The Greatest Swap in Sports History

How one unconventional trade can save two NBA franchises from irrelevance and local indifference.

Image Source: Kitschatorium on etsy.com

On August 31, 2015, the Sacramento Kings promoted an advisor of the franchise to the role of General Manager. That man was Vlade Divac. The promotion was significant not only because the team’s relatively new ownership was making the assumption that a former NBA All-Star could guide the franchise into the future, but it also indicated to fans that the glory days of the turn of the millennium were not completely forgotten. Those glory days were short lived, but as they were the franchise’s one flirtation with relevancy (let alone greatness), fans have struggled to let them go. Embarrassingly, the Kings organization and fans’ alike have been stuck in the early 2000’s ever since, and season after season, the teams lose game after game. The organization has not been to the playoffs since 2006. At 14 seasons dry, they are in sole possession of the second longest playoffs drought in NBA history. If the organization hopes to find success entering the new decade, the ownership must make bold changes to the culture and makeup within the organization. The change I propose includes a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies, and it would land both franchises their own distinct chapter in pro sports history.

In the early 2000’s, the Sacramento Kings found their starting five on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the heading, “The Greatest Show on Court.” They were a counter-attacking team that ran the floor with big men who could pass and drain shots from the top of the key at will, in Vlade Divac and Chris Webber. They had deep range with two of the league’s highest-percentage three-point shooters of all-time, in Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic. They had a defensive specialist in Doug Christie, and in a miscellany of dazzling guards from the trick-passing White Chocolate (who would be traded to Memphis for Bibby), and the first man off of the bench, Bobby Jackson. The team was always more interesting than whatever else was on TV. If you identify as a Kings fan, you probably started salivating as you finished those last few sentences. If you’re not a Kings fan, you probably just thought to yourself, “Yeah, that team was good I guess, but so what?” Fans with proper context of league history understand, good teams come and go, and while some win championships, others don’t and they fade into obscurity. Well, Kings fans find themselves in a peculiar place in this regard. Animated disapproval of questionable calls in championship games may dwell in the consciousness of die-hard fans for a moment, but even the most avid supporters eventually get over the bad calls and move on. Kings fans lack such closure for the team’s loss to the Lakers in the 2001 NBA Western Conference Finals because one referee in that game, Tim Donaghy, would eventually be sent to federal prison for his connection to organized gambling. In a very rare occurrence in professional sports, the claim “It was fixed!” had actual legitimacy in this case.

However, that loss happened nearly two decades ago and Kings fans (myself included) haven’t shut up about it ever since. In the time since that loss, a lot has happened to disorient fans. The franchise flirted with moves to Anaheim and Seattle, played seasons in the comically-named Power Balance Pavilion and Sleep Train Arena, and lost games… frequently. Then, Vivek Ranadive purchased the team in 2013, a new arena was funded and built, and things started looking up. There was renewed interest in the team, and the new owner took steps to ensure that the soul and influence of the Greatest Show on Court was still alive and well. The Kings created a new logo that combined the past and the future, and made sure legends like Divac and Stojakovic were in the house. Fans watching from home were greeted into the new arena with the same familiar voice in Grant Napear, and some clever draft picks seemed to have the team on the rise. But then COVID struck. Then the Kings fired Napear. Then, on Friday, August 15th, 2020, the Kings fired Vlade. In a span of a few months, two cornerstones of the franchise were out and the team is still terrible.

It’s time for the Kings to take the next and final step to move on from what could have been but never was. The Sacramento Kings should reach out to the Memphis Grizzlies, and trade… brands. You may think that sounds insane, and perhaps it is. Stranger things have happened in professional sports. Well, maybe not stranger, but equally or almost as strange, absolutely. Coaches in the NFL and NBA have been traded for cash and draft picks, John McDonald in the MLB was once traded for himself, and if we go back far enough, kooky trades (like Cy Young for a $300 suit) were practically the norm. While such a proposal of two franchises trading brands may sound absurd, after you take the time to really consider it, it may seem absurd not to make such an obviously mutually beneficial deal.

First, the “Kings” name has never made sense in Sacramento. If Sacramento (the city) is known for anything in a modern context, it is for being the state capital of California, the most populous state in the union. While sports franchises in Washington, D.C. are constantly selling us reminders of the federal city’s place in our hallowed form of government (Senators, Nationals, Capitals), Sacramento, a city of such magnanimous importance to modern democracy, for some reason, is reminding us of monarchy. Imagine if Washington, D.C. had a team called the Tsars or the Pharaohs. Wouldn’t that be a little strange? It is no less strange or ironic for a team in California’s capital to call themselves the Kings. The name was not chosen with Sacramento in mind, but merely stayed on as the franchise was acquired from Kansas City in 1985. Without any relevance to the history or culture of the city, the team’s uniforms and logos have always been soulless mock-ups drawn up and informed by of-the-moment marketing strategies. With the success of Los Angeles Raiders’ merchandise sales in the nineties, teams in different leagues started adopting silver and black, left and right, and the Kings followed suit, with the addition of purple as the color of royalty. The success that the team enjoyed somewhat early-on afterward solidified the brand in fans’ hearts and it has lasted until today. But speaking objectively, the color scheme has always been atrocious. The team’s logos and merchandise in the past few years have looked more like the party favors and novelty t-shirts from a Chippendale’s bachelorette party than that of a self-respecting professional sports franchise. No Kings fan enjoys dawning the purple and silver on game day; we merely tolerate it for how it reminds us of a moment when our little sports city was something to brag about. But those days are gone and it’s time for the team name and logo to go too.

Now, what about the Memphis Grizzlies? What’s in it for them? Why should they like “the Kings” any better? Let me first begin by breaking down how preposterous it is for a team based in Memphis to call itself the “Grizzlies.” The franchise began its journey in the NBA as an expansion team based in Vancouver, B.C. The color scheme, logo, and team name made perfect sense for the Pacific Northwest. Grizzlies (the animal) were once prevalent in North America, but in the past few centuries their numbers were decimated to the point where they now only reside in the most northern parts of the United States and Canada. The team’s colors were teal, red, and black, with logo and uniforms that incorporated the area’s native American symbols and iconography. Then, the team moved to Tennessee, where grizzlies have never roamed at any point in history, and after a few seasons with the previous colors and logos, eventually they went with a blue and yellow color scheme, and drew up a new, softer grizzly for a logo. Without the rich cultural history of the Pacific Northwest to accompany the name, the bland boring grizzly looks more like a plush teddy bear; they might as well be the Memphis “Bears in the Big Blue House.”

The Kings make little sense in Sacramento, but the Grizzlies in Memphis make about as much sense as the Oklahoma City Supersonics or the Washington Expos. These teams’ names are not iconic irrevocable brand names like the Dodgers (named for a previous century’s New Yorkers constantly dodging trolleys on the streets of Brooklyn) or the Lakers (named for the land of ten thousand lakes in Minnesota). A case could be made for the Jazz and other franchises to change names, but that’s not the point right now. What we have here in the Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies are two franchise names that are not only bland and uninteresting, but would inversely be spectacular.

Let’s first consider the Sacramento Grizzlies. Sacramento is the capital of California, where the grizzly is recognized as the state animal and stands majestically upon the state flag. Grizzlies are very much associated with the state, and are within the animal’s historic range. Not terribly long ago, in the grand context of things, California was a frontier land of the wild west where trappers and prospectors frequently encountered grizzlies. If you read the incredible journal kept by William H. Brewer, “Up and Down California,” in which the reader follows the first geological survey of the state, harrowing tales of encounters with grizzlies at every turn in every place ensures that there is no mistaking who the alpha mammal was in this area at that time. Grizzlies no longer roam in the state, but their influence is not forgotten and cannot be overstated. Still today, large grizzly-esque brown bears roam in Yosemite National Park and in many of the tree-filled rural areas of the state. Non-residents like to associate California with the beach, Hollywood, San Francisco, Napa wine country, and their imagination usually stops there. But with nine National Parks and several magnificent mountain ranges, including the beautiful Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, there is an ongoing relationship with mountainous California that has taken a backseat to the coastal pleasures that dominate in the consciousness of people outside the state. Despite what Lady Bird says, Sacramento represents not only the capital and government, but it is also the most significant inland city standing as a corridor to the great beauty and adventure of the most northern and eastern parts of the state. Tahoe, Mount Shasta, Big Trees, and Plumas National Forest are all every bit as much California as Venice Beach and the Golden Gate. It’s time for Sacramento to advertise the great pride they take for these places by choosing the name of their eastern-most professional sports franchise accordingly. California is a mountainous, rugged adventure state and the Sacramento Grizzlies would stand as a reminder of it.

By now, hopefully I’ve got you thinking, “Ok, so Grizzlies wouldn’t be a terrible idea in Sacramento, but why the Kings in Memphis?” I’m so glad you asked. There are few cities where that name would sound anything other than bland and unoriginal. In fact, there may only be one city where such a name would perfectly capture the spirit of the place in such an appropriate and fantastic way. Memphis is indeed the land of the Kings, and specifically the King. Elvis Presley, is known unambiguously as “the King” and comes from the great city of Memphis. His home, better known as Graceland, is a US national historic landmark, and it tops every list of places one must visit if visiting southwestern Tennessee. The King’s influence on rock and roll and popular culture in the United States, if not the world, has been significant to say the least. Imagine a logo and uniform design that plays upon Elvis’ personal style of rhinestones and guitars. Memphis was not only the home to “the King,” but many kings, including the great and legendary blues musician, BB King. Consider the significance that Memphis had in the civil rights movements of the sixties, and the importance that plays in the modern NBA. With “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the court and on uniforms in the NBA bubble, imagine how Memphis might continue that tradition after 2020 with an Icon Uniform design that just says “KING” and calls attention to America’s belated founding father, the great reverend, Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, round off the quartet with wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler and Memphis has its own Mount Rushmore of Kings from whom to pull inspiration. But now consider that King isn’t just a name or nickname. It is a state of mind in Memphis, where their Memphis-Style BBQ is the king of all barbecue in the United States. Whereas not a single other city would have a righteous claim to an NBA franchise with such a name, it seems criminal not to let Memphis take rightful ownership of their basketball team, The Kings.

As much as fans like to fool themselves into thinking professional sports franchises in their towns stand for city pride and for something greater than just an interchangeable brand, we all recognize that at the end of the day pro sports is a business, and that’s why this trade is so fantastic for both sides. Nike will scarcely be able to keep up with the rate at which merchandise for the Sacramento Grizzlies and Memphis Kings will soar off the shelves.

California has one other professional sports franchise named the Grizzlies. However, the Fresno Grizzlies of Minor League Baseball have only once truly captured what it meant to have such an awesome name. For a brief span of 2005–2007, the Fresno Grizzlies had the coolest, most unique, pertinent branding for a franchise by that name in that place of the world, then for some inexplicable reason, they abandoned it for generic colors and logos with the occasional gag “Tacos” or “Lowriders” uniform. Fresno is California’s fifth most populous city, sits just outside of the Yosemite National Park, and for these few seasons the team’s logos and merchandise essentially resembled park ranger uniforms. For this time, the team’s colors were forest green, accented with brown, orange, and yellow. Their logo and alternates featured cleverly designed allusions to wall mounts and outdoor recreation. If the Sacramento Grizzlies were to brand their NBA team in similar fashion, not only would it titillate with the romantic image of Yosemite National Park and the great outdoors, but would likely become the favorite sports apparel of hunters and nature enthusiasts across the continent.

Then ponder the Pittsburgh approach. In 2021, Major League Soccer will get a new team with the promotion of Sacramento’s own Republic FC to its ranks. This franchise has wisely played upon California’s pride for its state flag by choosing to incorporate this icon into its crest and colors. Fans in Sacramento and across California (assuming they’re aware of the team) love it. In Pittsburgh, all the professional sports franchises wear yellow and black. Sacramento could follow this example and brand with the colors of the state flag like Republic FC. Perhaps only Colorado and Maryland take more pride than Californians in their state symbols and iconography, but there is no reason that Sacramento, as the state’s capital, sitting at the geographic center of the state should not take its rightful place, representing the state flag’s colors.

At the end of the day, no serious person thinks such a trade could possibly happen. If either team had actually wanted to rebrand, they would have done so already. There would be enormous overhead for such an effort, and it would be a risky move. If things aren’t broken, why fix them? I would argue that in Sacramento, things are broken and they have been broken for some time. (I can’t speak so much for Memphis, as I just do not know.) History is not made by those who play it safe. Each franchise has had their moments of relevancy, but in no way do they represent immovable institutions that their cities cannot do without. Sacramento’s NBA franchise nearly moved once, and only with the dumb luck of having a former professional basketball player as their mayor at the time, Kevin Johnson, were they able to put the pieces in order at just the right time to ensure the franchise stayed in Sacramento. But for how long? How many seasons of bad basketball can this city endure and still show up and buy jerseys and merchandise? The Greatest Show on Court is dead. The Kings have already taken the first steps to move on, which are always the hardest. It’s time to embrace the next generation of basketball in Sacramento and begin serious talks with Memphis about an official name swap. Publicity, record merchandise sales, and renewed interest and fan pride (regardless of whether the team on the floor is good or not), are what these franchises have to gain. Otherwise, they can enjoy each other’s company on their slides further into obscurity. For the fans and the future, start the talks.

(AND WHILE YOU’RE HERE, the Washington Football Team should rebrand as the Washington Wanderers. As a team without a name, this name immortalizes their righteous quest for a new direction. One of the popular names in contention with fans right now is the Red Wolves. The wolf is a great, majestic, intimidating symbol, but the name sounds like nails upon a chalkboard. The Washington Wanderers could adopt the lone wandering wolf as their official mascot and logo. Then, as a play on the English Premier League club in Wolverhampton, Wolves F.C., the team may then colloquially adopt their second nickname, “Wolves. D.C.” You’re welcome.)

Nothing to read here. Move along, people.

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