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

May 23, 2010 30 comments

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

May 18, 2010 4 comments

Editor’s Note: With the 2010 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 2 of a 3-part series.   Part 1 Part 3

GAME SIX

There were a few moments there when I still thought we had them.

Bobby Jackson nailing clutch three after clutch three. Mike Bibby refusing to go home without someone’s head on his mantle.

Chris Webber still somehow making beautiful, behind -the- back touch passes in traffic.

Despite all the horrifying calls. Despite the indignant steam coming out of our players’ ears.

Looking back, that’s what makes the whole thing even tougher to swallow.

That Kings team was so good that it persevered through all the ridiculous calls, through all the conspiracy theories, and probably almost made David Stern’s head explode like a mafia godfather after a failed hit.

Despite it all, the Kings nearly pulled out a win in Game 6. (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Say what you want about Sacramento missing free throws in Game 7. (The Kings went 16-30.) Or about Peja Stojakovic (who didn’t even play in the first 5 games due to injury) airballing a potential go-ahead three-pointer with less than a minute left.

They shouldn’t have even been out there. They should have been in the film room, watching tape of Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets, instead of battling the two-time defending champs and the referees in the biggest game any of them would ever play in.

The thing is, Game 6 wasn’t just in the Kings’ heads. It was a loss. It counted against them. Even though they outplayed the Lakers by a mile in the fourth quarter.

They held Los Angeles without a field goal for nearly six minutes down the stretch. The Lakers scored on just 5 field goals in the entire quarter, but made 18 free throws in the final 6:21; the Kings shot just four.

Sacramento fought valiantly on each possession, hitting clutch shots from everywhere. Chris Webber had what would have been a career-defining 26-13-8. Mike Bibby had a gutsy 23 points.

The Kings even had the ball down three with a chance to tie it with about 15 seconds left.

Mike Bibby's nose was not in good defensive position when it fouled Kobe's elbow on this play. (Photo courtesy: http://finethenba.blogspot.com)

Bibby, who had been elbowed in the face and called for a foul (apparently for falling) two plays earlier, started to the left, came back right, and launched up a three. It hit the side of the rim, and Robert Horry grabbed the rebound away from a lunging Chris Webber.

Final score: Lakers 106, Kings 102.

But they never had a chance.

Vlade Divac said after the game that he knew he was going to foul out beforehand. After he picked up his fifth foul, when he apparently committed some sort of breathing violation, Divac turned to Webber and said, “We’re going to get (bleeped).”

Divac’s backup, Scott Pollard, was miraculously disqualified after just 11 minutes of play. Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote that Pollard’s sixth foul “wasn’t a foul in any league in the world.” The calls, wrote Wilbon, “weren’t subjective or borderline or debatable.”

Sacramento was saddled with an impossible 20 fouls against big men Divac, Pollard, Funderburke, and Webber, all of whom attempted to guard Shaq and the five-foot force field surrounding him. Somehow, O’Neal was charged with only four fouls.

Vlade Divac told reporters he knew he was going to foul out before the game started. (Photo courtesy: nflranking.youtube.com)

The game was so uneven that consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote a letter to  David Stern, calling for an investigation.

Stern’s reaction? Exactly what you’d expect from the “Godfather” of the NBA.

“He spoke like the head of a giant corporate dictatorship,” Nader said.

L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke told Sports Illustrated that he asked Stern about the game during the NBA Finals that year. Stern bullied him.

“He looked at me, pointed his finger, and said, ‘If you’re going to write that there is a conspiracy theory, then you better understand that you’re accusing us of committing a felony. If you put that in the paper, you better have your facts straight,” Plaschke said.

“So I just backed off,” he said. ” I didn’t have any facts, just what I saw, but he got very upset at me.”

In 2008, former NBA referee Tim Donoghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison for betting on games he officiated and accepting cash payments from gamblers.

Donoghy told the FBI that the NBA sometimes used referees to “manipulate results,” and that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was one of the games in which the league did so.

He alleged in his book Blowing The Whistle, that Dick Bavetta, one of the referees assigned to the game, was generally assigned to manipulate games in which the league wanted a particular result.

Bill Simmons of ESPN.com made a similar observation in a column right after the series in 2002. (Note: this is also linked to part 1. Scroll down to Question: What was the most disturbing subplot of the playoffs?)

As Simmons points out, Bavetta has been assigned to various questionable games, and at the very least, probably shouldn’t have been one of the league’s top-rated referees.

(Which… of course… he still is. Hmmm.)

Donoghy alleged Bavetta of being so good at manipulating game results that he was frequently “sent in” to help a particular team win. Donoghy said Bavetta spoke openly about rigging games, and told him he was the league’s “go-to guy” in that regard.

Now, this is coming from the mouth of a convicted felon, but…

If that isn’t one the most disturbing thing ever alleged about a professional sports league, I don’t know what tops it. Fans should have the right to know whether what they’re watching is the highest level of competition or the WWE in high-tops.

(Watch some of the ridiculous calls for yourself below.)

But wait…it gets even stickier.

One of the other two referees, Bob Delaney, is a former FBI agent who infiltrated the mafia.

Go ahead, read that last sentence again.

The man INFILTRATED THE MOB!!!

Yeah, it’s true. He even wrote a book about it.

What better candidate for a covert operation than a man who literally spent two and a half years as “Bobby Covert“?!!

(For the record, the third referee assigned to the game was Ted Bernhardt.)

Whatever happened that night, someone had it out for the Kings.

Whether it was bad luck, (what the NBA wants you to believe), bad karma (what C-Webb haters would have you believe), or bad intentions (what really happened), the Kings had to be eliminated.

And, as Dick Bavetta and his crew proved that fateful Friday night in Los Angeles, you never go against the family.

Editor’s Note: This is the end of part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 Part 3

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

May 12, 2010 17 comments

Editor’s note: With the 2010 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 1 of a 3-part series.

Eight years ago, I lost my sports innocence. The little kid in my sports fan soul suffocated and died. He’s never coming back.

I saw basketball’s version of The Devil. It stared back at me, with its big doofy bald head and oversized XXXXL Lakers number 34 jersey. It barked in my face and shouted defiantly, almost as though it had actually, legitimately won something.

The Los Angeles Lakers were celebrating after their “victory” over the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

Only, they hadn’t really won.

There were no words to describe how the Kings felt after Game 7. (AP Photo)

The Kings had been robbed more blindly than a Bernie Madoff client.

And the worst part? There was no doubt that Sacramento was the better team. The Kings had gone 61-21 in the regular season, finishing three games ahead of the Lakers in the Pacific Division. They had earned home court throughout the playoffs, and had dominated the Lakers for long stretches of their seven-game war.

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

They won Game 2 in easy fashion. They led Game 3 by as many as 27 points, cruising to a 13-point win.

They had a 24-point lead in Game 4, with a chance to take a 3-1 series lead, before giving it all back (with some help from the refs), as Robert Horry hit a game-winning, gut-busting three at the buzzer.

(Ed’s note: Right before Horry hit the shot, Kobe Bryant missed a potential game-tying jumper, and Shaquille O’Neal missed the putback layup from about three feet away. Kings center Vlade Divac, in probably the dumbest move of his career, tipped the ball back to the top of the key where a wide-open Horry had been standing, almost as if he was cued up to break the hearts of Kings fans. Thus, it goes without saying ….)

Horry's three sent the author to the floor, where he laid motionless for approximately twenty minutes. ( Photo: Hector Amezuca/The Sacramento Bee)

I’ll never forget that three. I was at my cousin’s birthday party, watching as my beloved Kings imploded. I was irate when the referees inexplicably allowed a Samaki Walker half-court buzzer-beater to count at the end of the first half, even though NBC’s Marv Albert had already hit the snack bar by the time Walker released it.

When Horry’s shot happened, I fell off the couch and collapsed to the floor. In front of everyone. Including  grandmas I didn’t know. (Ed’s note: Maybe that’s why they don’t like me.) I didn’t get up for a solid twenty minutes.

“It was the luckiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Kings reserve Hedo Turkoglu said about Horry’s shot. “Vlade hit the ball and it went straight into his hands and he was wide open. The whole game, he was going for offensive boards, but at that moment he was waiting right there. You could never see this type of game in your life.”

“It was a blessed day for us,” said Shaquille O’Neal, whose missed layup gave birth to  Horry’s shot. “Thank God for Robert. Thank God his father met his mother, too.”

Despite what was then the most devastating loss in franchise history, (It’s hard to say whether or not Games 6 or 7 surpassed it), the Kings stormed back in championship fashion in Game 5.

Chris Webber came through with a virtuoso performance, scoring 29 points and ripping down 13 rebounds, in what would have been a critics-silencer had Sacramento gone on to win the series.

Bibby's game-winner in Game 5 should have clinched the series for the Kings. (AP Photo)

And Mike Bibby refused to let them lose.

Bibby had 23 points, including the in-your-face game-winning shot off of a Chris Webber screen with 8.3 seconds left.

The Kings had righted the ship. All was going to be right with the world.

And then there was Game 6.

Game 6 changed everything. It really deserves its own article, maybe even its own book one day.

I really don’t even know how to describe the officiating in that game.

If it was simply ineptitude, it was so inept that it’s beyond comical. Think a professional NASCAR driver not being able to get the car into first gear. Or a barber accidentally shaving someone’s eyebrows off. I think a bunch of sixth graders who have never picked up a basketball before could have pulled off a better officiating performance.

There were six or seven egregious calls in the fourth quarter, all of them going against the Kings. Watch this Youtube video to see some of them. (I know…the beginning is long, but fast-forward to about 1:25.) And how’s this for a telling stat:

The Lakers averaged 22 free throws per game during the first five games of the series– then shot 27 alone in the fourth quarter of Game 6.

Allow some of these quotes to wash over you.

“Why don’t they (the refs) just let us know beforehand? We didn’t have a chance to win.”–Vlade Divac

“We didn’t have a chance tonight…I’m not gonna say what I really feel. I’ll get fined. I’ll keep my opinions to myself.”–Chris Webber

” If you care about basketball, Friday night’s Game 6 was a rip-off. The Kings and Lakers didn’t decide that this series would be extended until Sunday, the referees did.”-Michael Wilbon, in the Washington Post

“If there was ever a time for conspiracy theories to be given new life, it’s now. It’s difficult to ignore the Kings’ claim that NBC does not want them in the Finals. Because of [Game 6], many things will be said if the Kings fall. NBC will be a culprit, as will the NBA. Both will be accused of going Hollywood, which is hard to argue with right now.”–Steven A. Smith, in the Philadelphia Daily News

“Who do these players think they are? Do they actually think fans buy tickets to go and watch [them] play basketball at its best? Don’t they realize people flock to arenas to watch guys named Dick Bavetta, Bennett Salvatore, and Eddie F. Rush try to keep the big guys in line by enforcing their version of the basketball rulebook?”–Kevin Modesti, in the Los Angeles Daily News

And finally…Bill Simmons of ESPN.com, wrote this article after the series concluded. (Scroll down to the Question: What was the most disturbing subplot of the playoffs?)

Whatever happened that night in Los Angeles, it cost the Sacramento Kings the NBA championship. And it cost me my sports soul.

Editor’s Note: This is the end of Part 1 of a 3-part series.  Part 2 Part 3