It was their year, no doubt about it, they had everything going for them, the coach who maximized his player’s talents, a loaded roster from top to bottom and the home-court advantage that would drive opposing teams crazy. Led by a collection talent, a unit all about the team, WE before ME, all for one and one for all. Destiny was knocking at the doorstep, until May 30th, 2002, Game 6 Western Conference Finals a day that the Sacramento Kings would love to have erased from their memory.
In the early 2000s, the NBA was dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers. However, the road to their 3-peat became quite the rocky one, especially in that 2001-2002 season; the Lakers did not finish on top of the West, nor did they win the Pacific division as they did in their previous title runs. The Sacramento Kings won 61 games, took the Pacific title from LA, and secured the number 1 seed, which played a huge part in their postseason success. As many of the Kings faithful know, the old ARCO Arena was the ultimate advantage. For opponents, it was almost as grueling as battling in the Ancient Roman Colosseum. No visiting team was making it out easy. As the Playoffs started up, the Kings came out the gates swinging, winning their opening-round playoff series 3-1 against the Utah Jazz and topped the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. With Sacramento rolling, this was their window, their opportunity to finally break through, make the NBA Finals and win it all. If the Kings got past LA, I think we all know Sacramento had the advantage of taking out the New Jersey Nets.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if the Kings Beat LA, there was no stopping Vlade, Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, and Peja in the NBA Finals.
As the Western Conference Finals began, the Kings were listed as underdogs to advance to the Finals, a slight to Sacramento’s impressive season so-far but there were two and eventually three things the Kings were missing. That was Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the highly questionable calls from referees. Championship experience does matter, to say the least for the Lakers, but as the series progressed, the zebras made their impact on the game.
Game 1 opens up in Arco in the best of seven series, the Kings faithful roaring with chants and infamous cowbells that rang in such a disruptive matter that drove the Lakers nuts. Yet, with all the chatter, the Lakers managed to escape game 1 with a 106-99 victory, the dynamic duo of Shaq and Kobe combined for 56 points, and it seemed as this might be another one of those Laker playoffs runs. Lakers lead 1-0.
Game 2 back in Arco and the Kings wanted to take what was theirs, with Bobby Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu pouring in 25 pts off the bench, the Kings built back the momentum. Series tied 1-1.
Game 3, Staples Center, bright lights of Los Angeles, the back to back champs were back at home and were looking to take the home court. But that momentum from Game 2 stuck with Sacramento as they demolished Los Angeles by double-digits, 103-90. Six players scored in double figures, including Chris Webber going for 26, Mike Bibby going for 24, and Doug Christie dropping 17 of his own. Sac-town had it going on, up 2-1, silencing the crowd in LA, and getting ready to put the pedal to the metal in game 4.
Game 4 with their backs against the wall, down at halftime, rallying the Lakers cut the Kings lead to 2 with seconds left in the fourth. Kobe drives in, misses the high floater, Shaq gathers the rebound, misses the put-back to tie it with 4 seconds, and all of a sudden everything is in slow motion, Vlade Divac tips the rebound out to the top of the key, which happens to land in the hands of one of most clutch shooters in NBA history, “Big Shot Bob” Robert Horry. It seemed as the 3-1 lead that Kings wanted to be had vanished, Horry grabs the tipped out rebound, and fires away and once again in slow-mo, the ball finds the bottom of the net, and the Lakers escape with a 100-99 victory that Divac called “Lucky.” 2-2, back to “Cow-town,” the series is up in the air, game 5 being the pivotal swing game. Who will be up 3-2 headed back to LA?
Game 5 was coming down to the wire, this time Los Angeles was holding on to a 1 point lead with 10 seconds left, the Kings drew up a perfect inbounds play, Bibby inbounded the ball to Chris Webber, who handed it back to Bibby, and hit the open jumper with 8.2 left to play. Kings up 1! Arco is going berserk, yet there was still time for the Lakers to get the ball to Kobe and let him do the typical Kobe thing. With seconds winding down, Bryant backs down Bobby Jackson, turns around, fades away, and clanks the rim. Kings win!!! Sacramento is riding high up 3-2. This is it, The Lakers have exhausted everything they could do to win this crucial game five and came up short.
Now everything is rolling for the Kings, they recovered from the Robert Horry incident, they overcame the Lakers in Arco to take care of game 5, now all they Kings have to do is win game 6 to advance to the NBA Finals! The fairytale ending for the Kings turned into their worst nightmare. Game 6, in Los Angeles, with these two teams going for each other’s throats throughout the series, the refs were “letting the boys play,” lots of physicality, lots of bumps and bruises, and not to mention the argued calls. But game 6 had a different feel to it. The game was a grudge match, both teams battling in the trenches, struggling in stretches when the 3rd quarter ended, the game was tied 75 all. It was going to take everything the Kings had to fight off the Lakers, and vice versa for LA. But keep in mind, this game was in Los Angeles, the champs were not going to go down easy, and the refs made sure of it.
As Stephen A Smith famously ranted “We have been hoodwinked, bamboozled, and led astray!” which is exactly what happened to Sacramento, the fourth quarter began with forward Scott Pollard being hit with an offensive foul, a turnover, and committing a foul on Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq makes both free throws, Lakers up 77-75, after a few trips up and back, the refs finally decide to make a call in favor of Sacramento. Yet, Peja Stojakovic, who is an unreal shooter misses both attempts, minutes later after a Bobby Jackson layup, and a Kobe Bryant jumper exchange, Shaq once again gets to the line. To put this in perspective, teams notoriously would “Hack a Shaq” but this was legit defense played on O’Neal, the ref’s friendly whistles kept coming for the Big Fella, who ended up shooting ten free throws in the fourth quarter alone! Shaq ended up taking 17 free throws total, and something didn’t add up. Chris Webber played the entire fourth quarter, and guess how many free throws he shot? Zero. Mike Bibby, who played nearly the whole quarter, shot a whopping two free throws. Shaq ALONE outshot the Kings in Free throw attempts 10-9.
As the fourth progressed, there were so many ticky-tack calls favoring the Lakers. With 8:29 left to go in the fourth, Scott Pollard picked up his 6th foul, taking him out of the game for a call that was softer than Charmin, Pollard was being backed down by Shaq, who did his famous drop step and spun to the middle, Pollard, standing straight up, did not lean in and took contact, naturally. Yet quick whistle, Shaq goes to the line, Pollard heads to the bench. Plays later, Vlade Divac gets called for the same thing, Divac picks up his 5th personal, Shaq, again to the line. Lakers up 1. 82-81. Another no call for the Kings came with 7:52 left in the game, Bobby Jackson is slicing and dicing his way to the rim and is taking contact left, and right, no call was made, ball out of bounds, possession is still Sacramento, But you can tell this is not going Sacramento’s way at all. Even Bill Walton, who was calling the game with Marv Albert on NBC, was exclaiming that “Bodies are flying everywhere” Jackson ends up missing his jumper on the wing and proceeds to not only foul Kobe Bryant but called for a clear path foul. Leading to a free throw and retaining possession, Bryant knocks down another elbow jumper to give LA a 5 point lead with 7 minutes to go in the fourth. Around the 6:25 mark in the fourth, the refs once again blow the whistle on Lawrence Funderburke, for contact before the ball went into the post. That put Los Angeles in the bonus with 6:21 left to go. Clear advantage for Los Angeles, however, as the intensity rises, the Kings answered back with Vlade checking back into the game, Webber finds him cutting with about 4:40 left to go, Divac gets the pass and finishes, And 1! Kings back up 90-89. Lakers come down the court and once again quick whistle, Webber picks up his fourth foul, during the play Robert Horry jumps for the ball and elbows Divac directly in front of the referee, No call of course as a scuffle begins between the two.
With just over 3 minutes left, Sacramento has the ball after Divac wins a jump ball over Shaq, Bibby brings up the ball up 92-90, All the Kings have to do is utilize the clock, and put a few points up on the board. 3:14 left, Bibby initiates the offense, finds Webber in the post, who faces up against Horry, As C-Webb makes his move to the cup, Horry tries to engage contact and flails to the ground, the ref sees a Laker on the ground, the ref blows the whistle, Webber gets hit with an offensive foul. When looking at the replay, you can see Webber making a basketball move to the rim, and feet were not tangled with Horry’sshoulder was not lowered into his chest, it was a blatant blown call. The look and reaction on Chris Webber’s face say it all, blank and with no words to say. Lakers ball, less than 3 minutes to go, Horry has the ball up top, dribbles hard to the middle of the paint and loses the ball, Divac makes the hustle play to dive for the rock, but once again referee Bob Delaney blows the whistle and gives Vlade his sixth foul for pushing Horry! What a turn of events, Coach Rick Adelman of the Kings was shocked, Divac had no words or no other reaction but laughter in how terrible that call was. Game tied at 92 all. With 2:16 to go, the Lakers shot 13 free throws in comparison to the Kings 3.
The next possession, Lawrence Funderburke gets smacked by Shaq, yes a foul was called, but the refs did not issue any flagrant to O’Neal. Kings up one after Funderburke hits his free throw until once again you guessed it, foul called on Doug Christie for guarding Kobe Bryant on the baseline after he missed, slightly late call, barely any contact, but the theme of the game was given the Lakers the calls. Even Bill Walton was pleading his case for Sacramento on that call, “Webber got a nice block on this drive, I’m not sure where any foul, other than Kobe Bryant jumping into defenders” Lakers back up top, and at the 1:29 mark, the Lakers have shot 19 free throws compared to Sacramento’s 5. Tough Scene for the kings. Another possession for Los Angeles, this time it’s Hedo Turkoglu who commits a foul on Rick Fox with a little over a minute to go, the Refs are handing out calls like they are free samples.
At this point of the 4th, the Kings have done everything they can even to sniff the free-throw line. The referees are nearly blind when it comes to the Kings players getting hit on offense. With 43 seconds left down three, Bibby makes a nice hesitation move to the rim on Kobe Bryant, Horry and Bryant essentially both foul Bibby on his way up, the referee does not even reach for his whistle let alone make the right call to send the Kings point guard to the foul line. Bibby frustrated, the team looks deflated, this is now Los Angeles’ game to win.
After Hedo Turkoglu knocks down a pair of Free throws after a blocking foul was called, and Kobe Bryant shoots his intentional foul free throws, the score is now 103-100. With 19.8 seconds, the Kings have a chance to tie it up. It’s crazy to think that with all these calls going the Lakers way, and how poorly the Kings shot throughout, it was still in their grasp. The heart that the Kings had was unbreakable.
16 seconds to go, the Kings get the ball to Hedo Turkoglu who quickly drives in and scores on a layup. Its 102-103, Kings holding on. The Lakers are about to inbound and are looking for Kobe to secure the win with free throws.
We all know the referees are clearly favoring the Lakers, this was the play that to this day is remembered by all Kings fans as complete and udder B.S.
Horry is inbounding, and Bryant is scrambling to get open, but Kobe creates space by swiping his elbow across the face of the smaller Mike Bibby, knocking him down to the ground, and no call. No Damn Call. Nothing, not a whistle, not a stoppage, nothing until the ball is in the hands of Bryant, and Doug Christie is forced to foul Kobe. What a travesty, Bibby gets clocked, and Kobe shoots free throws. This should have been an offensive foul. No doubt.
Bryant eventually knocks down both free throws to make it a 105-102 game, Kings last hope, Bibby takes desperation, heavily contested three, misses, and the game is over 106-102.
Just like that, the Finals that the Kings had in their grasp has vanished. One of the most controversial endings and fourth quarters the viewers have seen. Coach Rick Adelman was animated telling the Sacramento Bee, “You tell me how the game went, Our big guys get called for 20 fouls, and Shaq only gets 4?” Webber also chipped in saying, “I won’t forget” when it came to bad officiating and Kobe Bryant knocking down Mike Bibby. Many from the Sac Bee believed that when Kings’ players spoke up to refs with their case, it did not matter compared to when Shaq voiced his opinion.
With game 6 being completely ruined by bad officiating, the Kings had one thing to look forward to was a Game 7 at Home, which to the Sacramento Bee’s beat writer for the Kings Mark Kreidler called “The Worst consolation prize ever.”
Game 7. Arco. 3-3. The final chance at redemption for the Sacramento Kings, the crowd was roaring doing everything in their might to help and support their beloved Kings. Cowbells ringing, chants of “let’s go, Kings,” and of course, Boo’s galore when it comes to Kobe touching the ball. A valiant effort from Sacramento up until the end, however, the Champs being the champs took care of business, Webber’s near triple-double and Mike Bibby’s 23 point performance were not enough for Kobe and Shaq combining for 72 points. The Lakers won the series and eventually swept the New Jersey Nets en route to their third straight NBA title. The Kings were the team of destiny. There was no doubt about that, but the referees could not have disagreed more.