Kings in the Making
The dramatic improvement of the Kings this season was best illustrated by two plays in the first quarter of the game at ARCO Arena on Jan. 5. Piston rookie forward Grant Hill was soaring to the hoop for what seemed sure to be a resounding slam, but Sacramento rookie forward Brian Grant swatted the ball out-of-bounds. Four minutes later, when Hill went loping in for another dunk attempt, the Kings' other rookie forward, Michael (Animal) Smith, fouled him hard.
"No easy layups here," Smith said after the game, which Sacramento won 94-88. "The Sacramento Kings aren't going to back down from anyone this year."
Last season the Kings were among the NBA leaders in easy layups allowed. They finished 25th in defense (surrendering 106.9 points per game), 16th in rebounding and near the bottom of the league in self-confidence. They tried to outrun and outshoot opponents, which worked only 28 times—the eighth straight season in which they won fewer than 30 games.
On June 1 the Kings hired Geoff Petrie from the Portland Trail Blazers to be Sacramento's vice president of basketball operations. "When I got here, people were really demoralized," Petrie says. "It was like, 'We can't ever be any good.' Now they know that there is hope. They know we can get better."
They didn't know it would happen this quickly, however. Through Sunday, the Kings were 17-13; last season they didn't get win 17 until Feb. 18. "And we've given seven games away because of inexperience," says center Olden Polynice. Twice they beat the SuperSonics, who before this season had won eight straight against Sacramento. Other shocked victims are also getting the message that the Kings are solid, though it has taken awhile to register: After Sacramento beat the Suns on opening night, Phoenix forward Charles Barkley, who didn't play because of injury, expressed embarrassment about losing to the "sacrificial lambs."
The battering rams is more like it these days. Petrie's plan to upgrade the defense was installed in training camp and enthusiastically endorsed by All-Star guard Mitch Richmond, a 23-ppg scorer whose increased emphasis on D was emulated by the rest of the Kings. Through Sunday, Sacramento was tied for seventh in the league in points allowed (98.1 per game).
The biggest reasons for the turnaround have been Grant and Smith, who have brought energy, size and toughness to a front line that had been notoriously soft. The 6'9", 254-pound Grant, selected eighth overall out of Xavier in the 1994 draft, was averaging 12.2 points and 6.3 rebounds at week's end. He has become the Kings' best low-post player. "He has unbelievable quickness inside," said Detroit coach Don Chancy after Grant had 24 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks in that Jan. 5 game.
Unlike Smith, Grant doesn't have a nickname, though he was called General at Xavier because he's from the same town, Georgetown, Ohio (pop. 3,627), as Ulysses S. Grant. "People think all the Grant stuff around town is for me, but he was there long before me and will be there long after me," Grant says with a smile. "Maybe they'll call me General up here someday. That comes when you're a leader. Now I'm just Grant. Some people call me and Michael Beauty and the Beast, but even though I have more finesse than Michael, Beauty hasn't stuck. I guess because I like to mix it up, too."
Smith, a Providence alumnus who is 6'8" and 230 pounds, isn't nearly as graceful or skilled as Grant: His 8.1 points and 6.2 rebounds a game were the result of his strength and hunger. "To him," says King coach Garry St. Jean, "there's a big steak silting up there on the rim." Says Polynice, "He's George (the Animal) Steele from the World Wrestling Federation. But he's a good animal."