DENVER — This is the way the whole NBA would like to play: Sacramento Kings' point guard Jason Williams takes a pass at the far end of the court after a missed shot. He spins and starts up court. Within two or three steps, he's at full speed.
Head bobbing, weight shifting, he's setting up his defender for a driving layup, aiming straight for the rim. But all the while his eyes are darting left and right. Then, as Williams crosses the foul line, he spots a teammate from the corner of his eye. Sacramento's king-size center, Vlade Divac, comes barreling in along the baseline. For a half-second, the defender hesitates. And Williams whips the ball to Divac for an uncontested layup.
The Sacramento Kings are making a living off their passing game this season. After posting an impressive 55-27 regular-season record, the team is now locked in a first-round playoff battle with the Phoenix Suns, tied at one game apiece.
Meanwhile, league officials are loving the Kings' playing style. At a time when the National Basketball Association faces waning attendance and TV ratings, critics are carping at a lack of team play. This month, the NBA Board of Governors went so far as to revamp the rules for next season, reinstituting the zone defense in an effort to take the ball out of the hands of superstars who indulge in one-on-one isolation plays as teammates stand around and watch - and yawning fans change the channel.
Sacramento plays a brand of team basketball that has some fans recalling the Boston Celtic glory days of Bob Cousy. It's an upbeat, entertaining style, which is why TV executives have broadcast Kings' games on network television 20 times this season. For a team that plays in a small-market city, that's remarkable exposure.
What accounts for the teamwork of the Sacramento Kings? "I think a couple of things," says Denver Nuggets broadcaster Scott Hastings, a former pro player. "One of the things we've lost in the NBA is a sound, fundamental basis of skills from our players. I think Sacramento for the most part has that. But they've also bought into a system. They're a group of people who believe in each other and are willing to share in the glory. Because of that, they distribute the basketball."
One hears the same two themes in the Sacramento locker room. It seems the passing game runs on a formula of aptitude and attitude: A player must be skilled at passing the ball, but he also must be willing to share it. NBA analysts note that both Chris Webber, the Kings' 6 ft., 10 in., power forward, and the 7 ft., 1 in., Divac are top-flight passers.
Webber is an undisputed superstar, yet he plays within the offensive flow of his team - spotting the open man when he draws two defenders and firing off accurate passes. Not only has he led the Kings in scoring and rebounding in 58 games this season, but on 22 occasions he's also led the team in assists.
"I've always been blessed to play on teams where the team philosophy was introduced," Webber says. "Plus, as a kid, I played with a lot of shorter guys who wouldn't let me post up [one on one]. I always recommend that to young players. Play with people who aren't your size. If you're small, play with big guys. If you're big, play with small guys."
Webber says that another influence on him while growing up in Detroit was watching Pistons' point guard Isiah Thomas, one of the NBA's all-time leading passers.
In the Kings' April 18 season finale against the Nuggets, Webber once again found himself a spectator, as coach Rick Adelman benched his starters for most of the final three quarters, resting them for the playoffs. But Webber and the others were still into the game, waving towels and cheering whenever the Sacramento subs made a run against Denver's starters.
At times, the Kings' precision-passing offense can appear almost choreographed, the players are so attuned to one another's moves. But then one notices their heads swiveling, always looking for the open man. That's where the passing game begins. It's improvisation by design.
What would it take for other teams to play this way? Dave Krieger, sports columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, remembers a few years ago when Denver coach Doug Moe laid down the law to the struggling Nuggets. "Moe told them that at least four players had to touch the ball every time down the court before anyone could shoot it," he recalls.
But some believe that Sacramento's success is more a matter of spirit than of playing style. "It's the camaraderie," claims Pete Carril, the famed coach at Princeton who's now a Kings assistant. "Some of these guys are making more [money] than others, but there's no jealousy."
"It's unselfishness," adds Kings guard Doug Christie. "They've put together a group of people with character. Plus, everybody - all the way up to Chris and Vlade - everyone has the skills to dribble and pass the ball."
"It's a team game," Divac says. "I feel happier when I pass the ball than when I score."
"Everybody gets open shots when we're moving the ball like that," said guard Bobby Jackson to The Associated Press after Wednesday night's win over Phoenix.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor