Sacramento became a big league town by building what looked like an airplane hangar in the middle of a field, filling it with 10,333 seats atop hardwood floors, dropping a basketball court on the floor and opening the doors to a city that had previously been a nice minor league town, although it was the capital city of California.
The facility, which eventually would become an office building, was purely Double A, but the atmosphere was out of this world. It was a throwback to the ‘40s and ‘50s when the NBA had teams in New York towns like Rochester and Syracuse and whistle stops like Fort Wayne, Ind.
The Kings, who moved from Kansas City in 1985, were a low-level playoff team but also the greatest major league franchise in Sacramento history (read: only), and the locals loved them.
Those 10,333 seats were filled with screaming fans every night and sound bounced loudly off the walls, ceiling and floor. Boosted by a small building and favorable acoustics, Kings fans quickly distinguished themselves as the loudest in the league. The facility may have made NBA officials cringe – and it was, in fact, replaced three years later – but the enthusiasm was stirring and it was a great little place to watch basketball.
It could, however, provide challenges. I saw five or six games at the arena while I was covering the Dallas Mavericks, and one night, something hilarious happened – not funny to Mavericks coach Dick Motta, but amusing to the rest of us.
The Mavericks trailed the Kings and, honestly, I don’t remember whether it was by one or two points and if the Mavericks had a chance to win or tie. But it was a late-game situation where the Mavericks needed a field goal and were inbounding underneath their own basket, so they had a full court to go.
Mark Aguirre was their strongest player so his job was the throw the long pass. He cocked his arm and threw a Tom Brady Hail Mary toward the other end. One of the other problems with the temporary arena, however, was the ceiling was low. And that made the scoreboard much closer to the court than in any other arena.
Aguirre’s pass never made it to the other side. It banged into the scoreboard with a loud thud and dropped harmlessly to the court. It was scene that would have fit perfectly in a Three Stooges skit, and many in the crowd laughed and giggled.
Motta did not. He walked off the court muttering and at that point, he was probably questioning the worthiness of Sacramento as a big league town.
So after a nice ride that lasted more than a quarter-century, that question is being asked again: Is Sacramento a big league town? No other league has even thought about placing a franchise in the city, even though it is the 20th largest TV market in the country.