Winning a ring would be Maloof's crowning jewel

The one-year anniversary is nearing. And it's since that day, possibly the worst in Sacramento Kings history, Kings co-owner Joe Maloof has had daily nightmares about it.

It was on May 26, 2002, that the Kings were in position to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the 2002 Western Conference finals over the Los Angeles Lakers. Maloof could smell the NBA Finals. But before the Kings could take the crown away from the Lakers, forward Robert Horry sank a wild 3-pointer at the buzzer to steal a Game 4 victory. In the end, the champions stayed upon their perch as the Lakers knocked off the Kings in seven games and went on to win the NBA Finals for the third straight year. As for the Kings, they were left wondering, "What if?"

"When Robert Horry made that shot, I think I visualized that shot in my mind at least 10 times a day from the moment he made that shot," Maloof said. "To lose that series to the Lakers was ... There is no words to describe it. That's how sick I was. Jerry Tarkanian called me after the series and I asked him, 'Will my brother (Gavin) and I ever forget about this?' He said, 'You're never going to forget about it. Trust me. Live with it.' "

When May 26 comes around this year, Maloof expects a much better fortune for his Kings.

The Kings will enter the second round of the playoffs against Dallas with plenty of rest, and they will be the favorite. Assuming Sacramento does advance, awaiting them in the West finals will be a Lakers or San Antonio Spurs squad that's battered from a tough semifinals series. With that in mind and considering how much weaker the Eastern Conference is, the Kings have the best road to win the NBA Finals crown. And Maloof expects to win it.

"I think we are," Maloof said of his Kings being the team to beat. "I just think we have the deepest talent, and I think we have veteran leadership with Chris (Webber). Chris has gone to the next level. With Vlade (Divac), a young star in Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic, who have been here, I think this is our time."

The Kings arrived not long after the Maloof family bought the team in 1998.

From 1983 to '98, the Kings had a losing record each season and went 1-9 in three first-round-and-out playoff appearances. Under the Maloofs, then-new coach Rick Adelman and a new star forward in Webber, the Kings earned a 27-23 mark during a strike-shortened 1998-99 season and pushed Utah to five games in the first round. Over the past four seasons, the Kings have averaged 54.7 wins in becoming one of the league's top franchises.

Maloof, however, won't settle for second-best.

"When we bought this team 4½ years ago, we knew it was going to be an uphill struggle in all aspects of this business," Maloof said. "In the customer service. In the food at the arena. So we had to make a lot of improvements in the arena. We had to change the whole thinking process prior to our ownership. That took a long time. We had a goal to be the best sports franchise in all of sports, not just basketball. That was our goal. You never achieve that until you win a title."

A rematch with the Mavericks will be intriguing. A series against the Spurs would be better. But the best series of this postseason would be a rematch of last year's West finals between the Kings and Lakers.

Maloof would love nothing better than that to get rid of those Horry nightmares.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't want to go through the Lakers," Maloof said. "I want to beat them. I really do ... If we do have an opportunity to play the Lakers, I would love that. I think it's the best rivalry in sports right now. I don't know of a better rivalry."

The Maloof family owns several businesses in Las Vegas, including The Palms Casino Resort, and are known for putting the party in partying. So Joe, just what kind of party will you have if the Kings live up to your prediction as 2003 NBA champs?

"There is going to be a big party in Sacramento. And there would be a huge one in Las Vegas. ... Whether we survive the party is the question," he said.

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.