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Tale of two (NBA) cities: In Sacramento, worst of times

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This could be us.

Sitting at a sports bar here over the weekend, the televisions were divided between a Yankees-Red Sox game and late-night highlights from the Masters.

“Hey, can you turn on the Kings?” a patron asked. “Oh, sure, are they playing?” was the response from a bartender fetching the remote.

How far they have fallen. It wasn’t too long ago — just a decade — that Sacramento and Indiana were two up-and-coming NBA darlings, two small-market teams challenging the New Yorks and L.A.’s of the basketball world.

Both soon fell on hard times. Truth be told, the bottom dropped out for the Pacers in more dramatic fashion, a trap-door opened to a death spiral in a brawl at Detroit. The demise of the Kings was less obvious but just as defining.

The cellar had a floor, and that was the only thing that stopped a free-fall.

Turning to the Kings, with one sole patron watching them instead of baseball or golf, the destitution and desperation were thick.

This could be us. The thought struck and stuck. A family emergency took me to this California city. The difference in NBA atmosphere was anything but familiar, though.

Sacramento was losing at home to Minnesota, a team that would be the worst on the court any other night. In the stands, there was a smattering of loyal fans, drawn by a season-ending promotion.

Signs were displayed by those few declaring their love for the Kings and the coming of “NBA 3.0,” an apparent reference to a future vision of basketball in which Sacramento would be something more — anything more — than a doormat. The signs, printed far too neatly, clearly were handed out to display.

On the big screen in the Kings’ aging Sleep Train Arena, former heroes Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic waved to the crowd, brought in to rekindle a memory of happier times. The TV cameras panned up through the first 20 rows of the cheering crowd, but no farther lest the empty seats be noticed.

This could be us.

Back in 2002 through 2004, Sacramento-Indiana was a great rivalry — two teams that played great basketball with highly entertaining styles. Those upstart teams mirrored their cities, two state capitals nonetheless in the shadows of bigger and better neighbors, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Both fell hard.

Indiana’s demise was undoubtedly on the court, an unwise mixture of immature actions and character flaws.

For Sacramento, the bad decisions were made more in a boardroom than on a basketball court. Owners, the Maloof brothers, got overextended in Vegas real estate ventures and other unwise moves. The team suffered and became a pawn in their desperate attempts to right their financial wrongs.

It was a far cry from the steady support of Indiana owner Herb Simon, who, while certainly enduring financial pressures, did not dangle relocating as a way to make up for missteps in other areas.

Solid ownership was Indiana’s good fortune and merely a wish in Sacramento.

This could be us.

Since hitting bottom, both franchises have followed bold plans to rebuild.

Indiana’s template, behind president Larry Bird, worked. The Pacers captured the best record in the East despite stumbling down the stretch. The turnaround is remarkable regardless of March blemishes. Paul George has emerged as the unquestioned leader on and off the court on a team filled with character guys.

Back to the TV, the face of the Kings franchise, mercurial “me-first” DeMarcus Cousins, was putting up his usual big (and meaningless) numbers in a late win against the T-Wolves. The comparison is stark.

The Pacers have the 16th-highest payroll among the 30-team NBA; the Kings are 21st, less than an 8 percent difference.

Indiana has the best record in the East; Sacramento will finish 35 games out in the West, far removed from the playoffs.

Two franchises in similar situations over the past decade. One rebounded to reach the top; the other continues to flounder. One plays in a modern stadium to packed houses; the other wishes for both.

It is not just a matter of good intentions. It is a matter of good ownership, good management and a good deal of fortune.

So, as Pacer fans fret over how their team backed into the No. 1 seed — legitimate concerns for sure — put that concern in context. The worry over whether Indiana is good enough to topple Miami and whoever may emerge from the West is not exactly a cry that will evoke sympathy from places like Sacramento and others who long to be where the Pacers find themselves.

Almost half the teams in the NBA are now done for the season, missing the playoffs. Included is Sacramento, a mirror image of where our franchise was a decade ago and where it could be today.

So, stop and take a moment to appreciate that what has happened to date. It is worth celebrating. This could be us.

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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