SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The cowbells rang loud and proud again.
For perhaps the final time, the faithful following once considered among the best in American professional sports came together Wednesday night to cheer their beloved Sacramento Kings in a heartbreaking 116-108 overtime loss to the rival Los Angeles Lakers.
Not that the score really mattered.
For one night, doom and gloom were trumped by hope and happiness. For one night, the team's possible move to Anaheim was brushed aside to show what made Sacramento so great.
They came with signs that read, "We Love You!" and "Take My Life. But Not My Kings."
And the optimism reverberated in the echoes of those trademark cowbells and in the purple-painted faces who came to remember the glory days.
"It feels like old times," said Patrick Sullivan, 26, sitting in upper deck. "The atmosphere would be so awesome if the reason behind it wasn't so sad."
A standing-room only crowd packed things beyond the 17,317-seat capacity, and many arrived well before tipoff. They chanted "Here We Stay!" and "Save Our Kings!"
A few thousand even stayed almost an hour past tipoff, cheering so loud that several Kings players returned to the floor after feeling the vibrations from their locker room.
"No matter what happens," Kings forward Francisco Garcia said, grabbing the microphone, "this is always going to be our home."
Some fans were covered in body paint, others wore Kings jerseys going back a decade and a few even donned gold crowns atop their heads. A video montage for "Fan Appreciation Night" was shown before tipoff.
And when the lights went dim and players were introduced, every one — fans, ushers, vendors, players, coaches, even police officers — stood and delivered a roar so loud that the building best known as Arco Arena shook to its core.
But not everyone was kind.
There were derogatory chants and angry posters toward Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, who were not in attendance, let alone in their usual courtside seats for this one. Instead, fans with Lakers attire sat in the Maloof's seats.
On the other side of the broadcast table, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez sat courtside. Outside, there was even a small patch of fans wearing black and reading a eulogy, recounting all the great players and victories throughout the years.
For most, though, it was one last chance to reflect.
Brian Martin and his wife, Chris, have lived in Sacramento since 1984 and have gone to games since the Kings moved from Kansas City in 1985. Of all the highlights they've witnessed, their favorite came when former Kings fan-favorite Bobby Jackson — who was in attendance for the finale — flew into the crowd next to them diving for a loose ball.
"A woman leaned over and just smiled and then kissed Bobby on top of his head," said Chris, who was wearing Jackson's old Kings jersey. "That was just so adorable."
Soon, memories might be all that's left.
It seems the only thing stopping the Kings from moving is a block by NBA owners. The Maloofs are scheduled to make a pitch at the NBA Board of Governors meeting that begins Thursday in New York to move the franchise to Anaheim next season, and no franchise has ever been denied permission to relocate in the 27 years under Commissioner David Stern.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson — a former NBA All-Star — and Anaheim officials also will attend the meeting to plead their cities' cases. The Maloofs have until Monday to officially file for permission to relocate, and a vote would likely come within weeks of that request.
All that's needed for approval is a simple majority.
"I've been in a lot of games where there's not much time on the clock, and somehow we managed to come away with a win," said Johnson, who was at the Kings' finale before leaving after the first quarter to catch a flight to New York.
"So it's not over yet."
Even the hated Lakers were sympathetic of the Kings.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson — the man behind the Lakers' 2002 Western Conference finals victory over the Kings in Game 7 in Sacramento, the one who labeled the city "cow town" and soaked up every snicker and verbal jab at Kings fans for years — felt for those at the finale.
"I'll never forget those cowbells," said Jackson, who might've heard more ringing than anybody ever behind the visitors' bench. "I was OK with them, because I always knew fans would get tired. But when they started with the electric ones that had batteries, those really killed you."
Not even those closest to the Kings know their future for certain.
Gary Gerould has been Sacramento's radio play-by-play announcer since the inaugural season, and he said the team has given him no indication if he will be their announcer in Anaheim should they leave. With his family in Northern California — his wife, several children and grandchildren — Gerould probably wouldn't move to Anaheim, anyway.
In 26 seasons calling Kings games, the 70-year-old Gerould has only missed five games. Wednesday night was his 2,058th Kings game — including preseason and playoffs — by his count.
And perhaps his last.
"I'm no different than anyone in this organization," Gerould said. "None of us knows what might happen. How I will fill that void after doing this for so many years? I honestly don't know."