A singular purple light echoes up into the dark night sky.
The bright beam reverberates through all of Sacramento as a visual sign that the Kings have won again.
The glow reveals.
It’s been accompanied by a surprising surge from the League’s most dormant franchise. On the day that the Kings opened the doors of Golden 1 Center to us, the squad had climbed to fourth place in the Western Conference. More winning has been joined by flow ideals, an offense ever in motion.
In this new tradition of the beam, De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis have shined brightest for the revamped Kings.
SLAM 242 is available now featuring De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis.
But there had been much darkness before the duo helped bring about this newfound purple illumination. The Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006. An ownership change, countless player transactions and nine different head coaches have been part of the last loss-filled 17 years. The days of Chris Webber’s stellar squads were followed by 20-point-guarantee Kevin Martin and then the promise of DeMarcus Cousins. Time and time again, though, nothing happened. Just losing. Almost forgotten up in northern California over these long years, this year’s Kings team came out from all of that darkness with a bright signal sent up into the NBA’s atmosphere—the beam.
“I think we were in L.A.,” Fox says about his first memory of the beam. “I think that was, like, what, three, four games in this season? Yeah,” he checks with Sabonis sitting on his right. “So this is early on, this season. I want to say we were in L.A. when the beam came out and they kept it up for when we came home.”
From the imagination of Tim Anderson, owner and founder of Nu-Salt Laser International, the beam is officially called the Laser Space Cannon. Anderson lives in Folsom, CA, which is about 30 minutes from Golden 1. He’s been operating Nu-Salt for 28 years and has gotten to play a major role in the Kings’ journey from the dark to the light. Somehow, neither Anderson nor anyone on the Kings’ staff told the players about the beam before the season began.
“Oh, we had no idea,” Sabonis tells us. “Even when it started, like, the first couple of games, we didn’t really pay attention to it. It was only until Kev[in Huerter] hashtagged #BeamTeam and then after that it blew up.”
Fox jumps in to tell the story of when he first caught it with his own eyes. “I think my first time seeing it was after a home game. I was leaving and, right here on Fifth Street, there’s a light. And if you’re in the driver’s seat, you can’t see it. So I literally got outta the car to see it.”
He says it was too late in the night for any fans to notice him. But that’s pretty much been the only time he’s gone unnoticed this year. Fox has been impossible to miss for fans, opposing players, scouts and coaches. Still possessing all of the untamed speed that made him famous coming out of Cypress Lakes (Katy, TX) High School in 2016, the lefty point guard has totally harnessed his floor general skills, repeatedly capitalizing on drop coverage out of pick-and-roll with mid-range pull-ups or hitting waiting shooters on the wings and in the corners. Most importantly, he’s been unflinching in the clutch, whether those final moments have called for him to shoot or run the offense.
Over many, many years, the really, very, actually legitimately smartest doctors and scientists around have studied the hippocampus, the part of the human mind that is the center of memory. Those really, very, actually legitimately smart doctors and scientists have found that strenuous physical activity done with peers can form incredibly strong and lasting memories.
Under the glare of the incredibly strong bulbs of the Golden 1 Center, where Fox and Sabonis have been forging memory after memory, we ask them to share which moment so far has created the most enduring memory. A countdown of 3, 2, 1 produces:
“Fox’s buzzer-beater,” Sabonis says.
“You know what’s funny? I was gonna say that one at first,” Fox says giddily. “The one in Orlando, right? Dang. I was gonna say that, too. I also didn’t wanna sound selfish.”
“That shot changed, I feel like, everything, the vibes in the locker room,” Sabonis follows. “Because it was early in the season, too.”
Just the eighth game of the year for the guys in purple, they were knotted at 123 with the Magic in overtime. The crowd was going crazy after the home squad got a steal and tied the game with a dunk. There were 6.6 seconds left on the clock. Sharpshooting big Trey Lyles inbounded the rock to vet Harrison Barnes. Fox was visibly calling for the ball, holding out both of his hands at Barnes. He wanted to take the shot. Four right-handed dribbles got him across the timeline and he transferred the ball into his left hand.
They weren’t stopping the ball?
They really weren’t stopping the ball.
The official NBA box score lists that game-winner as a 31-footer. But he was barely inside of the halfcourt stripe, just above the star in the Magic’s logo. The shot cashed right as the red lights flashed and the horn sounded. They were all seeing him in the light now. It was a clutch moment where Fox had to lead his guys, an extremely important memory that was crafted together. Sabonis was under the hoop, motioning for his point guard to put it up. When the shot dropped, Sabonis ran all the way across the court with both of his arms raised high.
“I was like, Shoot! Is he gonna shoot? Because he slowed down and I’m like, Wait, what’s he doing?” Sabonis says. “In my mind, he’s so fast. He’s gonna lay it up, and then he slows down and I’m like, There’s two seconds left. What’s he doing?”
“And what I saw was, they started loading up, so I’m like, There’s nowhere to go,” Fox joins in. “So I just kind of started lining up a shot and I was gonna do the, I told you,” he says with a look to Sabonis, “the ‘Gilbert Arenas,’ where you shoot it, turn around. I was starting to turn around because it felt good. I told Malik [Monk], I was like, It felt good when it left my hands, but I didn’t want to turn around and then you miss, now you look like Swaggy P. It felt good. Like you said, it was great vibes for the team after that.”
Team being the key word. In addition to these two, Huerter, Monk, Lyles, Barnes, Keegan Murray, Terence Davis, Davion Mitchell and Chimezie Metu have each had multiple moments in the spotlight. The Kings have a top-five offense because of Fox, for sure. Also because Sabonis can score and pass like very few other centers in the League. He’s a real-ass seven-footer, standing sturdy and immovable. Head coach Mike Brown has fully utilized his playmaking ability. Top of the key, elbow-extended or from the post, that flow ideal movement revolves around him like he’s the sun. There are very few who convert better than him, with more frequency, as the roll man. Huerter leads the League in points off dribble handoffs because Sabonis is the one doing the setups. He’s a two-time All-Star who somehow only shoots 11 times a game and still averages 18 points with ultra efficiency. Predictably, Sabonis downplays his role in establishing this year’s squad as a scoring machine.
“We have these couple plays that we run,” he says. “[I’m] always looking for the backdoor. We have a lot of shooters, you know, [defenders] try and load up, so [I’m] always looking for that. And then, I don’t know, I see a shooter—I mean, it’s pretty easy on this team. Everyone can shoot. So there’s not much I have to do. I just gotta set a solid screen without getting an offensive foul. And then they take care of everything.”
That’s a rudimentary explanation of an offense only possible with the rare big man capable of spotting cutters on the backline, reading coverages in real-time and being able to go get a bucket by himself when necessary. Fox attributes it all to a feel and knowledge of the game that can’t be quantified.
When pressed just a little harder about his shine this season, Sabonis goes more in-depth.
“I feel like they did a great job this summer of putting a plan together on the offensive end where it really shows that I can playmake more,” he says of Coach Brown and his staff. “There’s a lot of elbow-catching where I’ve wanted to do in the past, so they’ve really let me be myself. And then the team with the shooters, with Fox, the speed, everything, like, it just makes it so much easier. I don’t even think they knew we could do all this, to be honest, you know?
“And, like Fox said, our chemistry and relationships with different players, that’s what’s making, I think, the offense click so good,” he continues. “Everybody knows each other, and we’re basically reading or making up things as we go on in the game. Very freelance. We’re not playing selfishly, we’re just playing the right way, so it looks good, and coaches agree, and then they just let us do our game.”
The other aspect of this special offense is that the Kings’ best players are both lefties. Because the world’s population is only made up of about 10-15 percent left-handed people, being lefty in any sport is a special advantage. It’s even more specialized in the NBA, where only 5-10 percent of players are left-handed. Nearly every hooper grows up learning to defend righties. Basketball neurogenesis is established early to react to the hand that about 90 percent of players favor. It’s an important distinction that Fox’s speed and Sabonis’ strength result in left-handed baskets.
Because it’s so rare to be left-handed, most lefties don’t grow up with similarly-handed teammates. Playing with other lefties requires adjustment and discussion in order to fully optimize the uniqueness of the anomaly.
The majority of lefties favor the right side of the floor so that when they come downhill, their momentum is leaning back to that left side. The February 2022 trade that sent Sabonis to Sac resulted in an early conversation between the Lithuanian star and Fox.
“Everybody guards me to go right,” Fox says. “And whenever we would play against [Sabonis], we would send the ballhandler left so that he would roll right. So when he first got here, I told him, I was like, Yo, I’ll go right so that you can get back left. And most teams are gonna force me right anyways. It’s worked out.”
How much it works out into April and May remains to be seen. Sabonis is 26 years old and Fox is 25. By the time this issue ships to our printers, they will have just played 50 games with each other, meaning that even if it doesn’t work out in April and May, the darkness that the Kings have gone through is about to be a faded memory, replaced by new stories physically written under the gleam of increasingly glaring lights.
The night is always darkest before dawn. Look to the west for the rising of this new light, a purple among the haze of night, brighter still with hope that had long been missing from Sacramento.
SLAM 242 is out now in this exclusive Gold Metal Edition and Cover Tee.
Portraits by Atiba Jefferson.