After spending nearly two decades as a pro sports punchline — missing the playoffs for a record 16 seasons — the Kings have been so successful this season they are not only defying expectations but are helping revive hope of a broader civic resurgence cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
The city is in the midst of hosting its first NBA postseason games since 2006, bringing the national spotlight back to a place often overshadowed by California’s other great cities, lacking as it does the bohemian bona fide of nearby San Francisco and the glitz of Los Angeles. For boosters desperate to drive people back downtown and reinvigorate the local economy, the timing could not be better.
“Pre-pandemic, we were a rocket ship,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said.
But covid-era lockdowns sent the legion of state workers home and the city’s rocket petered out. Office buildings sat empty, unsheltered homelessness exploded, a mass shooting left six dead, and storms hit the flood-prone city hard. Lately, however, city leaders point to hopeful signs of recovery, none brighter than that purple laser.
“It’s all about the beam, baby,” Steinberg said. “‘Light the beam’ has become a great rallying cry. It’s really about resilience, it’s about attitude. We light the beam for a vision that says the downtown is going to be different.”
That vision is most visible in and around the recently constructed Golden 1 Center, a half-billion dollar metal-clad arena that resembles a giant UFO parked in the heart of the city’s entertainment district. This is where the Kings are facing off against a team from the Bay Area — the defending champion Golden State Warriors — supercharging the matchup like only a regional rivalry can. On the court and off, Sacramento is eager to prove it can hang with the likes of San Francisco.
While California’s other major metros have seen population losses in recent years, Sacramento has gotten bigger, according to the state Department of Finance. The wider region has experienced an even more dramatic population boom, welcoming many Bay Area transplants. And an analysis of mobile device data from North America’s largest cities in the fall found that activity in Sacramento’s downtown was at 75 percent of its pre-covid level, outperforming all California cities with more than 500,000 residents, except Fresno and San Diego. The area immediately surrounding Golden 1 has seen a 14 percent bump in visits compared to last year, according to the Downtown Sacramento Partnership.
“When I came to Sacramento, the city had a bit of a complex,” said Vivek Ranadivé, the Kings owner and chairman since 2013. “So I stood here after I bought the team and said, ‘This city will never play second fiddle to any other city in the world. We’re going to make this a world-class city — we’re going to do better than that, we’re going to make it the city of the future.’”
The beam, which debuted earlier this year and received a blessing from the Federal Aviation Administration, “has become part of our folklore,” Ranadivé said, and it’s here to stay.
When Kings star De’Aaron Fox was drafted in 2017, he had only been to Sacramento once before, and he didn’t remember much about it. But he knew he was about to move to a city hungry for success, and in recent months he’s seen a new energy in his adopted hometown.
“You definitely see the excitement, no matter where you go around the city,” said Fox, who regularly hears calls of “Light the beam” when fans see him walking downtown. “Just to be a part of this, getting the Kings out of that playoff drought, is huge — not only for myself but the entire fan base, the organization and the city.”
That joy, along with hope for Sacramento’s future, was on full display Saturday, when the Kings hosted the Warriors for the first game of their best-of-seven series. Fans packed into downtown hours before tip-off, sporting purple garb head to toe and chanting their city’s name in unison. Taylor Cummings and Robert Wood, longtime friends and lifelong fans, were among the first to crowd into a watch party outside the arena, where the game was playing on giant TV screens.
“I have never seen this much excitement, I have never seen this much unity,” said Cummings, who was clad in a purple wig and monarch robe. “People want to rag on this town and joke on this town, but I hope this puts us on the map beyond basketball.”
“We’re getting the respect and recognition that is long deserved,” Wood said, his face poking out of a giant violet inflatable tube man costume. Explaining the get-up, he grinned: “I am the beam!”
A vibrant history forgotten
For most of its history, Sacramento has been cast by outsiders as a humdrum government town, serving as California’s capital since 1854 — and struggling to garner fame for much else.
But that sleepy reputation belies a track record of rowdiness that dates back to the city’s Gold Rush age origins, said local historian William Burg. Sacramento was the state’s first incorporated city and later became the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad.
From its earliest days, Sacramento had a diverse and pro-union population, Burg said. It was a center of the 1894 Pullman Strike and, later, home to lax prohibition laws that made it popular with the Hollywood crowd. In the city’s historic west end, where many Black, Asian and Latino Sacramentans lived during the first half of the 20th century, night clubs, jazz venues and a boxing gym lined the streets. But during redevelopment in the 1950s, the city bulldozed neighborhoods, displaced residents and drastically reshaped downtown.
“There was this whitewashing of our history,” said Burg, whose book, “Sacramento Renaissance,” covers this period. “That whole story about us being a quiet farm town gets harder and harder to believe. This livelier Sacramento, that’s the real story. That’s what people are seeing and are more interested in.”
The more present-day downtown can replicate its pre-redevelopment heyday, he argued, the more successful it will be.
While the Kings are now a key part of that formula, the city came very close to losing its team in 2013. More than a decade removed from being dubbed the “Greatest Show on Court” and nearly reaching the NBA finals, the Kings were at the time “a wholly dysfunctional organization,” said Marshall Garvey, a sports historian and Sacramento native.
After the former owners announced their intent to sell the Kings, who had been based in Sacramento since 1985, city residents and leaders launched an urgent campaign. They eventually recruited Ranadive to purchase the team, convinced the city council to approve public funds for a new downtown arena and passed a state law to expedite construction.
“It would have been the loss of an irreplaceable part of our identity,” Garvey said. “Sacramento is a great city, but it’s a city whose identity and pride is complicated. The Kings are Sacramento in the right way.”
‘A new spirit of urban living’
The Golden 1 Center opened in 2016, an exciting time for the city. It was already seeing population growth, and the local food and arts scenes were generating buzz. The following year, the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” broadcast Sacramento’s boulevards and bridges to the world, giving the city cultural cachet with a new generation.
Writer and director Greta Gerwig, who was born and raised in Sacramento, described the film as “a love letter” to the city. Soon after, New York Magazine touted Sacramento’s “New California Cool” and a local restaurant was awarded the city’s first Michelin star.
Then, the pandemic hit and the momentum stalled. Since then, the most cited example of the city’s struggles has been its homelessness crisis: Sacramento’s population of unhoused people nearly doubled between 2019 and 2022. And while leaders cite some hopeful signs of recent improvement, business owners like Ernesto Delgado face the challenges up close every day.
One of the four restaurants Delgado runs is in downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza, a historic public space that has been neglected for years. When Delgado opened his Mexican eatery, La Cosecha, the plaza was infamous for drug use, public urination and homelessness.
Ever since, he has made it his mission to improve the area, hosting regular brainstorming meetings and commissioning renderings of what a revamped plaza could look like. Standing outside the restaurant on a recent afternoon, Delgado pointed to the surrounding buildings: One office was still at less than 40 percent capacity, two others sat empty, and one side of the block had lost half its small businesses to the pandemic.
“Everything around here, if we were to take a percentage, it’s probably 20 percent full,” Delgado said.
He doesn’t need to look far to see what might be possible with a little investment. The plaza sits between the Golden 1 Center and the city’s recently renovated convention center.
“Those are two pillars, but we do have a lot of issues and empty buildings between those two pillars,” he said.
City leaders are looking to new downtown housing developments to address some of these pressing problems. More than 2,100 units are currently under construction in the downtown core, said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. And in January, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that three state-owned buildings in the heart of the city could be converted into affordable housing.
“We’re dealing with other challenges on where downtown is going,” Ault said. “A lot of urban centers are trying to figure out what’s next. If office workers don’t come back, how do you embrace housing, how do you lean into a new spirit of urban living?”
These are existential questions for Sacramento, but on Saturday, it was easier than ever to be optimistic about their answers. Inside Golden 1, the Kings were playing in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd. Outside, Cummings and Wood were among the hundreds anxiously watching and whooping with every bucket made.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Kings clung to a three-point lead, propelled by Fox’s clutch scoring. The buzzer sounded, the Kings won and the city erupted. In unison, they turned toward the inky night sky, waiting for the sign. And finally, after 17 long years and a punishing pandemic, Sacramento was beaming again.