This article is the first in a series I will be continuously doing on the numerous “What If” scenarios that kept this particular sports nut scratching his head for years. While many of you may have your own lists that stretch further back in sports history than my reach, for the purpose of this series I am going to write about the things I personally witnessed or followed and have me questioning today, What If?
They were a team that made name for themselves in the 2000-2001 NBA season, posting a 44-38 record. They impressed many by finishing 5th in the Pacific Division and losing in the first round 3-2 to the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers who went on to win the NBA Championship. But while the Kings were ousted in a memorable first round matchup that proved not only could they contend with the NBA Elite, but put them on the ropes. It built a foundation for a tremendous collection of talent heading into the following season and gave the city of Sacramento basketball hope.
Unfortunately the 2001-2002 season started off with a bang and ended with an unceremonious and a questionable exit from the Playoffs, once again at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Kings were led by forward Chris Webber who was coming into his own during the rise of Sacramento amongst the Western Conference elite. Webber was a mathcup problem and a career 20-10 guy that created havoc on both ends of the court. It can easily be said the Webber was one of the catalysts that ushered in the generation of athletic, versatile power forwards who didn’t have to rely solely on a post game.
Webber had put up strong seasons, but it can be argued that his value to the Sacramento Kings came “full-circle” in the 2001-2002. He posted 24.5 points per game while notching 10.1 rebounds. Although either number wasn’t a career high for Webber, his 50% field goal percentage was his best in a Kings uniform. Webber also chipped in close to 5 assists a game and it can be argued he has the best team around him that he had played with at any point during his career.
A young 23-year-old Mike Bibby was the point guard. Explosive, fast and a motor that sparked the Kings’ intensity. He was a new addition to the Kings via the Vancouver Grizzles (now the Memphis Grizzlies) and had a very decent 1st season in black, white and purple. He finished the season with 13.7 points and 5 assists per game. But Bibby also provided a perimeter game that helped round out a potent Kings offense.
The Kings relied heavily on center Vlade Divac who was known for getting under the skin of defenders, in particular Shaquille O’Neal who consistently complained about Divac’s “flopping” when drawing calls. Doug Christie was the defensive stalwart of the team, able to shut down the likes of Kobe Bryant and other potent scorers in the Western Conference.
Sharpshooters Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu provided the Kings with a 3 point attack that left defenses in shambles. The Kings would enjoy a stellar season finishing with a 61-21 record which would rank #1 in the Pacific Division.
But the Western Conference Finals would be the catalyst to the downfall of one of the NBA’s most exciting teams in the early 2000s. It would send the franchise into a tailspin of bad luck and misfortune.
The Kings met the Lakers once again in the Playoffs, this time in the Western Conference Finals. Webber was a complete monster in the series and posed a impossible matchup for the Lakers to contend with. Combined with the up-tempe pace, 3 point ability and the fortune of finally finding some sort of strategy to slightly contain Shaq, the Kings had clear early control of the series.
Then we arrived at Game 6.
The Kings led the series 3-2 and seemingly had complete control of the series and were almost a “lock” to head into the Finals and face the New Jersey Nets. But the NBA and it’s refs had a different outcome in mind.
The Kings played stellar throughout the game and even held Los Angeles without a field goal for over 5 minutes down the stretch. The Lakers scored on just 5 field goals in the entire quarter, but made 18 free throws in the final six minute while the Kings shot just four. Think that’s a little off-balance? The Lakers attempted 40 free throws, in comparison the Kings show only 25 during that game.
One of the many questionable calls was a no-call on Kobe Bryant on a play where Bryant’s elbow popped Mike Bibby in the face while cutting to the hoop (a clear offensive foul), drawing blood. Take a look at the picture to the right for a still-shot of the foul. It left Bibby on the floor, holding his face.
To put the Kings at even more of a disadvantage both their centers, Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard fouled out of the game something that Divac would later say he expected to happen. When Divac picked up his fifth foul, Webber told him “We’re going to get (bleeped).”
“Our big guys get 20 fouls (actually 24 Friday night), and Shaq gets four?” said Kings head coach Rick Adelman. “You tell me how the game went. It’s just the way it is. Obviously, (the Lakers) got the game called the way they wanted it called.”
“But I’ll tell you what, our guys played their tails off, and they still had a chance to win. I give them credit. We’re not going away Sunday (Game 7).”
The game was so one-sided in officiating that it inspired consumer advocate Ralph Nader to write a letter to NBA Commissioner David Stern, calling for an investigation into the questionable calls. Something David Stern did not take very well. In fact this angered Stern.
“He spoke like the head of a giant corporate dictatorship,” Nader later said.
Afterwards, L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke told magazine Sports Illustrated that he asked Stern about the game during the NBA Finals that year. In another angry response, Stern laid down his iron fist on the columnist.
“He looked at me, pointed his finger, and said, ‘If you’re going to write that there is a conspiracy theory, then you better understand that you’re accusing us of committing a felony. If you put that in the paper, you better have your facts straight,” Plaschke said.
“So I just backed off,” he said. ” I didn’t have any facts, just what I saw, but he got very upset at me.”
In 2008, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison for betting on games he officiated and accepting cash payments from gamblers.
Donaghy would tell the FBI that the NBA would occasionally utilize it’s own referees to “manipulate results”. Donoghy would confirm that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Kings and the Lakers was one of those “manipulated” games. Donaghy alleged in his own book that fellow NBA referee Dick Bavetta was generally assigned to manipulate games in which the NBA wanted a specific result or outcome. To make things even more interesting, another referee assigned to that series was Bob Delaney, a former FBI agent who infiltrated the mafia. The third referee assigned to the game in question was Ted Bernhardt.
The Kings would go on to lose Game 7 of that series. The Lakers would move on to a Finals matchup against the New Jersey Nets and win the NBA Championship.
The next season in 2003 the Kings would start strong again, only to lose Webber to a devastating injury in the playoffs that would derail his career and rob him of the explosive ability that made him so potent.
I remember watching the Sacramento Kings and being enthralled in their play. The Lakers, as dominant as they were had issues playing the Kings and a fierce rivalry that would have been amazing to witness for years to come. I also saw the infamous Game 6 start to finish and it was a series that made me tune out of the NBA for a while. I was never a Kings fan, but I pulled for them in that series.
They had the look of a championship team and it’s fair to assume they would have disposed of a weaker New Jersey Nets team in the same fashion the Lakers did.
The series led the Kings and Webber down a horrible tailspin of bad luck and misfortune and now in 2012, the Kings are a struggling franchise that may eventually be relocated. A sad ending to a once exciting franchise that unfortunately ran into a series that was never fully in their control, or the Lakers for that matter. A series, that is my opinion, that had an outcome determined long before tipoff of Game 1.
So What If the Kings didn’t have to deal with that officiating crew working any game of that series? Would they still have lost? Would they have brought a championship to Sac-Town? This particular writer thinks yes. But then I ask myself if that officiating crew hadn’t been working the Kings/Lakers series what series would they have worked? And if they did work a separate series would we be talking about that team in this article?
One can only wonder.
I posted the videos of every minute of Game 6 and Chris Webber’s injury below. Judge for yourself. Be on the lookout for my next What If article.