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The Restless King

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Be it only semi-civilized, there’s no place like home.

For the moment, anyway.

Much has changed since last spring, when Phil Jackson was zinging the local rednecks, er, fans and Chris Webber, in the second season of his sentence, er, King career, was sending the Lakers love letters.

Now Jackson is too busy with intramural issues to worry about the level of sophistication of opposing fans. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings are the NBA’s happiest story, a rare combination of downtown flash and Eastern Europe sleight-of-hand.

Everything would be perfect. . . except Webber’s contract is almost up and he won’t give King fans the slightest encouragement.

Imagine Camelot with King Arthur as a free agent and you’ve got the Kings, now having more fun, with more to lose, than they ever knew there was.

“Of course,” says teammate Vlade Divac, asked if he worries. “It’s a great team. It’s great chemistry. It’s fun. Every time I wake up in the morning I can’t wait to go to practice, and I’m 33-year-old guy. . . .

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“Am I worried? Yeah, I’m worried, but hopefully he’ll stay.”

Can Vlade get a witness?

How about a whole Arco Arena full of them? In the fourth quarter of a recent nip-and-tuck game against Houston, the fans actually started serenading Webber with an impromptu version of the pop song “Stay,” with its refrain, “just a little bit longer.”

When Chris takes Interstate 80 home from Arco, there’s a billboard showing madcap King owner Joe Maloof, riding a lawn mower, with gung-ho co-owner Gavin Maloof promising: “Chris, Joe will mow your lawn if you stay.”

Forget yard work. The Maloofs will offer the maximum $120 million--which will make the Kings the high bidder--but if Webber would only signal he’ll accept it, they might rename the city after him, or, at least, a suburb.

You’ve heard the saying, be careful what you wish for, you might get it?

Webber, who pined for years for his missing recognition, is now love-bombed here daily, as if by B-52s. Before you even factor in the fact he knows he might dash their hopes, it’s all a bit . . . embarrassing.

“That’s a sore subject,” Webber says, grinning. “My teammates now, their favorite joke is singing that song to me. . . .

“It definitely is an awkward thing to be in. I’ve never been one to receive all the praise. And then to get it, I don’t know. . . .

“I try to ignore it, but there are a couple of things--the billboard on the freeway--I don’t know about that one. A couple of things make it hard, but I just remember, their intentions are good.”

Of course, if you’d been through what they’ve been through, you’d understand.

The Bitter and the More Bitter

“Welcome to hell.”

--King guard Bob Hansen

to just-acquired Spud Webb, 1991

The Kings arrived in 1985, skipping across the continent like a flat rock on water: Rochester, N.Y., to Cincinnati to Kansas City (with a side trip to Omaha, to try to capture the Nebraska market) to Northern California.

They sold out for their first 12 seasons, regardless of how well they played. This was fortunate, because if it weren’t for misadventures, the Kings wouldn’t have had many adventures at all.

Setting the tone early, owner Greg Lukenbill, who built Arco Arena, solved the problem of a leak during a game by going up on a catwalk high above the floor and stuffing one of the team’s old banners into a hole in the roof.

The Kings hired Bill Russell to coach on a seven-year deal and had to move him out in his second season when he lost interest. They were in town for 11 years before making the NBA playoffs and 13 before hitting the city up for a subsidy.

“If we lose the Kings,” said Mitch Richmond, the local hero, appearing at a city council meeting, “the city goes back to what it’s always been, a dead city.”

Thanks for your interest in civic affairs, Mitch.

Richmond grew restive, not to mention rounder, and demanded a trade. With bad attitude and bad basketball, the sellout streak ran out. Attendance didn’t decline in the 1997-98 season, it nose-dived. When the Maloofs took over, the outgoing chief financial officer told a shocked Gavin they could expect to draw about 10,500 a game.

Better times were actually dawning, although it was hard to tell.

The new general manager, Geoff Petrie, traded Richmond to Washington for Webber, signed Divac as a free agent and drafted Jason Williams out of Florida. Of course, that was the lockout off-season, so any celebration was muted.

Also, a disconsolate Webber was trying to force another trade, insisting: “This is one situation where time will not heal. Time will not make anything better. Time is just a means to an end. Time, in this situation, is a means to a definite, unadulterated, non-negotiable end.”

The end he wanted to negotiate, instead, was a deal with the Lakers, who were offering Eddie Jones.

Petrie sat tight. Webber had to report.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” Webber said later, “the plane ride--I didn’t even want to get off the plane, I couldn’t believe I was on the plane. I just said a little prayer like, ‘God, you know, this is in your hands.’ ”

In a surprise to Webber, among others, the Kings became a razzle-dazzle smash, making the playoffs in 1999 and losing to Utah in a thrilling five-game series.

Webber, enchanted, said he’d “strongly explore” signing an extension.

Their second season together was like the first, without the surprise. The Kings played basketball as if it were gymnastics and they were being graded on degree of difficulty.

They fell from third to fifth in the Pacific Division last year. When the Lakers went up on them, 2-0, in the opening round of the playoffs, Webber expressed his disappointments . . . including the one about not being a Laker.

“I thought I was going to be there,” he said. “I really did. That’s really when I thought about all the ways I just wanted to be there for the big fella [Shaquille O’Neal]. I try not to think about it because it can’t do anything but make me depressed.”

The Kings wound up taking the series to Game 5 but disappeared in a puff of smoke in Staples Center.

Webber was no longer talking about re-signing. Williams was still wild and no longer had hair. They didn’t defend and they wilted on the road. Coach Rick Adelman was thought to be in trouble.

As story lines went, this didn’t look like a very happy one.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Q: “If Sacramento wins a title, that would guarantee you’d return, wouldn’t it?”

Webber: “I’m not sure. That’s a good question.”

Q: “Why wouldn’t you?”

Webber: “Because I would want to win some more.”

--Interview with Frank Hughes,

ESPN.com

Not that they’d ever acknowledge it, but the Kings reportedly have a worst-case scenario in place, if Webber tells them he won’t re-sign this summer:

If someone offers them what they consider a good deal, they’ll consider it.

If someone, say the New York Knicks, makes what they consider a fire-sale offer--say, Marcus Camby and Allan Houston--they’ll turn it down.

If Webber demands to be traded or he’ll walk, they’ll dare him to sign with the only teams that can start him at the $12-million max--the Clippers and Chicago Bulls--or take a one-year $4-million exception from the Knicks or whomever.

If he takes the $4 million, well, thanks for the memories.

This story could have doomed their season, distracting everyone on a team that was already loose enough. Before the season, Webber said he wouldn’t be discussing it.

Now he’s a most-valuable-player candidate, they’re 31-12 and running hot and heavy for No. 1 in the West . . . and he talks about it nightly.

“I think it did distract me for the first five games of the season,” Webber says. “I wasn’t having fun. I was laboring and trying not to think about it--and when you try not to think about it, you’re thinking about it, obviously.

“I just had to relax and let it come and just say at the end of the season. . . .

“Really, I don’t think about it anymore.”

That’s his story, anyway. He also insists when he zinged unnamed but Divac-resembling teammates, saying he wanted to play with “warriors,” he was just trying to wake people up.

Divac, being Divac, acknowledged he had reported out of shape, apologized, said he’d do better and has.

Everyone else certainly awoke. Now the Kings defend (they’re No. 11 to the Lakers’ No. 25) and win on the road (11-8 to the Lakers’ 11-10).

Divac’s fellow Serb, Peka Stojakovic, has become a star. Turkish No. 1 draft pick Hedayet Turkoglu is a comer. Williams plays a more lucid game, but since he isn’t much of a defender, no matter what frame of mind he’s in, Adelman has no compunctions about using Bobby Jackson in crunch time.

All five starters average in double figures (compared to two Lakers) and the Kings’ bench makes them one of the biggest, deepest teams around.

According to salary-cap rules, no team can offer Webber as much as the Kings, so as far as money goes, this is the place.

As far as basketball goes, he probably won’t be able to go anywhere better than this place.

Then there’s this place. . . .

It’s a respectable city of 367,000, even if that makes it small for major league sports. It isn’t as balmy as Southern California but it’s more temperate than New York.

“I like it,” says San Diego-born Scot Pollard, the King with the slash sideburns, goatee and pony tail (this week). Yes, they have all kinds here.

“I was good here from the beginning because it reminded me of Kansas, where I went to school. For being a big city, it’s very small-townish. It’s the way the people care and everybody just loves the Kings, like everybody in Lawrence, Kansas, loves the Jayhawks. It’s kind of like going back to Kansas, where everybody knows who you are and cares about the game and it’s pretty much the only show in town.”

The question is, how much would Webber, who is from Detroit and attended Michigan in the tony suburb of Ann Arbor, like Lawrence?

Sacramento may be a wonderful place to raise a family, but Webber is 27 and doesn’t have one of his own yet.

These days, he summers in Detroit near his parents and in Jamaica, where he has an apartment. The locals note he was here last summer, working out with the Kings’ strength coach. Webber says it’s true but notes that on weekends, he’d often go to L.A.

“I think it’s lacking in a lot of diversity,” he says of Sacramento, frequently. “But just as there are pluses in living in a big city, there are pluses in living in a small city. . . . You do like the family atmosphere there. Not much traffic. Those sort of things. . . .

“I’m definitely at a slower pace, but I’m a single guy and I like to be able to find a restaurant to eat at after the game and not have to go to Burger King or something like that.”

Is that all?

By the time Webber gets back to Sacramento, the Maloofs will probably have Wolfgang Puck putting up a bistro in the Arco parking lot.

Their dream season continues, one precious day at a time. Ask the Lakers, maybe that’s the way everyone should approach a season.

“I think right now, people here are saying, ‘We’re going to enjoy it, just see how good this team is,’ ” says personnel director Jerry Reynolds, who has also been coach, assistant coach, general manager and TV commentator and has the scar tissue to prove it.

“I think that’s kind of where Chris is. . . . Everybody around the country wants to spend time [on his future]. We’re not going to dwell as much. We got 40 games to go, you try to win as many as you can, enjoy the heck out of it. With all that’s gone on here over the years, it’s so much fun now--you know, heck, we ain’t going to get down.”


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