SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ Three hours before the biggest game of the season, one of the Sacramento Kings' biggest fans is shopping in the team's souvenir shop.
Sandy Duverneck, a season-ticket holder since the day the team arrived from Kansas City in 1985, responds in mock horror when a visitor approaches her.
"You're from Seattle?" she asks. "You're trying to rip us off."
The game is Sacramento's first home game since news broke of how serious Seattle's efforts are to build a new arena and secure a new NBA team. And the clear target is Duverneck's Kings.
The big matchup Thursday night? The team Seattle wants versus the team Seattle lost.
For Seattle fans watching on TV, the game was a strange collision of the Kings and the Oklahoma City Thunder _ the city's NBA past and possible future.
For the Kings and their fans, it's another chance to state their case that they want, and deserve, to keep their team.
Sacramento holds two of the top eight longest sellout streaks in NBA history. Lately, though capacity crowds have been rare, with the Kings ranking 24th among 30 NBA teams in attendance. The team hasn't had a winning record since the 2005-06 season and entered the weekend 10-16 this season amid increasing doubts about its future.
Against the Thunder, though, a full house of 17,317 turned out for Sacramento's only nationally televised game of the season.
The game evolved much like those who want to keep the team hope the arena effort develops: The Kings overcome a late eight-point deficit to rally in the final minutes and win 106-101.
As the finishing touches are put on the win, fans chant "our town, our team!" There's also a hearty cheer of "Sacramento!" that sometimes sounds like "Sacramento's!" Either way, fans are laying their claim to the team.
That kind of passion is common, says Kings rookie guard Isaiah Thomas, a native of suburban Tacoma and a former Washington Husky.
He recalls arriving in town the day after he was drafted last June, with fellow rookies Jimmer Fredette and Tyler Honeycutt, to find 2,000 to 3,000 fans waiting at the airport.
"It's not like this everywhere," Thomas said. "These fans are special, and they are behind their team 100 percent. We can't let them down. So hopefully we can do what we can control and keep the team here."
For Thomas, talk of moving the team from Sacramento to Seattle is personal. He reads all he can about what's going on.
"I'm in a weird situation because that's home for me and I would love to have a team back in Seattle," he said. "But I also love it down here, and the fans here are just unbelievable."
Thomas has gotten to know the city's mayor, Kevin Johnson. Each Kings player has a large poster of himself hanging over his locker. In Thomas', Johnson is the most notable fan, looking up at Thomas taking a jump shot.
"He's a good, close friend and mentor of mine," Thomas said. "You can tell he's fighting to keep the team."
In the other locker room is the Thunder. The former Sonics still have two players left on their roster who played in Seattle_star forward Kevin Durant and reserve forward Nick Collison.
After the game, Durant is asked about the raucous crowd.
"I'm a little disappointed because it should be like this every night," he replies.
Later, he says he can't wait for the NBA to return to Seattle.
"No doubt, Seattle is a great place for sports and they deserve a team," he said. "The fans there are unbelievable, so hopefully a team gets there. I heard they are making progress to trying to get an arena, and it would be fun to go back to Seattle and play. Hopefully, it is soon."
As the Kings-Thunder game ends, the crowd roars, seeming to echo a sentiment from Duverneck a few hours earlier.
"You guys can't have us," she said, walking away with a bagful of Kings gear.
(c)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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