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The Sacramento Kings are hungry to break their 16-year playoff drought

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When the MLB's Seattle Mariners made the playoffs in 2022, a spotlight suddenly fell on an NBA team, the Sacramento Kings. After the Mariners' success, the Kings assumed the dubious national title of major pro sports team with the longest postseason drought. But after a breakout season, Sacramento is about to rid itself of that title. NPR's Tom Goldman reports the success has Kings fans literally beaming.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Listen closely to Mike Brown, the Sacramento Kings' first-year head coach, as he explained what his team did wrong in a loss earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE BROWN: One of the things our guys are going to have to understand is come playoff time, the best shot's an open shot because those are going to be hard...

GOLDMAN: You hear how casually he threw out playoff time as if it's a foregone conclusion? That's because it almost is. Sixteen years in the playoff desert are about to end thanks to a season filled with moments like this.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: They open up the floor. Fox going to go to work, pulls up for the winner. Got it - D. Fox with some dynamite.

GOLDMAN: That game-winning shot by the Kings' all-star guard De'Aaron Fox happened last week in Chicago. Back in Sacramento, Corey and Joshua Silva were at a restaurant next to the Kings' home arena, Golden One Center. Seconds after the win, the Silva brothers scurried away from their table and went hunting for the beam. I caught up with them as they stared up at the suddenly illuminated sky above the arena.

Describe it.

COREY SILVA: A bright blue pole...

JOSHUA SILVA: Well...

C SILVA: ...That just shoots straight up.

J SILVA: Purple, purple, purple.

C SILVA: That's right - purple. Look at this guy - purple, just bright. And I couldn't believe how high it goes. Yeah.

J SILVA: Kings color, man.

C SILVA: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: Forgive Corey Silva's blue-instead-of-purple mistake. Although a lifelong Kings fan, the 32-year-old Silva was excited seeing the laser beam in person for the first time. The victory beam, powered by six lasers and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, was introduced this season to celebrate every Kings victory, and it started a ritual chant when the wins were imminent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Light the beam. Light the beam. Light the beam.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: The chants raining down from Golden One Center - light the beam.

GOLDMAN: As chants go, light the beam is a lot more fun than the one heard at Kings Games more than a decade ago.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Here we stay. Here we stay. Here we stay.

GOLDMAN: Here we stay became a rallying cry during a several years-long saga that threatened the team's future in Sacramento. The Kings wanted an upgraded arena. They couldn't stop losing. And owners considered moving the team, prompting fans like Rich Bachman to say in 2011 he was bracing for the worst.

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RICH BACHMAN: I guess we'll come back for the rodeo or the truck pool or something like that, but no more Kings.

GOLDMAN: But the team survived. Loyal fans rallied. A new owner and city government secured funding for what would become Golden One. It also helped to have former NBA commissioner the late David Stern on Sacramento's side. Brian McIntyre was the league's head of communications during Stern's tenure.

BRIAN MCINTYRE: I think his resolve was hardened by what happened up in Seattle with the Sonics leaving. And he didn't want to see the same thing happen in Sacramento.

GOLDMAN: Golden One Center's address is 500 David Stern Walk, a permanent appreciation. And finally, all the work to keep the Kings in town is being repaid with a playoff drought-breaking season. Last year's trade for seven-footer Domantas Sabonis, combined with Fox's sterling play, have turned the Kings into the top-scoring team in the league. Just a few more wins and/or other-team losses will clinch a playoff spot and pass the postseason drought baton to the NFL's New York Jets and hockey's Buffalo Sabres. Both are at 11 seasons and counting. Maybe they need a beam.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.