One time, the announcer described how Richmond banked in an incredible buzzer-beater against the Warriors. But by that time, I knew there would be no highlights. It didn't matter. I'd put the stats into my bootleg PDA (I think it was Kasio) and go back to sleep.
The Kings would continue to be an NBA laughingstock over the next five years, making as many playoff appearances (one) as the Los Angeles Clippers (the Clippers!). I was relentlessly heckled by Knicks and Nets fans — later, revenge would be sweet. But for two days in 1996, none of my friends could make fun of me for being a Kings fan. Sacramento sneaked into the playoffs that season, and managed to win a game against the top-seeded Sonics. It didn't last long — Richmond would injure his ankle and the Kings would get blown out in the next two games. It was back to being a joke.
Everything changed a few (long) years later. Sacramento's two-headed monster at center, Olden Polynice and Duane Causwell, was replaced by Vlade Divac. Out went Billy Owens and Anthony Johnson, and in came Peja Stojakovic and flashy rookie point guard Jason Williams. And in the biggest and most shocking move, Mitch Richmond was traded to the Washington Wizards for Chris Webber.
In an ironic twist of fate, my favorite player and the sole reason why I became a fan ended up being most responsible for turning around the Kings' fortunes in his exit. The 1998-99 Kings, a ragtag bunch of castoffs and underachievers, finished with the sixth best record in the West and narrowly lost to Utah in the deciding fifth game in the first round of the playoffs. Almost overnight, the Kings had become a media darling and a fan favorite. Wearing Kings apparel was now cool, and my worn-out Richmond jersey went from an old rag to a classic throwback.
Kings highlights were featured in the first five minutes of every sportscast, and O'Neal and Bryant jerseys were joined by Webber and Williams ones in Modell's NBA section. The Kings finished with the best record in the league during the 2001-02 season and reached the conference finals for the first time in 22 years. The Lakers series was now tied at two games apiece ... and I couldn't watch it.
"Excuse me, sir, can you please tell me what this says?" I asked an elderly gentleman in a quiet cafe two days after the "television incident." I'd managed to find the one French newspaper that had brief NBA playoff recaps — it was like being back in middle school. A few months before, I'd foolishly made plans to go to Paris with my girlfriend, somehow not realizing that our romantic trip would fall in the midst of the Kings' greatest playoff run. Amazingly, she held me to that promise and made me visit the Louvre instead of letting me curse at the television in my underwear. Needless to say, we're no longer together.