Marcos Bretón: The Sacramento Kings’ playoff drought is over, and a region finally dares to believe

Tribune Content Agency

The Sacramento Kings are back in the playoffs after 17 long, bitter, dismally interminable years of futility. It should have never taken this long.

The Kings set a new NBA record for missing the playoffs between 2006 and now, but that sorry story is finally over. The Kings clinched Wednesday by winning on the road against the Portland Trailblazers and, yes, it would have been much more dramatic if the Kings had clinched in front of home fans desperate to go bonkers at Golden 1 Center on Monday night. But the Minnesota Timberwolves had other ideas and you know what? Who cares now?

Today is for celebrating.

This city, this region, and this fan base deserve to be happy after 16 straight losing seasons, 16 straight seasons of missing the playoffs, a public fight with the previous owners, multiple threats of a Kings relocation to other cities, breathless campaigns to keep the Kings here, 13 coaching changes, an ownership change, multiple horrendous NBA drafts picks that flopped, the construction of Golden 1 Center and the demolition of the building once called Arco Arena.

All that had been missing from this saga were locusts. Every other bad thing that could have happened to this star-crossed franchise did. Sacramento has led the league in heartbreak for four presidential administrations.

All of us hoped a new day would arrive this year. We hoped for it for 17 straight years straight and now, in two weeks’ time, the NBA playoffs will finally return to the capital of California.

For those of us who covered the last Kings playoff game, a first-round series-ending loss to the San Antonio Spurs on May 5, 2006, the wait has seemed longer than 17 years. For historical context, the last time the Kings were in the playoffs, the iPhone did not yet exist. The late Steve Jobs didn’t roll it out until 13 months later, on June 29, 2007. Twitter wasn’t introduced to the public until two months after the Kings were eliminated by the Spurs, on July 15, 2006.

Current Kings stars De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and Keegan Murray were 8, 10 and 5 respectively the last time the Kings played a playoff game.

So much has changed since, and so has our community. The last three years in particular have been hard on Sacramento as it suffered through a pandemic, civic unrest, climate change and a downtown core still missing much of its workforce.

The hope was that a Kings move into Golden 1 Center in the fall of 2016 would mean a sudden change of fortunes for the local NBA team — but it didn’t happen suddenly or even in a timely manner. The Kings and the city that loves them have struggled together, in tandem, for years.

Despite having the most viable ownership in the 38 years since the Kings relocated to Sacramento from Kansas City, dysfunction reigned in the basketball operations.

A losing culture left over from the previous owners calcified as the Kings remained last in most meaningful NBA metrics. They only seemed to be front runners in the money they paid out to fired coaches and general managers.

A turnaround began to happen when Kings owner Vivek Ranadive got it right by hiring GM Monte McNair and then made an even better decision by extending his contract.

From the moment he got here, McNair seemed more assured in his thinking than his many predecessors. He hired the right coach in Mike Brown.

Along with more Kings wins than we’ve seen in almost 20 years, we’ve witnessed the eradication of a losing culture win by win, with Brown leading the way. He holds his players accountable, on the court, for all of us to see when they make mental errors. Brown challenged Fox and Sabonis, his key players, to step up and hold their teammates accountable.

We haven’t seen that kind of accountability around here for ages.

And now we’re here. The town is alive with excitement. The team is no longer a doormat. In 38 years, this is only the ninth winning season by the Kings. It’s the first one in which the coach was not named Rick Adelman, whose eight winning seasons very nearly resulted in an NBA Finals berth in 2002.

Since the Maloofs, the Kings owners in the early 2000s heyday, showed Adelman the door in the summer of 2006, the franchise has been in a downward spiral.

As the team threatened to leave town, some of us remember going to Arco Arena more than once and wondering if it was for the last time. Some of us still feel the sense of loss when the Kings were eliminated by the hated Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

We remember how the dream of an NBA title and a parade down J Street blew up, along with Chris Webber’s knee in 2003. We remember the empty seats, and the empty feelings of lost seasons bereft of hope.

That’s what makes this run so exciting.

The current team, coaches and basketball executives have no connection to all that baggage that some of us have carried around for 17 years. As the happy reality of good fortune took hold this season, the excitement of lighting “the beam” on the Golden 1 Center roof began chipping away at the cynicism that kept us from believing in the Kings for fear of getting hurt again.

But now, with a playoff berth clinched, we have to believe. It’s exciting to believe. We’ve earned the right to believe.

This moment has been a long time coming, and this community has earned the right to start asking the most hopeful questions: Why not us? Why not now?