A King for a day: A rookie reporter's recount of the fan experience

6.17pm, the Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre. I'm walking eagerly towards the ticket window; it's game time.

You see, it’s not just any ordinary game day at the Sydney Kings’ home base. I’ve been granted media credentials for the very first time, replete with postgame media access.

Today, I’m a rookie reporter. My job tonight? To capture the essence of not only the game, but also the fan atmosphere and some of their thoughts tonight.

And off I go - it’s time to act like a pro sports journo for a day!

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The Kings have struggled this season, languishing at the bottom of the NBL ladder, with 5 wins and 15 losses. They have won just once in their past four encounters, with a mounting injury toll. Star center, Julian Khazzouh is out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, while backup point guard, Steve Markovic, was replaced by an unproven local boy in Indiana Faithfull, due to concerns over his ability to regain full fitness in time, following surgery to remove his tonsils.

On this day, they face a red-hot Illawarra Hawks side. Currently third on the NBL ladder, the Hawks recently crushed defending NBL champions, the New Zealand Breakers, in Auckland, by 22 points. These same Hawks, who boast the best offense in the league and the best point differential in the league, come healthy, and ready to win in order to cement a top 4 spot.

Simply put, it’s a sizeable mismatch on paper. A typical David-vs-Goliath battle, but in which David is equipped with more pillow feather than slingshot.

Despite the Kings’ on-court issues, it’s clear the organisation has worked tirelessly to build a rapport with fans, and foster greater community engagement. Legendary King, Bruce Bolden mans a station close to the main entrance, enthusiastically speaking to basketball fans, all ages alike, and spruiking the virtues of learning the fundamentals of the game. There are kids with astonished looks on their faces as their local heroes partake in shooting drills in their pregame warm up.

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The game looks like a sellout. Within the smaller confines of the Sports Centre, a burgeoning atmosphere is building. There is a palpable buzz in the air, that excitement that comes from knowing that you’re part of a unique gathering.

The Fans

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I find my complimentary seat in Block P. It’s still early, and I decide to explore the fishbowl and gauge the thoughts of the Kings’ faithful.

How has the Sydney fan experience been impacted in such a rollercoaster year, with only a handful of wins, a coach firing midway through the campaign, and a drastic locational change to their home base?

“Well, I’ve seen a major improvement,” says Annette, a Kings’ member hailing from Mortdale.

Annette became a member just this season. After pondering the decision for a number of years, she finally took the plunge, taking up membership as a show of support for a franchise still rebuilding itself from the ground up, since its re-admission into in the league in 2011.

Tonight, Annette is simply looking for a win against the Hawks.

“We’re so excited – it was a wonderful experience last week when they won [against the Cairns Taipans].”

There is a similar sense of positivity from Jen. A basketball coach from the Hills district, she is only too acutely aware of the struggles the new Sydney Kings face. Long removed from their championship heyday, the franchise has failed to field a team with a firm identity that resonates with fans, let alone challenge for titles.

“Well, it’s hard,” says Jen. “Every season, you get a new player, a new import, and you’ve got to try and work around all that, and coaching issues and all that; it’ll take a while to settle down.”

Despite the lack of on-court success in recent years, the Kings have continued to work hard to build stronger relationships with their fan base, strengthen their community outreach programs, and tap into the next generation of fandom – the kids in the community, who drag their parents to the games as well. The Kings regularly conduct player clinics at Jen’s basketball academy, and offer free tickets to the club as a way of promoting the game within the community.

And it is precisely because of that grassroots engagement, that the fans continue to come with their support, and come with their optimism.

“Let’s try and get a win,” says Jen.

The Pregame

I’m back at my seat now.

It is becoming difficult to spot an empty seat in the arena; the crowd has swelled to capacity as we near tip off. The court announcer’s voice booms across the airwaves, and that signals the start of the pregame player introductions. The Hawks are first, and their lineup includes a couple of former league Most Valuable Players, and some former Kings players.

When it comes to former King, AJ Ogilvy, a mixed crowd response ensues. There are a splattering of jeers, and some high pitched cheers, but the reaction is generally muted. It’s almost as if the crowd is confused, unsure how to react.

It’s the polar opposite with the Kings, with each player receiving a rapturous ovation, the loudest reserved for their American star import, Josh Childress.

Some other observations: The Lion is doing some crazy antics to incite the crowd, and from afar, Larry Davidson's scraggy beard looks resplendent.

The game is about to start!

The First Quarter

It's not going to be a fair fight.

The announcer states once more that the Kings are missing Julian Khazzouh and Steve Markovic, almost apologetically, as if to foreground the sizeable odds stacked against them.

We are also implored to remain standing until the Kings score. Apparently, it’s tradition.

Angus Brandt wins the tip, and an opportunistic Jason Cadee pounces to race down the court for a semi-transition layup to start the game, giving us weak-jointed mortals a chance to take a seat, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Is that 2-0 lead a sign of things to come? Not.

Former MVP Kirk Penney responds with a smooth 20-footer, the first of many to come. He makes it 8-4 with yet another wide open jumper moments later, and the crowd goes silent, as if sensing the inevitable trend.

That early crowd energy and anticipation is being sucked away, as the Hawks surgically slice through the Kings’ defense, time and time again.

The Kings aren’t doing themselves any favours either. Botched defensive rotations, questionable shot selection, two 3-point attempts from Jason Cadee that rim out all combine to create a 16-8 hole for Sydney.

Head coach, Joe Connelly wants, and gets a timeout for his embattled Kings. It doesn't help.

Right after the timeout, another Illawara 3-pointer made it 19-8, drawing another gasp from the hapless crowd.

I’m seated next to Steve from Rozelle. Steve is a self-confessed 90s Kings tragic, attending every home game at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, back when the likes of Dwayne McClain and Leon Trimmingham brought a certain pizzazz, a “Showtime” identity, to the team.

It’s his first time back at a game since the franchise returned to the league, and he has come with his friend Rohit and their respective families, hoping for a fun experience.

“It’s good fun!” says Steve. "We’re also encouraging the boys to have a good time.”

“You’re kidding,” says Rohit, hands clasped on his head in disbelief as the Kings’ Jeromie Hill misses an easy free throw.

The Kings struggle to manufacture points. Each possession labours along, without any sense of purpose. Only Josh Childress elicits an anticipation from the crowd, each touch providing a sense of hope, the sort of “star power” the organisation has searched for. But even he is stifled as the Hawks gear their defenses and limit his forays into the paint.

Meanwhile, the Hawks are drilling 3-pointers at will, the Kings’ defense seemingly all at sea. Cody Ellis, another former King, hits yet another 3-pointer, and heads begin to shake in resignation throughout the crowd. The Hawks smell blood – the Kings can’t guard them, and they know it.

The Kings’ Indianna Faithfull races down the court for what appears to be an easy transition layup. But wait, there’s Jarrad Weeks, another former King, who flies from nowhere to swat away that attempt at the buzzer.

It’s getting ugly. And it’s only the first quarter.

The Second Quarter

Another frustrating quarter ensues for the Kings’ faithful, as the Hawks continue to cut them apart with smart interior passing, leading to wide open looks. Despite the frustration, the kids behind me are having a good time, mimicking their heroes.

They yell out, “hook shot”, as Tommy Garlepp steps into the paint for a running lefty flip shot.

The Kings appear to be showing more fight, in a literal sense, with Angus Brandt and AJ Ogilvy reaching a momentary flashpoint.

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But that fight doesn’t extend to actual basketball. The Hawks go into half time comfortably leading 57-45, a score line that probably doesn’t reflect their utter dominance.

Half time

During half time, the crowd are treated to some world class break dancing from a crew who have apparently toured with Taylor Swift, eliciting plenty of ooohs and aaaaahs. It's apparent that regardless of the on-court product, the Kings go all out with the fan experience.

My man Steve, the 90s Kings tragic, is really enjoying his night out with the family at a Kings game.

“Really good, to be honest,’ says Steve. “I didn’t expect it to be such a full crowd – I think the venue is a really good size for the crowd, but we’re really enjoying it.”

“The thing about basketball, you’re not very far away from the action. There’s always something happening, and it’s good for the younger kids. The kids have had a much better time here than at the rugby, soccer and league games we’ve taken them to.”

The Inevitability

It’s been a rough night for the Kings and their fans.

The Kings start the second half with aggression and look to feature Tommy Garlepp early on the left block – he displays a smooth spin move, leading a layup.

After the Kings cut the lead to 61-50, the Hawks respond with a 10-2 run, capped by a Kevin Lisch jumper from the left wing; Garlepp's head bows and the crowd responds with a collective groan – the proverbial dagger to their hearts.

The Hawks continue to bomb away, and moments later, a Tim Coenrad 3-pointer arcs over the outstretched hands of Tommy Garlepp, making it 77-56.

Someone yells, "that's freaky!"

The game is well and truly over; there is no comeback in the final quarter, but the Sydney fans remain to support their team to the bitter end.

Final score, a 114-90 win for the Hawks.

The Postgame Press Conference

At the postgame presser, I am greeted by the man himself.

“How you doin’, man?” Bruce Bolden says in his baritone voice.

Even in a loss, the Kings are all about engagement.

“Our effort was embarrassing,” says Joe Connelly, the head coach of the Kings. “And I owe an apology to the fans for that type of effort. To have a packed house, and that type of energy that’s in the building, and to come out like that is very disappointing as a coach, and then, you know, for these people that are paying money to come out here, they don’t come to see that.”

“And you know, like the disappointing thing is people spend a lot of money to come to these games; they take the trains here, they pay the park[ing], you know, it’s a big event, and to put that type of effort is very disheartening.”

Maybe so.

Maybe the Kings are struggling to find an identity on the court. But if they continue to work hard with engaging with their fans, with reaching out to the community, it’s clear that those same fans will continue to pack out the Sports Centre to join them in that quest towards self-discovery.

Postgame media conference notes

As a complete newbie, I couldn’t help but geek out with things a seasoned pro would find trivial. Some giddy thoughts:

  • I nearly got lost on my first trip to a postgame press conference. The bowels of the Sports Centre are surprisingly extensive, but I managed to find my way in before it started. It was surreal watching the Fox Sports camera crew set their equipment up, and journos take seats nearby.

  • I remember thinking, “Holy cow, that’s Rob Beveridge! That’s Kirk Penney!”, when they casually sauntered into the media room, and later the same sense of wonderment with Joe Connelly and Angus Brandt.

  • I was almost caught off guard with the mobile phones and mini-tape recorders! I managed to sneak mine on the desk right before they started the presser.

  • Media etiquette is interesting. I remember being briefed by my editors the day before, but it’s still fascinating to see it play out in real life. You have the seasoned journos sitting at the front who seemingly determine and dominate the line of questioning, and also decide when the presser ends. I was completely fine with this, being a newbie, and pretty much kept my mouth shut.

  • Joe Connelly and Angus Brandt were scheduled to be the home team representatives at the presser, right after Rob Beveridge and Kirk Penney. During the interval, after Beveridge and Penney left, a Kings’ female employee came into the room with a freshly printed batch of box scores. Nerdgasm! Freshly printed box scores!

  • The mood was understandably sombre with Connelly and Brandt in the room. Personally, it was wildly entertaining watching Brandt fidget impatiently with a pen as one of the seasoned journos took his time to deliver a question.

  • You get free parking! I guess that’s one of the perks. We were asked prior to the presser, if we needed parking validated. Unsurprisingly, almost everyone put their hand up. The lady came back at the conclusion with our parking tickets and a bag of gold coins, going to each individual to hand out a validated ticket and gold coins to pay at the pay station – how awesome!

  • The greatest thing to me, was the chance to talk to some great Australian basketball minds in the room after the press conference, and also a chance to speak with the wonderful folk from the Kings organisation, who were gracious enough to give me access. Once again, a big thank you.