Light the Beam
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #161. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Where videogames meet real life…
“27th Most Popular Team at This Location.”
That’s the message that shows up when I pick the Sacramento Kings on NBA Jam at my local barcade. Given that the game came out when the NBA only had 27 teams, this means my favorite team is also the least popular team on the machine. This isn’t surprising considering that I live in the frozen tundra, far away from where I spent my early elementary school years in northern California. It’s doubly unsurprising given that the Kings were, until very recently, comically inept in almost all facets of being a professional basketball team, to an extent that is almost hard to believe.
To understand the Sacramento Kings is to understand the irrational and torturous essence of fandom itself. They have failed to make the playoffs in 16 consecutive seasons, the longest current post-season drought of any major sports franchise in North America. Their front office has long been a revolving door of ineptitude, with 12 different head coaches having led the team since 2006 (and the word “led” is doing a lot of work here). Aside from an eight-year run between 1998 and 2006, they have not posted a winning record since relocating from Kansas City to Sacramento in 1985.
Whenever the Kings (or the Kangz as they’re called whenever they screw something up) have looked like they were figuring things out, they’ve blown it. Former head coach Dave Joerger (who was also an ex-player at my alma mater, a fact that no one at my alma mater seems to know or care about) had the team on the verge of sneaking into the playoffs in 2019, only to get fired in favor of Luke Walton, a man with a short fuse who probably got away with sexual assault. When they had the opportunity to select Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA draft, who is currently growing into one of the best players in league history, they picked Marvin Bagley, who is no longer on their roster (and was so mistreated by the team that he once refused to play in the middle of a game).
For most teams, these would be isolated miscues. For the Kings, they’re footnotes in a long history of never doing anything right. Whenever everyone thought they had hit rock bottom, they would grab their shovels and keep digging deeper.
The Kings have been seen as so undeserving of respect that there are credible accusations of the NBA and referees favoring their opponents. When they won in a recent double overtime thriller that ended with the second-highest score in NBA history, league commissioner Adam Silver announced they would be considering changes to overtime rules that would prevent such an outcome from happening again. What should have been a feel-good story was instead treated as a problem because it involved a team that is not allowed to succeed. Lots of fanbases think they’re a target for bias and bad calls, but in the case of the Kings, they really do seem to be on the NBA’s shit list.
While it’s hard to overstate how bad the Kings have been, it’s even harder to explain how anyone could support them through so many years of embarrassment. The Kings and the Kangz are two sides of the same coin, one that instills intense pride in the fanbase, and one that was once a travelling clown show that brought shame everywhere it went. An anonymous Reddit user may have best summed up the agonizing dichotomy of being a Kings fan when they said, “The Kings are a respectable small market franchise with die hard fans. The KANGZ are a fucking fiasco.” The Kings are the Kangz, the Kangz are the Kings, and together we are all mentally unwell.
So, when I tell people that I follow the Kings, I shouldn’t be surprised when I get questioned on why I bother with such a snakebitten franchise. The short answer is that I loved the Kings and loved basketball as a kid growing up in Sacramento in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were the hometown team, and in a city with no other major pro sports to support, I didn’t know why you’d back any other team.
This was also the same era that the Chicago Bulls were as historically great as the Kings were historically terrible. When I got clowned by other kids for liking the Kings, I felt like I needed to pick a different team that could earn their respect, and decided I’d be a Kings fan and a Los Angeles Lakers fan (there was no real rivalry between the two teams at the time, though that would change later in the decade). This instead earned me a well-deserved talking to from my dad about not being a fair-weather fan, which went straight over my head. I didn’t get why you couldn’t like two teams at once, just like I didn’t get why kids who couldn’t find Illinois on a map would decide to be Bulls fans.
When my family left California, I held onto my Lakers fandom while my interest in the Kings lapsed. This was mostly because the Lakers were a global brand in a way that the Kings weren’t. I could still find Lakers merchandise in far-flung places like England and North Dakota (where we relocated for my dad’s job as an enlisted Air Force serviceman), while the Kings were strictly a regional concern in northern California. Eventually, my interest in basketball slipped away entirely. I was a tall but unathletic kid, and when I couldn’t keep up on the court, my love for the sport turned into resentment.
I came back around to basketball later as an adult, realizing that basketball is, in fact, very good. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers showdown in the 2016 NBA Finals wasn’t just good sports television, but good television in general. That series brought me back to the game I loved when I was growing up and left me wondering why I ever stopped watching in the first place.
If I was going to keep watching, then I needed to have a rooting interest. That led me back to my roots and to rediscover the Kings, who should have been my one and only team all along, even though they were, at the time, just as bad as they had ever been. They are deeply nostalgic for me and a way to maintain some sense of connection to the place where I made most of my earliest memories. The fact that they are one of the best teams in the NBA this season – one that celebrates every win by lighting a beam that is literally visible from space – is just a bonus. And if they keep it up, they might not be the least popular team on that NBA Jam machine for much longer.
Ben Sailer is a writer based out of Fargo, ND, where he survives the cold with his wife and dog. His writing also regularly appears in New Noise Magazine.