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Original Issue

Kings and their court

Home is a castle for fans of the playoff-bound Sacramento Kings

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.

"It's wild," says Charles Barkley of the 76ers, who in mid-thunder dunk seems barely to fit in the place. "The fans are right on top of you, and they are screaming. It got me pumped and made me want to fly." Concludes Theus: "The energy level is so high, sometimes you wonder, 'Why are they cheering?' "

Kings fans are also unique in their habit of frantically waving at enemy foul shooters from beyond the basket, even if that basket happens to be at the other end of the floor, behind the man at the foul line. But all the apparent naiveté has only made the Kings more determined. "Our fans aren't dumb, they're just excited," says rookie center Joe Kleine.

And they have good reason to be. Under coach Phil Johnson, this season's Kings have evolved from a gang of no D jump shooters into a team with enough hustle and offensive punch to give everyone trouble. Since Johnson decided in late December to start Mike Woodson and Terry Tyler in place of Larry Drew and Eddie Johnson, Sacramento has allowed an average of seven fewer points a game. And Eddie Johnson has responded by becoming a potent sixth man, averaging 18.5 points and 28.5 minutes in the last 42 games. Theus has distinguished himself at point guard, veteran power forward Mark Olberding combines court sense with a desire to bang under the boards, and center LaSalle Thompson grabs 10 rebounds a game. Says Kelley, "We've developed a nice little blend."

That blend was good enough to beat the Boston Celtics on Feb. 11, an occasion on which Sacramento fans gave Larry Bird a minute-long standing ovation. They then made even more noise when he went to the line for two free throws with 31 seconds left and the Kings up by two. Not being used to all those fans waving behind him, Bird missed both shots, and the Kings won by five.

"This year in Sacramento was the best feeling I've ever got since I've been in the league," said Bird afterward. "Their fans are not vulgar and abusive. They're more oriented to watching a good game."

Luckily for the six-man group of Sacramento businessmen who bought the Kings for $10.5 million, a lot of people have been turning out to do just that. The popularity of the Kings has been the political wedge the developers needed to have 12 square miles of agricultural land around the Arco Arena rezoned. Construction plans call for a $4 billion office park and residential development that would also include a 65,000-seat stadium intended to lure major league baseball and the NFL. All this without a cent of tax money for construction, Walter O'Malley-style. "We see ourselves as mini-Dodgers right now," says Gregg Lukenbill, managing partner of the Kings. "As far as supporting major league teams, Sacramento will prove to be the greatest sports town in America."

While not going quite that far, the once skeptical Theus, whose flamboyant threads and good looks have made him the biggest sex symbol in Sacramento since Barbi Benton, is happy enough. "I function better in L.A. or New York," says Theus, "but you can hang out in Sacramento. Hey, there's a good time, there's a good time and there's a good time. As long as you're having one of the three, you're all right."

At the moment Kings fans are enjoying their new team too much to decide which one they're having. There's a good chance, though, that it's all three.



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