Late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, April 9 a familiar image of Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken parodying Blue Oyster Cult on SNL was broadcast on the jumbo-screen above Sleep Train Arena’s center court. “I’ve got a fever and the only prescription… is more cowbell,” Walken barked. And so, Kings fans—as they have for 28 years—made near-deafening noise in the former Arco Arena for one last time.
This was the arena’s final game before it turns into a vacant ghost dome. Built in 1988 and named Arco Arena II, it only cost $40 million. Arco (which is what we’ll always call it probably) looks like a cement barn in a field, one where actual cows once roamed Natomas in the ’80s. When Lakers head coach Phil Jackson called Sacramento a “cowtown,” Kings fans leaned into the diss by filling the arena with cowbells. It’s a tradition that will not die. On this night, cowbells passed through security in obscene size to create a clanging, clunky symphony of 17,000 known as “Arco Thunder.”
In good times and bad Arco symbolized home court advantage. Whether it’s Kobe Bryant, Bill Walton, Shaquille O’Neal or Lebron James, they all say the same thing: Arco is the loudest court in the NBA. When Mike Bibby hit “the shot” that won Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in 2002, Arco likely set the loudest arena record. In 2013, the Kings invited Guinness to make that record official.
The final game began like hundreds of others in the Sleep Train era of the facility. Post-tip off the cowbells rested as the Kings fussed through a shaky first quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then, Seth Curry—brother to Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry—entered the game. With 6:05 remaining in the second quarter he buried a fast break pull-up for three that gave the Kings the lead and Arco was on its feet. Cowbells clanged with vigor. By halftime the Kings were ahead, 56-52.
The lights dropped for the halftime ceremony which brought out more than 30 players from the team’s decades-long tenure in Sacramento. Players from the original lineup in 1986, ’90s-era players, the Western Conference Finals team of 2002, 2010s-era players, former general manager Geoff Petrie, assistant coach and hall of famer Pete “Coachie” Carril, and Coach Rick Adelman. The crowd roared loudest at the introduction of Mike Bibby. The shot that clinched Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals played on a loop.
Like a family wake, the final Sleep Train Arena game was about the good memories. There was no mention of the Maloofs. Those threats to move the franchise to Seattle were handled with a single clip of Sign Lady holding a heartfelt homemade sign pledging Sacramento as home. It was all as if to say “We never held the taxpayers hostage for an arena.”
During a timeout Brad Miller competed in an oversized tricycle race around the court against former Kings Yogi Stewart and Olden Polynice. If he won, the entire arena would get free Jack in the Box curly fries. In the final lap with Stewart significantly ahead, Miller turned his bike into a scooter to inch past his rival at the finish line. With Golden 1 Center’s plans to locally source 90 percent of the arena food, is this the last time we’d ever cheer for Jack in the Box?
For once though, fans didn’t necessarily require entertainment distraction as the Kings maintained relative control in the second half. The team led the Thunder until the final minute of the third quarter when Kevin Durant erased an 83-81 lead with a three off an offensive rebound from Enez Kanter.
Ben McLemore struggled all season but Saturday night, when the Kings fell further behind to start the fourth, 87-83, he was the catalyst for a rally. McLemore followed a three-pointer with a free throw to knot the game at 87. Following a Durant three, McLemore located Curry for three to put the Kings down one. The teams traded leads for a long stretch, but it was the Kings first to 100 when a Gay steal from Durant fed a Darren Collison three on the other end for a 101-99 lead.
Yes, Cousins mostly lagged throughout the game, but he also drew several charging fouls on OKC. He did little things while contributing 17 points. With 3:24 to go, Cousins looked to have a momentum swinging charge on Durant to prevent a layup, but the baseline official ruled it a blocking foul. It was Cousins’ sixth. The headband slingshot into the crowd and he spent his final moments at Arco on the bench. Collison and Gay then came up big. Collison buried another three, and forced turnovers. Gay pestered Durant on the defensive end and extended the lead with a floater with 1:15 remaining. When Collison crossed over Westbrook for a foul-line extended pull-up jumper to put the Kings ahead by 5 with 34 second left it felt like Arco was breaking its own Guinness World Record for Loudest Arena. Collison held his follow-through as the ball swished the nylon. It looked like a final iconic Arco moment. It felt like the dagger.
Time out OKC.
Was the fix in for the Kings’ favor? Was this the NBA’s way of apologizing for 2002? Is there a gentleman’s agreement when it comes to final home games for teams statistically eliminated from playoff contention? Or did the Kings, the most haphazard franchise of 2016, find its identity in the final home game?
Durant clanged a jumper out of the timeout. Collison nabbed the rebound and was fouled instantly. He hits both free throws, 110-103 with :24 left. Victory seemed imminent.
Another OKC timeout.
Inbound to Westbrook who sank a deep three to narrow the lead to four with :18 left. OKC fouled Gay. He missed the first free throw, but made the second. Westbrook on the inbound flew up the sideline, drew a defender and dished to Anthony Morrow for a corner three. It rattled in. 111-109.
The smell of 17,317 palms sweating smogged the arena. Gay was fouled again with :11 left. A few more moves and then Westbrook flung the ball at the rim in a shooting motion. The officials ruled it a continuation foul. Westbrook was awarded three free throws.
Who would wilt in the final 24 seconds? The surefire victory seemingly clinched 14 seconds ago now had the potential for a tie game with 7 seconds left.
With Westbrook at the line to shoot three, announcer Scott Moak came over the PA, “let’s give him a taste of that Arco Thunder.”
He sank all three as if he was alone in the gym.
Seven seconds to go and the Kings in-bounded at half court to Rudy Gay. The ball back in his hands he found the sliver of a lane on Durant and got to the rim. The ball was swatted high into the air, but with a whistle blown, Gay was fouled with just one second left. If he could sink one of two yet again, it would be all the Kings needed for victory. He made both and Westbrook’s attempt to sink a three-quarter court shot fell short..
The buzzer sounded and Arco erupted, with cowbells clanging at high volume one last time. Afterward former players lined up to cut down the nets and take photos with fans on the court. A line for attendees to shoot a free throw snaked up the lower bowl stairs and out into the lobby. It all felt like a high school reunion for every graduating class at once. Everyone was beaming. Much like visiting players talk of Arco a certain way, former Kings have their own language of respect, admiration, and an intangible element that gave them some of their best seasons in the league.
In the locker room the mood was blasé. There were few smiles, most players kept to themselves at their lockers, staring into their phones or blankly into their dresser space. Players fielded questions about the final game and the future of the franchise, but the heavy locker room door seemed to serve as a buffer with no energy bleeding in from the party outside. Asked if meant a lot to him to be the last player to score in the arena, Gay kept it about the team’s accomplishment.
“Naw, It’s all about the win,” he said. “They could have beat us and shut the lights off and it wouldn’t have been as sweet.”