It's an ordinary Tuesday night, time for one more nondescript midseason matchup against another nondescript opponent. For most NBA teams this would be nothing more than Game 42 against the Golden State Warriors, played before a mixture of mildly enthusiastic fans and upturned seats. But 15 minutes before tip-off at ARCO Arena, the joint is packed and the crowd is buzzing. Arriving fashionably late for a Sacramento Kings game is not advisable. For even on these just-another-night nights, the Kings are likely to show what sets them apart from every team in the league.
Early in the first quarter forward Chris Webber begins a dazzling sequence with a steal, a behind-the-back dribble and a dish to point guard Jason Williams, who pulls up at the three-point line for a jump shot before changing his mind and whipping a pass to forward Peja Stojakovic for a layup. The next time down the floor Stojakovic returns the favor, scooping up a ball that has been poked loose by shooting guard Doug Christie, spinning and finding Williams ahead of the field for another layup, all without a single dribble on the play.
The game is less than five minutes old, and the fun has just begun. On the next possession Williams rebounds a Warriors miss and races downcourt. This time Golden State is back to halt the break, so Williams stops, waits a beat, then shovels a no-look pass to his cutting center, Vlade Divac. Williams punctuates the play with a pirouette that leaves him looking into the crowd of 17,317 as Divac lays the ball in en route to a 105-79 Sacramento victory.
This is vintage Kings basketball, featuring all five players and the full range of qualities-speed, daring, unselfishness, creativity and, at long last, defense—that make Sacramento uniquely entertaining. So call off the search for the next Jordan. End the debate over how to liven up the game. There is nothing wrong with the league that can't be fixed by cultivating more teams like the kinetic, charismatic Kings, who entered the All-Star break with the fourth-best record in the league (31-15). "If you wanted to take someone to a game that would get him hooked on the NBA," says New Jersey Nets coach Byron Scott, "the first place you'd take him is Sacramento."
Yes, it's true that despite being fun to watch for the past two years, the Kings haven't advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs, and yes, their chances of getting any further than that this season depend on whether the defensive improvement they've shown continues. (At week's end they were surrendering an average of 94.4 points, 7.6 fewer than last season.) Even if the Kings don't last deep into the postseason, they have already proved something that most teams around the NBA have lost sight of: Winning games and playing with a crowd-pleasing style aren't mutually exclusive. At a time when so many games are glacially paced, low-scoring affairs that often depend on one player pounding dribble after dribble while four teammates stand 20 feet from the basket and gawk, Sacramento is a fast-breaking testament to the forgotten arts of shooting, cutting and ball movement.
"We play the game the way it was meant to be played, running the floor, looking for easy baskets, trying to attack and keep a defense on its heels," says Webber, whose team was averaging a league-high 108.0 points through Sunday. "Traditional basketball isn't the slowdown game you see some teams play, where you walk the ball up and call a play every time. It's running the break, the way the Celtics did with Cousy and Russell. It's not so much that we're doing anything new; we're just doing things the rest of the league has gotten away from."
Not that the entertainment value of Webber & Co. is a secret—they have 20 national-television dates this season, more than any other team but the Los Angeles Lakers (26) and the New York Knicks (25). Still, the Kings haven't been fully appreciated for what they are: the best possible symbol for the league. The NBA's hype machine has been criticized for promoting personalities and elevating the individual over the team. Although Webber (averaging 27.3 points and 11.4 rebounds) is a leading MVP candidate and Williams draws attention with his playground passing, the essence of Sacramento's appeal is what the Kings do as a unit. It's the all-out, pedal-to-the-metal energy they bring to every game. Sacramento presents a perfect opportunity for the NBA to celebrate a style of play, not a particular player.
That the Kings are hard to pigeonhole only makes them more intriguing. They're a throwback to the past, a reflection of the present and, we can only hope, a harbinger of the future. There is a retro feel to the small-town, high-school-gym-on-a-Friday-night fervor they engender at ARCO. Their willingness to play to the crowd is decidedly contemporary, but they have an almost quaint fraternal affection for one another that also harkens to a more innocent era. The only thing Sacramento players seem to fight over is who's going to pick up the check at dinner. "Vlade always tries to grab it," says Webber. "I know he's the veteran, but he's got to let someone else pick it up once in a while."
The rest of the Kings touch the ball far more often than the bill. For Sacramento, every possession is a potential fast-break opportunity, and every fast-break opportunity is a chance to spread the wealth. In a game against the Nets last month, center Scot Pollard won a jump ball in the backcourt and tapped it to guard Jon Barry, who caught it and in the same motion fired a pass downcourt to streaking guard Bobby Jackson for a layup. The Kings frequently look as if they're about to careen out of control, and they're not the least bit worried about it. If they botch a break by whipping a pass into the second row, so be it.
The biggest danger for the Kings is not that they'll make mistakes but that opponents will find the quicker pace as appealing as they do. "There were situations last year in which we got some teams running, and they turned around and killed us," says coach Rick Adelman. "They didn't know they could do it until we showed them. That happened in New York against the Knicks. They started running, and our transition defense and shot selection were so poor that they ran us out of the building."