences in my lifetime.

    Go Lake Show,
    Blippity Bloop

    • Danny Jacobs
      April 18, 2011 at 4:13 AM

      who actually relishes beating a small-market team that gets a chance to win a championship once in multiple generations?

      seriously, kill yourself

  12. Bobby Jackson
    April 7, 2011 at 8:41 PM

    As a Chicago Bulls fan of the early to mid 90’s I know my team has been on the side of some favorable calls through out that dynasty (ie, The Jordan Push off). Shoot even DRose ending up in Chicago.

    That being said anyone with an objective brain can see that something was fishy that night (Game 6). In addition, anyone can see that David Stern and the Lakers are two pees in a pod. Funny what will happen when the Bryant and the Lakers are to old to compete anymore.

  13. Bobby Jackson
    April 7, 2011 at 8:42 PM

    By the way if you were depressed about this game for over a year you really need to get a life. What is wrong with you its just a game.

  14. Samantha
    April 19, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    I needed to read this… its been nine years with this torment stuck in my body. I come from the lovely state of Washington [former home of the Seattle Super Sonics]. I, too grew up in love with the Chicago Bulls and was also a big Miami Heat fan. I’d follow the Sonics, they were the home team and I always did them right… but as I grew older I didn’t feel like I had an actual team until I came across the Sacramento Kings and got the joy of watching them grow several years into the team they were in these 2002 playoffs. I was obsessed, involved, and in love. I remember this series like it was yesterday… I cried. I actually cried. And then a few years past… I didn’t have my Kings anymore [all my guys were gone… and I was lost]. I stopped watching NBA games [at least I had college hoops and March Madness to fill the void, and of course my own games but this is from a fan point-of-view]. It was horrible… But I had the home team, the not very good but room for improvement home team. And then the Sonics left Seattle [F*ck you Seattlites.. where were you at the games?] I lived two and a half hours away and couldn’t make it to games all the time. There is my excuse. So here I am, lost… Kings gone… Seattle losing its NBA team and I hadn’t been even watching the game for who know how long.
    A crap shoot. i decided a couple years back to follow the Blazers, might as well… and I fell in love again. I felt lifted and happy. I had a team again and I love them [who knows if i’ll ever love them more than my kings team… oh hey! Gerald Wallace… a Blazer now. Yeah we had him when he was a young gun but I still think that is a big sign that it was meant to be, the Blazers and me].

    OK! I’m rambling, but what I really want to say… is THANK YOU. I’m so happy that I read this. I’ve had the Kings heartbreak trapped in me and even though it will still haunt me and bring up the sadness I feel when I think about them — I miss them. It was a hell of a run… the weight has lifted after nine years and I am free. I still hate the Lakers… I always want my ex-king players to do well [Blazers vs Dallas… when Peja goes in, I never want him to miss.] But I am free.
    And yes its just a game, but I love this game.

  15. Francis
    May 3, 2011 at 6:58 AM

    I was a Lakers fan from when I saw my first game (Lakers getting owned by Malone/Stockton and the Jazz) up till Shaq left for miami. At the time of the the 3rd championship, I was to young to look into this. I just thought that Lakers squad was greatest from the 3-peat. Now, I get a chance to review the game over, and that was some horrible shit. No longer a Lakers fan (just a Kobe fan), but it’s obvious calls are made to build superstars to cash in on.

  16. James
    May 6, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    Thanks for writing this– I also lost my ardor for sports after this travesty. Not just the NBA, ALL sports. And, crazy as this sounds, I think the whole thing kind of made me jaded towards life as a whole. I just sort of assume that people are probably dishonest now, and I think one rarely gets the credit due for his or her hard work.

  17. ben dover
    December 30, 2011 at 12:08 AM

    i fully respect you as a Kings (sports) fan but i can’t say i agree with everything you said. here’s a great article for you to read, if you haven’t already,

    http://82games.com/lakerskingsgame6.htm

    • December 30, 2011 at 7:18 AM

      I have read the 82games.com page on the Game 6 of the Lakers/Kings series before. It’s done by Roland Beech who admits he knows relatively little about basketball yet makes determinations on the calls in that game. When weighed against the overwhelming majority of NBA players, coaches, writers, and knowledgeable fans, Rolands “Analysis” carries very little weight other than for Lakers fans or apologists for the sham that the NBA is. 5 baskets and 27 freethrows by the Lakers in the 4th quarter would seal it for someone who didn’t even see the game but anyone who saw it recognized it for what it was; officiating so horrendous that it could be nothing other than a fix. Listening to people diagnose it as anything other than that, as Roland Beech did, is the only comedy in the entire situation. I don’t like either team but my days as an NBA fan ended that day, much like my days as a pro wrestling fan ended when I was in 7th grade and realized it was all just a sham. Since then, I see anyone who pays to go to an NBA game as a sucker; fools and their money are easily parted.

  18. Sam
    March 24, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    Thank you for sharing your experience. As a Sacramentan I can tell you that you experienced the same emotions in your living room that we as a city did. It was very quiet that night after the game, everywhere I was at least. We were deflated. Could not understand. Ironically the night of Game 7 was my last in my hometown, as I left for San Diego to go to college. What a strange cocktail of heartbreak and angst; to leave your hometown and lose your faith in the hometown sport all within the same moments. I hope with your article and others like it no one will forget and new fans will learn just how fake this “sport” truly is. Only problem is the pre-determined outcomes are not known to the coaches, announcers, staff or players; just the Vince McMahon of the NBA himself, David Stern. If the FBI investigates stereroids in the MLB, how can they not touch this?

  1. May 23, 2010 at 4:49 AM
  2. May 23, 2010 at 4:50 AM
  3. February 14, 2012 at 3:38 AM

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