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Sacramento Kings: A celebration of 30 years in California's capital

The Kings tipped off their Sacramento era by playing host to the Clippers 30 years ago. Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

The headquarters of the California Department of Consumer Affairs sits at 1625 North Market Blvd. in a Sacramento business park, about 7 miles north of the state capitol. It's a typical office building, with a fa├žade of glass and beige stone. You can see the street view on Google Maps here.

As unlikely as it seems, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson once played here when they visited during the earliest days of the Sacramento Kings.

Three decades ago, the building was known as Arco Arena and was very possibly the noisiest place in the entire sports world -- a cramped bandbox surrounded by acres and acres of farmland, the unpretentious birthplace of a rabid and fiercely loyal fan base. Seating capacity was 10,333 and the farthest seat from the court was 120 feet away.

Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the first regular-season NBA game in Sacramento, an obscure footnote in NBA history but an unforgettable moment for most who were there. The final score on Oct. 25, 1985, had the Kings on the short end of a 108-104 decision to the visiting Los Angeles Clippers. The eventual impact was immeasurable for a franchise that had been neglected in Kansas City and a town desperately seeking national validation.

"It was one of the highlights of my career in the sense that people even today are still talking about it," said two-time NBA All-Star Reggie Theus, who led the Kings with 24 points and scored the team's first basket that night. "It was standing-room only. They were tailgating outside. ... [Fans] really just wanted to get out and cut up. They wanted to get out and cheer for their team. It's something they obviously had wanted for a long time."

Jerry Reynolds was a Kings assistant coach when the team began play in Sacramento and went on to wear nearly every hat in the organization over the subsequent decades. He keenly remembers the 1985 home opener, right down to the game-high point total of the Clippers' Derek Smith -- 36.

"Being a native Hoosier, it actually reminded me a lot of Indiana high school basketball," said Reynolds, who earned $35,000 in salary that season. "Just the enthusiasm, the crowd was there early. They had cookouts and stuff before the game. ... They really weren't at that time necessarily knowledgeable basketball fans, in my opinion. They were more just happy to have a team."

Gary Gerould is the only radio voice in Sacramento Kings history. He was courtside for that first opening night, just as he has been for 2,352 other Kings games, and he admits to being as nervous as anyone in the building that night.

"There was great anticipation -- a great sense of satisfaction and fulfillment," Gerould said. "I do remember that when I pulled my car into the parking lot, well before ballgame time, that on the PA system they had out in the parking lot they were playing very regal, king-like music, if you will. Go back to the ages gone by of the knights and the kings."

Meantime, the city outwardly was receiving far more attention for a much different reason.

Humphrey the wayward humpback whale, who had mysteriously navigated from the Pacific through San Francisco Bay and up the Sacramento River to the capital city, was the focus of worldwide media attention. (In case you're wondering, Humphrey found his way back to open waters after 25 days. Five years later, Humphrey beached himself near Candlestick Park in San Francisco and required the help of volunteers and a Coast Guard boat to get free. But we digress.)

Locally, the Kings got top billing. They had gone 2-2 in four preseason contests, but this was the first game that mattered. Some fans arrived hours early to soak up the scene, and many wore tuxedos and evening gowns to mark the occasion. There was nearly 30 minutes of pomp leading up to game time. A telegram from President Reagan to mark the occasion was recited, and commissioner David Stern handled the ceremonial tipoff.

The inaugural game marked the first of 497 consecutive sellouts for the franchise, a streak that would span to 1997. The crowd was in a lather, with the effects charted on a giant thermometer-style decibel meter. The Kansas City Kings finished dead last in NBA attendance the previous season with an average of 6,410 fans per game. By contrast, Sacramento fans had purchased around 9,000 season tickets by opening night.

The stat lines from the game are far less notable than the atmosphere of the event. Smith scored 22 points in second half as the Clippers rallied to overcome a 19-point deficit. Franklin Edwards made two free throws with 11 seconds left to seal the victory. Other notable players were five-time All-Star Marques Johnson (20 points) and future Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes (four) for the Clippers and future NBA coach Mike Woodson (12) and Phoenix Suns television broadcaster Eddie Johnson (19) for the Kings. Joe Kleine, a rookie center drafted No. 6 overall out of Arkansas, had the Kings' highest salary at $600,000. He nearly traded blows in the first half with Clippers center James Donaldson, who had attended high school in Sacramento.

More important than any of that was the fact that Sacramento had reached the big time.

"It was just such an event," Reynolds said. "I think Sacramento and the fans were so pleased to be part of major league professional sports."

Although the original Arco Arena was widely described as a remodeled warehouse in media reports at the time, that isn't true -- exposed ceiling insulation notwithstanding. It was specifically constructed as a temporary home at a cost of $7 million -- $3.5 million less than a six-man ownership group had paid for the franchise in 1983.

"That small building had four suites, one in each corner," Reynolds said. "The dressing rooms -- especially the visiting dressing room was about the size of a regular hotel room. Our dressing room wasn't much bigger. All the visiting teams would dress at their hotels."

The Kings went 37-45 in 1985-86 and reached the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, but they were swept by the Houston Rockets in the first round. Sacramento moved into the 17,317-seat, $40 million Arco Arena 2.0 -- now known as Sleep Train Arena -- in 1988, but interest eventually waned.

Then came eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1999 through 2006 with players such as Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic. The Kings established another long sellout streak, 354 games, and once again boasted one of the NBA's loudest arenas. The team's signature moment was one of heartbreak, though -- a Game 7 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference finals that silenced the cacophony of cowbells that became a calling card of the fan base.

Theus, 58, once referred to Sacramento as a "bigger cowtown" than Kansas City, but he grew to love the area and its fans. He played three seasons in Sacramento and later returned as head coach. Although Theus currently lives in Southern California, he still has many friends in Sacramento and visits regularly. Tellingly, his cellphone still bears the 916 area code of California's capital.

"The people, the fans, they made it incredible to play there and live there," said Theus, who's entering his third season as men's basketball coach at Cal State Northridge. "They were bringing out white limos for us, and it was almost like they were having a parade. ... As pros, we do our jobs. But it was bigger than our jobs. This was something that was city changing. This was life altering for a lot of fans there in terms of having a professional team that they could cheer."

Reynolds, 71, went from assistant coach to interim coach, head coach, director of player personnel, general manager and television analyst. He still handles the team's color commentary on TV, and he hasn't missed a broadcast in 18 years in that role.

Likewise, Gerould, 75, remains the Kings' radio voice. He has missed a few broadcasts each season over the years because of TV work for NBC and ESPN but said he's running strong heading into his 31st season with the team.

"I was so excited to have an opportunity to be an NBA broadcaster and to just be involved and to learn the league and some of the nuances of the game," Gerould said. "It was a huge challenge, and I gave absolutely no thought to how long the ride might be or anything like that."

After three decades of ups and downs, the Kings have survived in Sacramento. Despite serious flirtations with Anaheim and Seattle under the previous ownership regime, the team is headed next season to the new 17,500-seat Golden 1 Center, which is being constructed in downtown Sacramento at a cost of $477 million.

"Something brand new has come to Sacramento," Gerould said. "It was hopefully gonna be a game-changer in terms of how the city is perceived."

He was referring to opening night in 1985. But it will also apply nicely to opening night in 2016.