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Original Issue

Long Live the Kings Need a cure for the NBA blues? Watch Sacramento play and be reminded that the fast break and fun can still be part of the game

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

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."

For the most part opponents try not to play at Sacramento's
frenzied pace, which the Kings push by creating turnovers. (They
led the league in steals with 9.8 per game at the break.) Most
teams aren't equipped to keep up. "The difference for us is that
in Chris and Vlade we have two big guys who are excellent
passers," says Adelman. "In Peja and Christie we have wing
players who like to get out and run, and with Jason we have a
point guard I couldn't slow down if I wanted to. Not many teams
can put five guys on the floor who can all handle it, pass it and
shoot it."

Nor are there many teams that can compete with the Kings'
outsized personality. They're not thugs, but they're not
choirboys either; they're just cocky enough to be interesting. In
addition to Webber, with his expressive face and
toothpaste-commercial smile, and the mercurial Williams, the
unlikely urban hipster from rural West Virginia, the team has an
international edge--a pair of Serbs (Divac and Stojakovic) and a
Turk (rookie forward Hidayet Turkoglu)--and a full complement of
characters. The most noticeable of those characters is Pollard,
who changes his appearance more often than Madonna and sports a
hairstyle that makes him look like an elongated version of John
Belushi's old Samurai character from Saturday Night Live.

Then there's Barry, the backup shooting guard and hustling crowd
favorite who makes sure that no one on the second unit is without
a nickname. Barry dubbed the reserves the Bench Mob last season
and hung the tag Houdini on reserve forward Lawrence Funderburke,
a reference to the black bag full of health foods and energy
drinks Funderburke often carries. "He puts his hand in there and
you never know what's going to come out," says Barry, who's out
until mid-March with a broken left hand. "I think he's got a
whole wet bar in there."

No personal habit, article of clothing or physical feature is off
limits for good-natured teasing among the Sacramento players.
Barry, for instance, has answered to the nickname of Jonny Big
Nose. "When you hold open the elevator for Jon," says Divac, "his
nose gets there a couple of minutes before the rest of him."

The Kings are so comfortable with one another that they socialize
in clusters. "I go into a restaurant for dinner, and there are
Chris and Vlade and Jason, or Peja and Nick [Anderson], or some
combination of guys," says Joe Maloof, co-owner of the franchise
with his brother Gavin. "We don't have cliques and rivalries.
Some teams can put aside their differences when they step on the
court. We don't have those differences."

The tight-knit Kings could unravel as early as this summer,
however, when Webber becomes a free agent. If he signs elsewhere,
this season will be remembered as the end of something special,
not the beginning. Webber caused civic hand-wringing recently
when he was quoted as saying he was "bored to death every day"
living in Sacramento and implied he was ready to bolt for a
larger, more diverse city. (New York, Houston and Orlando are his
preferred destinations.) While he insists he won't decide until
after the season where he'll play in 2001-02, Kings fans would be
wise to brace themselves for bad news.

If Webber leaves, it's hard to imagine that he will find more
supportive owners--the Maloofs have offered him input in personnel
decisions if he stays--a more relaxed locker room or a coach who
is willing to cede to his troops as much control. The
conservative-looking Adelman may not look like the kind of coach
who would favor such an accelerated attack, but he has anything
but a buttoned-down approach to offense.

"When I started coaching, a lot more teams had a transition
game," says Adelman, who took over his first NBA team in 1988.
"You tried to get an easy basket, and if nothing was there, you
flowed into an offense. Now there's a lot more walking the ball
up and calling a play, so the defense knows what's coming. Even
when you get a rebound, everything is stopped, instead of having
someone throw an outlet pass and getting the ball down the floor.
Coaches, a lot of times for good reason, don't trust their
players to be disciplined at that fast a pace. We've paid the
price for that at times, too, but we're not going to stop

No one would dream of asking them to. The only thing better than
watching the Kings run would be seeing the rest of the league
catch up.


COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Reversal of fortune MVP candidate Webber has the once lowly Kings in the title hunt, and he holds their future in his grip.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROCKY WIDNER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT (2) Both ends covered The versatile Divac (opposite) often finishes what Williams and Sacramento's larcenous defense starts.

The Kings present the NBA with a perfect opportunity to celebrate
a style of play, not a particular player.