Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Kings And I

The Washington Wizards ended their three game home-stand with a showdown against the 16-29 Sacramento Kings. The Wizards had looked impressive recently, winning 7 out of their last 10 games. Meanwhile, Sacramento was looking to end a 4 game losing streak coming into the nation's capital on Monday.

The Kings continued to play amidst speculation that the franchise would no longer be in Sacramento next season. After owners Joe and Gavin Maloof had decided to sell the team for a reported price tag of $525 million, Sacramento mayor, and former NBA star, Kevin Johnson made one last effort to keep the team in Sacramento by encouraging local investors to get in on the bidding. The buyers, hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, have reportedly finalized the deal that would move the Kings to Seattle next season, presumably to be renamed the Sonics, but all transactions are still pending league approval.
Sacramento fans hold up a sign encouraging their beloved Kings to stay  put

In fact, there are now reports that Los Angeles-based billionaire, and supermarket mogul, Ron Burkle has agreed to meet with David Stern, along with fellow investor Mark Mastrov, the Northern California-based owner of 24-Hour Fitness, during all-star weekend in Houston. The duo reportedly plan to make a competing offer to keep the team in Sacramento, and although many believe the team will still be on its way to Seattle at season's end, this is the most promising news mayor Kevin Johnson has had yet in the city's fight to keep the team in Sac-town.

Despite all the talk of relocation, the Kings had a game to play, their fans a game to watch, and I a game to photograph. I arrived at the administrative entrance of the building at about a quarter to 5, to find my main competitor for top fan photographer waiting patiently for me in the lobby. When I sat down, he began explaining to me his ideas for shooting a documentary. When I asked what the documentary was about, he responded by saying it would be of himself. Why, or how, anyone would be able to film a documentary of themselves, both intrigues and baffles me, but I took his word for it without further inquisition. The level of respect we have for each other as fellow photographers has grown tremendously. The more events we shoot, the more competitive we become, but it's all in good nature. The rivalry amuses my supervisor profoundly, and also lets him know that we care about we're getting paid for.

Before the game, my nemesis photographer and I decided we'd go down to court-side together, and have a photography shootout, in order to see who could get the coolest photos of players warming up. Not too long after I started bringing my camera along with me to games, he started doing the same thing. I have a feeling that he was intrigued by what I might have been doing with the camera on me at every Wizards game, so when he finally got a close-up look at what I was doing, he was immediately interested in doing the exact same thing. This is cool in some ways, but in other ways I enjoy being on my own when I make these pregame excursions to court-side, and it's irritating that I have to deal with the presence of some ushers who don't want me there, especially when the arena is completely empty, and I'm doing something as harmless as taking a photo. The two of us were asked for our press credentials almost immediately when we went down to court-side, but just when I thought I was out of luck, I saw my supervisor appear at the top of the lower level. Fortunately, he was nice enough to lend me his Washington Wizards event pass in order to appease the one usher who had chased us away from the court. He was almost like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, waiting to rescue me from some evil goblins.

As I finally made my way down to the court to start photographing some of the Sacramento Kings, it occurred to me how absurd professional sports in America really are, and how much of a corporate entity basketball has become for it to be so off-limits to those who lack the credentials to cover it.

Kings forward Francisco Garcia takes some jumpers during pregame warm-ups
Garcia, a native of the Dominican Republic, represented his country internationally at the 2012 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Venezuela
Still, I was able to achieve my goal of taking interesting photographs of players I had previously only seen on T.V. I took a special interest in photographing Jimmer Fredette, who had a large contingent of fans in attendance from his alma mater,  BYU. I was also delighted to get some pictures of Kings rookie forward Thomas Robinson, a D.C. native who played his college ball at Kansas.

Kings guard, and BYU alum, Jimmer Fredette 

BYU alumni on hand to support  Jimmer Fredette
Robinson is not the only one on the Kings with connections to this area. DeMarcus Cousins, originally from Mobile, Alabama, played AAU basketball for the D.C. Blue Devils, who were in attendance tonight to greet the 6'11" big man before the game.

Kings forward , and Washington, D.C. native, Thomas Robinson
When I picked up my camera for work, I decided to do things a little differently. My level of intrigue for the Sacramento fans and players was very high, mostly because of their possible relocation to Seattle. Usually I set up camp in section 103 near the Wizards bench, but tonight I immersed myself in a small pool of Sacramento fans behind the King's bench on the other side of the court in section 117, and was able to get some photos of fans posing with their favorite players. I took at least 5 photos of one man, who would take pictures with every player who left the court for the locker room. I was even able to overhear Kings forward Travis Outlaw say, "Damn, we get this in D.C." Sacramento fans were surprisingly abundant on a night when the draw was so low. The arena was relatively empty, and the number of people who were there during pregame rituals tonight was pretty slim, but Kings fans made their presence known. Some brought signs, some wore jerseys, some just wore purple, but they were involved, I believe, in something bigger than just this one game. It was a movement to keep their beloved team in their city.

On the other hand, there were also slightly sarcastic Seattle fans who came to the game in Sonics jerseys to support a possible return of basketball to their city. I took one picture of a Seattle fan at court-side, sporting a Sonics shirt with a group of Sacramento fans holding up a sign behind him encouraging the Kings to stay in Northern California.

I started off the night at a torrid pace, and was able to take almost 200 pictures before the game even started, giving me a halftime advantage over my other photographers. But in the second half, I slowed down, partially because there weren't a whole lot of people there to photograph. There couldn't have been more than 8,000 people in attendance, and that number continued to drop as the night wore on. In the arena's emptiness, I was able to negotiate the concourses more freely, and was occasionally able to dart in and out of sections, checking out some of the game. Once I had reached my quota of 350 pictures, I decided that I'd stand in a corridor with an usher I've become cool with, and watch a few minutes of the game.

The ensuing conversation I had with this usher was extremely informative, and let me in on a world of professional sports I didn't really know too much about. According to the usher, there was a group of guys who were sitting in the upper deck, and wanted to sneak into a lower bowl section behind the Kings bench to watch the game. What started off as a group of three people, ended up being around six. Ushers aren't supposed to let people downstairs if they're ticket is upstairs. It's bad business for the team, and it's confusing if there's a big crowd at the arena to keep track of which seats are vacant, and which aren't. What I found out next was that, ushers do let people downstairs who have tickets upstairs, but often times they're bribed. Of course, he told me, it wouldn't matter on a night like tonight when the arena was only half full, but in a game against the Lakers, Knicks, or Heat, fans offer ushers some form of monetary incentive, usually around $10 or $20 for allowing them to find a vacant seat in their section. He continued by saying that at a game earlier this season against the Lakers, fans had offered him around $60 for an unofficial seat upgrade, and at some sold-out concerts, more than $100. Typically, he said, he didn't accept these tips as a way of buying seats, but something tells me if I were in his position I'd be tempted to take the tips and get a little extra cash, especially considering that a lot of season's ticket holders in the lower sections simply don't show up if the team is really struggling.

After returning my camera to the office, I conceded defeat to my competing fan photographer, who had managed to beat me out by around 70 pictures. It wasn't until I was about ready to leave that I realized the game was still going on, and it was close. I joined the action with 3:01 left in the 4th quarter to see John Wall tie the game at 86 on a driving layup. Isaiah Thomas responded on the other end, putting Sacramento back up by 2 on a floater with 2:14 remaining, but Emeka Okafor tied the game back up on a jumper with 2:25 left.

Wizards guard John Wall goes over the game plan with center Emeka Okafor
Wizards forward Nene posts up on Kings forward Chuck Hayes

John Wall drives to the basket 
Late in the game, Tyreke Evans was fouled, and made 1 of 2 free throws to put the Kings up 94-92 with 11.7 seconds remaining in the game. After a 20 second timeout by Washington, Jordan Crawford in-bounded the ball to Martell Webster, who pump-faked to get Evans off the ground, finishing at the basket with a driving floater off the glass over the arms of Francisco Garcia.

Kings guard Isaiah Thomas sets up a play
John Wall dribbles up the floor

Isaiah Thomas is guarded by John Wall

Nene  posts up on Chuck Hayes
Penetrate and kick: Nene tries to dish the ball to an open shooter
John Wall looks for an opening in the Sacramento defense
John Wall takes Chuck Hayes off the dribble
After a full timeout by Sacramento, Francisco Garcia in-bounded the ball to Isaiah Thomas with 7.9 seconds left in the game. The 5'9" Thomas drove on Garrett Temple, and sank a left-handed floater with 1.9 seconds remaining. Washington, out of timeouts, had one last chance to make a desperation heave, but Nene's in-bound pass in the direction of Trevor Ariza was picked off by Marcus Thornton, and Sacramento held on for a 96-94 victory over the Wizards.

Francisco Garcia, center, gives Chuck Hayes, right, some directions during a timeout. Thomas Robinson, left, listens attentively.
Wizards forward Martell Webster looks to drive on Kings guard Tyreke Evans. Webster converted a floater off the glass on this possession, tying the game up at 94.
Kings guard Isaiah Thomas drives on Wizards guard Garrett Temple...
and makes this left-handed floater to put Sacramento up 96-94 with 1.9 seconds left in the game.
Isaiah Thomas led the Kings with 22 points, including the game-winning bucket. Francisco Garcia chipped in 17 points off the bench.

The Wizards were led by Emeka Okafor with 23 points and 15 rebounds. John Wall contributed 19 points and 6 assists in the Wizards 32nd loss of the season.