The newest wave of sound to hit Northern California had swept the Sacramento Kings past the Denver Nuggets 117-113 an hour before, but Ted Giannoulas, a.k.a. the Chicken, still hadn't stepped out of character. Even as he yanked off his beaked head in a small dressing room of the Arco Arena on Tuesday, March 18, he couldn't seem to stop flapping his wings like, well, like a chicken with its head cut off.
"These people are having an awesome honeymoon," he crowed in the nearly empty but still reverberating home court of the Kings. "I've been doing this for 12 years, and for consistent noise, they are unquestionably the loudest crowd I've ever heard. I don't see how the Kings ever lose here."
Actually, in 10 Tuesday-night home games this season, they haven't. And though it seems only a matter of time before Sacramento suffers a laryngitis epidemic, Kings fans have gotten louder as their team has gotten better. With a record of 31-41, the Kings are 22-19 since Jan. 1 and seem to have a playoff berth locked up. The trick is to stay out of the eighth—and final—playoff spot in the Western Conference and thus avoid a first-round showdown with the Lakers.
With a population of 1.2 million, metropolitan Sacramento is the 20th-largest media market and the sixth-fastest growing city in the country, as well as the capital of a state with a bigger economy than all but seven nations in the world. No matter. The former Kansas City Kings have been the biggest thing to hit the place since the gold rush of 1848. Sacramento has, in fact, spent the entire 20th century vainly seeking an identity beyond its summer heat and the meandering progress of the state legislature. Natives rightfully defend its peaceful life-style, but most will admit that the town hasn't yet spawned much inspiration. Hoagy Carmichael once wrote a song about Sacramento, but it mentioned desert and cactus, not the region's rivers and farmland. When she was California's First Lady, Nancy Reagan complained that no one in Sacramento knew how to do hair. Longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who was born in Sacramento (but swears he was conceived in San Francisco), has written, "In Sacramento, dying may be redundant." And when Reggie Theus, a Los Angeles native, was asked last April how he felt about moving back to play in his home state, he nearly did for Sacramento what Gertrude Stein did for Oakland. " Sacramento," said Theus, "is not in California."
Sensitivity to generations of such comments, along with a sports-minded populace that for years has supported Bay Area teams, has fueled Sacramento's obsession with the Kings. Less than two weeks after season tickets went on sale, 9,323 were purchased, a total exceeded by only five NBA teams (the league average this year was 5,500). Strong demand for the few remaining seats has ensured that each home game this season will be a 10,333 sellout.
The site of all this fervor is the Arco Arena, a temporary facility that will be converted into an office building and warehouse in two years, when the Kings are due to move to a proposed 17,500-seat arena. Meanwhile, the Kings got at least $7 million in exchange for putting Arco's name on their building, a bit of Ueberrothian enterprise that annoyed some locals. Of course, as general manager Joe Axelson pointed out, it could have been worse. "Hey, we didn't go name it Preparation H Arena."
Kings ownership has done its best to make the place distinctive. The parking lot is filled with the pregame strains of a baroque brass ensemble. Two large fountains grace the Arco's entrances, and a Rochester Royals 1951 world championship banner—the Royals were the original Kings—hangs from the rafters.
But above the banner, exposed insulation lines the ceiling. The locker rooms are the smallest in the league, and the court apron is two feet narrower than any other in the NBA. Surrounded as it is by acres of rice fields and farmland, the building's brightly lighted corporate logo makes it look at night like a gigantic last-chance filling station.
The Arco and its environs can seem just as incongruous by day. As he arrived one morning for practice, reserve center Rich Kelley was startled to see scores of men with shotguns striding through a field adjacent to the arena. "All of a sudden," says Kelley, "they started blasting, and I'm thinking, 'They must have cornered some serious fugitive.' " No, it was the first day of the pheasant season.
Still, on game night, Arco's snug dimensions and fans who will, Axelson says, "cheer the exit signs" give the arena an atmosphere any college pep club would be proud of. To spur fans on, the Kings installed a thermometer like applause meter that tops out when they approximate the decibel level of a jet engine on takeoff.