SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Was this the end?
The chatter around Sleep Train Pavilion centered on that question Wednesday night. With NBA owners debating whether to approve the franchise's sale and relocation to Seattle, the ever-faithful fans of the Sacramento Kings pushed the uncertainty aside and did what they have done for parts of four decades during a 112-108 loss in the regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Maybe for the last time.
Hope rang out in those trademark cowbells. Optimism showed through purple-painted faces and in the jerseys of players past and present worn throughout the announced sellout crowd of 17,317.
Stacey Petit-Williams, 32, held a hand-made sign that read: "TAKE MY LIFE BUT NOT MY KINGS." Her husband, Kenneth Williams, 33, carried another that said: "BEST FANS IN THE NBA SINCE '85."
"The Kings are like our stepchild," said Kenneth Williams, born and raised in Sacramento. "It's like family. We're here to cheer something we love."
Fans cheered at full throat during player introductions and often shouted "Sacramento!" Dozens more held up signs at any stoppage with phrases such as "NBA Please Don't Take Our Team" and "This is NOT goodbye." Many stuck around even after the final buzzer, chanting "here we stay" while security guards line the court with ropes to prevent fans from storming the hardwood.
The scene was a stark contrast to the home finale two years ago, when the Maloof family that owns the Kings was making plans to move the franchise to Anaheim, Calif. Everybody from fans to arena workers — even the team's broadcasters — shed tears on the court long after the Kings lost 116-108 in overtime to the Los Angeles Lakers.
With Sacramento once again standing on the ledge of its NBA future, this season's finale felt more like a pep rally.
"It's still nervousness, but it's a lot more confidence this time," Petit-Williams said. "Our city, our mayor, our fans, we've been here before and won."
Former Kings guard Mitch Richmond sat in the first row behind the basket closest to the home team's bench. Richmond looked up at his No. 2 jersey retired in the rafters just before the game, saying "I don't even want to think about the possibility of that being taken down."
"It's time to give this team back to the fans," Richmond said.
Brad Miller, who played for the Kings from 2003 to 2009, sat in the Maloofs' courtside seats. He also came with his 6-year-old daughter, Aniston.
"Felt I had to be here," Miller said.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, in full cheerleader-in-chief mode, sat in a courtside seat. He fist-bumped "Slamson," the team's lion mascot, as players took the court and said at halftime he feels confidents about Sacramento's bid to keep the Kings.
"I think the advantage has to go to the home team. We're an incumbent," Johnson said. "We have fans here, still filling up Sleep Train Arena."
Others couldn't help but feel nostalgic.
Gary Gerould has been Sacramento's radio play-by-play announcer since the Kings moved from Kansas City in 1985. He hopes to continue for several more years, but only if the team stays because his family is in Northern California.
He sat down in the morning and did the math on games he has missed during his career. In his 28 seasons in Sacramento, the 72-year-old Gerould has called 2,198 games — including preseason and playoffs — by his count.
Wednesday night might have been his last.
"It's a weird feeling," Gerould said. "Two years ago, I was absolutely convinced this team was gone. There was not a doubt in my mind. Now there's at least a ray of hope."
The Maloof family has had a signed agreement since January to a group that wants to buy the Kings, move them to Seattle and rebrand them the SuperSonics — who left the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma City in 2008. Led by Johnson, Sacramento has fought back over to make the sale and relocation of the Kings a real debate.
Johnson streamlined an arena financing plan through the Sacramento City Council and assembled his own group, which submitted a written offer to the league Tuesday night. The NBA's joint committee assigned to give a recommendation between the two offers convened again Wednesday in New York.
The annual meeting of the league's Board of Governors, consisting of all 30 owners, is Thursday and Friday. NBA Commissioner David Stern said a decision is unlikely until at least May, leading to all the uncertainty in Sacramento's season finale for everybody involved again.
"For the most part, it's a shame that every year I've been here you get the same type of questions and it's the same situation at the end of the season — is this going to be our last game here?" said Kings forward Jason Thompson, who was among the players who came back on the court to thank fans two years ago in what felt like goodbye. "It's a tough situation for the players and for the fans who spend money to watch games. It's just a tough situation."
The arena parking lot was packed with TV trucks. Radio stations also set up booths along with sponsored business. The Maloofs were nowhere in sight.
When Kings coach Keith Smart came out of the locker room before the game and saw a half-dozen TV cameras and another dozen reporters, he joked, "What is this the NBA Finals?"
Carmichael Dave parked his purple RV outside the arena. He drove to New York and back over the last three weeks on his "Playing To Win Tour," stopping at NBA cities to rally for Sacramento's cause. He encouraged his fellow fans to treat this game as the "season finale, not the finale."
John Silva wore a purple "Maloof the Maloofs T-shirt," using the owners' name as a derogatory verb that has become part of the vocabulary in California's capital city.
"I'm optimistic the Kings will be back. The main thing this time is our bid is more concrete," Silva said. "There was a lot of uncertainty last time (in 2011). It seems like it was a miracle that the Kings were able to stick around for two more years. I'm optimistic the Kings will get a fair shot by the commissioner and the NBA owners. This time it won't be a Maloof decision."
Others aren't so sure.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was drafted in the second round by the Kings in 1988. He said both Sacramento and Seattle deserve to be NBA cities.
Coincidentally, the first game of Del Negro's career for the Kings also was the franchise's first in the current arena, a 121-103 loss to Portland on Nov. 5, 1988.
"It means I'm getting old," Del Negro said. "I played in the first game here, and I may be coaching the last one here."
Nobody really knows for sure.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP