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The Kings were creatures of quirky habit last season. Before games center Vlade Divac and guard Jon Barry often went to Taco Bell and ordered meals that never varied—two bean burritos and two cheese quesadillas for Divac, three double-decker burrito supremes for Barry. When assistant coach Pete Carril arrived at smoke-free Arco Arena for home dates, he always placed the stogie he'd been enjoying on a shelf just outside the security entrance, and then retrieved it on his way home. Backup center Scot Pollard prepared for games by trimming his jawline beard. "It's my Amish look," he told The Sacramento Bee. "It makes me want to go out there and work."
Until last season one of the few habits the Kings hadn't developed was winning, but it seems they're now able to make that a regular practice as well. After 13 seasons with losing records since moving to Sacramento, the Kings finally broke through with a 27-23 mark in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, and they appear to be ready to leave .500 even further behind. "Anything under 50 wins I will consider an unsuccessful season," Divac says. "We are capable of reaching that goal. We've played together for a year, the young guys have the experience of the playoffs last season, and we've added some talented players."
The most important addition is 6'6" shooting guard Nick Anderson, who fills two of Sacramento's most obvious needs from last season—consistent backcourt scoring and a veteran presence on a predominantly young team. The Kings traded guard Tariq Abdul-Wahid and a first-round draft choice to the Magic for Anderson, a 10-year vet who has already set the bar even higher for Sacramento. "With the nucleus on this team," he says, "we should be thinking about the [championship] hardware."
Those thoughts may be premature, but it's hard to blame the Kings if they get carried away. Their flashy, fast-paced style—they scored 100.2 points per game last year, making them the only team in the league to average triple figures—and near upset of the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs last May erased the notion around the league that Sacramento and Siberia were one and the same.
"I remember talking with other players in the past, and we used to say Sacramento was the last place we would want to be traded," Anderson says. "But that's changed. Now this is the place to be."
The Kings are scheduled to appear on NBC nine times this season; they had never cracked the network's lineup before. Charismatic forward Chris Webber, whose 13.0 rebounds per game last season led the league, and second-year point guard Jason Williams, who is as much entertainer as playmaker, are the main reasons for the team's sudden popularity. But without the arrival of Anderson, Sacramento would probably still be a playoff bubble team instead of one with a chance to do some serious postseason damage. "Nick has an inside-outside game, he gives us another guy with shooting range, he's a good post-up player, and he's an athlete who defends," says Kings vice president Geoff Petrie. "He has a maturity and understanding of the game that we need."
Anderson came by some of that maturity the hard way, surviving a confidence-crushing two-year slump that began when he missed four crucial free throws for the Magic in the opening game of the 1995 Finals, which the Rockets went on to sweep. His overall game deteriorated after that, especially his free throw shooting, which sank to 40.4% in 1996-97. He was so hesitant about going to the line that he stopped driving to the basket, afraid of getting fouled. His timidity reached the point where the Magic had to include an incentive in his contract—based on how many free throws he shot—to keep him from hiding on the perimeter. But with the aid of a sports psychologist, Anderson rebuilt his psyche and averaged 14.9 points and 5.9 rebounds last season while making 61.1% of his foul shots.
Anderson should also help steady the sometimes out-of-control play of Williams, whom he befriended two years ago after watching him play in a college game at Orlando Arena. After Williams was thrown off the team in his junior year at Florida for testing positive for marijuana, Anderson became his mentor, counseling him on basketball as well as off-the-court behavior. "Jason is going to be a great one," Anderson says. "He just needs to slow down a little. Even last year, I was watching him on the [satellite] dish, and I was saying, 'Slow down, slow down.' But he'll learn, and I'll help him."
With Webber's having gotten over his initial eagerness to bolt Sacramento after arriving via trade in May 1998—the club wants to sign him to an extension before his contract runs out at the end of this season—the Kings' disposition is fairly sunny these days. The possible exception is small forward Corliss Williamson, who went through contentious contract negotiations during the off-season. Before the 1998-99 season he had signed a one-year, $500,000 contract with Sacramento in hopes of getting a lucrative long-term offer from the team last summer. Instead he got a one-year, $3.5 million contract, far from the six-year, $36 million deal the team reportedly discussed with him two years ago. When camp opened, Williamson said he was satisfied, but any lingering resentment he has might eventually come to the surface, especially if promising second-year forward Predrag (Peja) Stojakovic, Sacramento's best long-range shooter, cuts into his playing time.
The Kings' starting five is solid, and with Stojakovic, Barry and the newly acquired Tony Delk and Darrick Martin, they have a serviceable bench. If they can tighten up a D that was one of only two to allow an average of more than 100 points (100.6) last year, some of the team's lofty dreams could come true. "As long as we don't believe the hype, we'll be all right," says Webber.