|Tuesday, December 24
When Kings, Lakers started hating each other
By Scott Howard-Cooper
Special to ESPN.com
That's how it started. The Sacramento Kings shouted in a crowded basketball house, and a brushfire of a rivalry had begun.
The NBA has been at most times grateful and at other times bothered, but never bored. The Los Angeles Lakers, even from the throne, had a challenger, and the league as a whole needed that intrigue after three consecutive titles. That it came with the perceived, if sometimes incorrect, social contrasts only added to the fun and gameful tension.
They were typical opponents before all this, concerned only with their own individual plights and holding no unique interest in each other. The Kings were mostly bad, the Lakers mostly good, if not very good, and they played four or five times every regular season. Just another opponent. They were in the same state, yes, but not of the same world, and not really able to shout over the fence for a cup of sugar the way some portray the clash next door. (The Forum and Arco Arena were about 400 miles apart, so the dominant team of that time could go play the Clippers, Warriors and Suns in less or the same amount of time it took to get to Sacramento.)
History will record that it changed in 1999-2000, the way most great rivalries are born: through playoff matchups, not geography. It changed, to be entirely specific, on April 30, 2000, before the typical 17,317 leather-lungs inside Arco. The Lakers had won the regular-season series 3-1 and then the first two games of that best-of-five first-round series, by 10 and 24 points at that, and went to Sacramento to finish the appointed rounds and get on with the championship march.
The Kings had other ideas. Several other ideas. Lighting a giant Lakers jersey on fire at halfcourt before the game, among others. The crowd screamed in delight, but even the Los Angeles management that had been around a long time and understood the league had become so much about the spectacle was irritated at what it perceived to be a low-class move. That made it personal, another ingredient necessary to make a rivalry real. Sacramento bosses would eventually step in to discontinue this bonfire of the sanities -- but not before the Kings won and then torched another faux uniform before Game 4. When the Kings won that time, too, it was really on.
The series had been tied, the emotions had been stoked, and things would never be the same. Suddenly, unexpectedly, pressed into needing a deciding Game 5 back in Los Angeles, the Lakers responded with a dominating performance to advance, or escape, into the second round of what would become the first of the three titles. And the first chapter of the rivalry.
Things would never be the same, even when they were the same. The next regular season, the Lakers went 3-1 again and the teams met in the playoffs again, because fate played a role in this still-developing conflict as well. Had Sacramento lost to the Suns in the first round or Los Angeles to Portland, there would not have been that necessary next step. But not only did it come, but it came in the conference semifinal, just as it would advance in importance once more the year after that, into the West final. From first round to second round to third round, right in order, year after year after year.
In that 2001 semifinal, after L.A. had mocked its opponent for celebrating with such over-the-top delight at winning a first-round series, historic as it was for the Kings since that hadn't ever happened before in the Sacramento era, L.A. clocked its opponent. Four games and done. Tweaking their little brother to the end, some Lakers even called their shot, predicting not only a series victory when that was inevitable at 3-0, but saying that it would come with a sweep that would be finished in Arco, supposedly the insurmountable homecourt advantage. And they were right.
The Lakers swaggered on to a second straight title with the added bonus of feeling like they had smacked the Kings back into their rightful place. And that wasn't even the worst of it for the defeated. Some Sacramento players admitted there wasn't enough heart to stand up to Los Angeles, so there was even a sense of going down fighting that was lacking at times.
And then came last season, when the timeline of a rivalry went jagged. It continued forward with time, only with massive spikes in favor of each side, back and forth like the black-ink reading on a Richter scale during a big earthquake. The only sign of stability was that the Lakers won three of four in the regular season again, except that the Kings won the Pacific crown. They raised that banner, and Los Angeles, figuring it could wallpaper half the city if it hoisted division flags, smirked at Sacramento some more. There was another collision course, this time for the conference final, the best thing going in the league being played out with a trip to the Finals on the line.
Peja Stojakovic got hurt and Kobe Bryant got food poisoning from what the Lakers said was a bad room-service burger. Los Angeles won the first game and Sacramento the second. Sacramento won the third game and Los Angeles the fourth. Robert Horry hit a game-winning shot for the Lakers and Mike Bibby hit a game-winning shot for the Kings. Standing in the middle of the ring and trading upper cuts.
The Kings led 3-2. The Lakers won at Staples to stay alive in the game that will forever be remembered in Sacramento for being decided by the referees. They saw that reaction in Los Angeles and chose to forever remember it another way: "The Crying Game."
Game 7, something new in the white-heat rivalry, was at Arco -- the payoff for the homecourt advantage and deemed a major reason the Kings could win the series and the title. Not only that, but overtime was needed in that Game 7.
The Lakers won, advancing to play the Nets for the championship, all the while hearing of the aftershocks from Sacramento about how the better team had lost and how the refs decided the series. Just when it seemed as though things couldn't get more personal, Los Angeles was bothered the opponent wouldn't even give due credit for winning four times in seven games, including twice on the road, including once in a Game 7 when hearts really are thrown on the table.
So New Jersey was dropped on schedule, the Lakers held another parade, and The Big PTA, Shaquille O'Neal, announced that kids should be informed that the state capital had been moved from Sacramento to L.A. A couple months after that, Vlade Divac noted again how the best team doesn't always win, as the Western Conference final stretched into August.
Things have escalated so much that the new season didn't even get started before the new season began. The Lakers and Kings were playing an exhibition game when Doug Christie and Rick Fox scuffled, Christie landed a punch under Fox's jaw, Fox chased him down in the tunnel after the two had been ejected, and a brawl ensued. It had gone from starting a fire to breathing fire, all the way to a Christmas in which they get each other, hopefully with the understanding that the ornaments are supposed to go on the tree.
Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.