Fixated on the loss
SACRAMENTO -- In this town that bleeds Kings purple and black, it was the sort of news that hurts and heals all at once, proof of what the collective basketball fan-base has believed for half a dozen years.
We was robbed.
Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Kings long has been considered an officiating debacle in these parts.
But allegations from a disgraced former referee that the officials essentially threw the game to Los Angeles -- by sending the Lakers to the free-throw line 27 times in the fourth quarter -- has hit a nerve in this government town where folks go unabashedly loopy over their beloved basketball team.
Fans have smothered sports talk radio shows with an avalanche of angry phone calls. They’ve compared NBA officiating to the artifice of big-time wrestling. They’ve talked trash about the Lakers, the league and its referees.
And they’ve bemoaned what might have been. In the collected opinion of the majority, a fairly officiated Game 6 (won by the Lakers, 106-102) would have ended with the Kings -- not the cursed Lakers -- going on to the NBA Finals and presumably throttling the New Jersey Nets to become NBA champions. The Lakers, after beating the Kings in Game 7 in Sacramento, 112-106, in overtime, swept the Nets in four.
“This is validation that what we were witnessing was a travesty,” said Greg Miller, a fan since attending the Kings’ first game in Sacramento nearly a quarter century ago. “My feeling back in 2002 was one of disgust. Now to be dragged back and have to relive that stuff is pretty difficult.”
Grant Napear, the Kings’ radio and TV play-by-play man the last two decades, still labels Game 6 “arguably the worst officiated playoff game in NBA history.”
During his afternoon sports-talk show on KHTK-AM 1140, Napear fielded call after call from disgusted fans itching to vent after he broke the news: Former referee Tim Donaghy, facing prison for gambling on the NBA, had insinuated that the pivotal Kings-Lakers game had been fixed.
“It has opened up an old wound that just had started to heal a bit,” Napear said. “A lot of fans believe the outcome of that game was all preplanned. That’s got to be a concern for the league. Perception can become reality.”
But the broadcast veteran doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories about NBA officiating.
“My own opinion is we’ve got to be careful,” he said. “We’re dealing with a convicted felon here in Donaghy. It would be easy for him to pick out Game 6 and suggest it was fixed. That’s an easy target.”
Even fans who don’t necessarily buy Donaghy’s allegations say the news confirmed long-held feelings about the 2002 series and that most pivotal of games.
Bill DeBlonk, a real estate agent and 23-year season ticket holder, has every turn in that series etched in his memory.
Robert Horry’s ice-water arteries in Game 4, hitting the game-winner at the buzzer. The Kings leading 3-2 heading into Game 6 but seemingly never having a chance. Shaquille O’Neal plowing like a semi-truck past Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard before the two Kings’ centers fouled out. Kobe Bryant smashing Mike Bibby in the final seconds, bloodying Bibby’s nose but not getting called for a foul.
“What can you say about it -- it was a debacle, it was ridiculous,” DeBlonk said. “To hang on and still be bitter about it isn’t worth the negative energy.”
But, he added, “You know deep down in your heart that the next time it comes around and we’re playing the Lakers with a championship on the line, we’ve got to lead by 20 to win by five.”
Even without corroborating evidence, the allegations offer Sacramento’s devout fans a vintage opportunity to grumble anew, this time in a national spotlight.
“There’s no smoking gun. We’ll never really know,” said Rick Elliott, a season-ticket holder for 22 years. “It might not have been fixed, but it was one of the worst officiated games I’ve ever seen.
“And now,” he added, “everyone in Sacramento can say, ‘Hey, I told you so.’ ”