Sacramento Kings head coach: the most thankless job in professional sports?

Keith Smart patrols the sidelines of opening night against the Golden State Warriors. (Photo: Steven Chea)

Coaching the Sacramento Kings might be the worst job in all of professional sports.

The pay is bad.  The team is young.  The payroll is low.  And oh yeah, when relocation talks heat up, the owners disappear leaving you to answer all of the questions.

It’s kind of odd.  You would assume that the team would put someone out in front of this mess besides the cut-and-paste job public relations hitman Eric Rose has saved on computer.

“Nothing has changed with our position that we will not comment on rumors or speculation about the Sacramento Kings franchise.”

This is not to call out the hard-working people inside the Kings organization who I’m sure would love to go on record and comment.  They are as hamstrung as anyone in this situation.

So instead, Keith Smart is left holding the bag.

“You have to have courage in crisis,” Smart said last week as reports of a proposed move to a Seattle came to a crescendo.

“It’s definitely going to be a distraction, but we’re pros,” Smart added. “We have to figure out a way how to separate the two and then get ready to play.”

Smart has been through this before.  His last coaching stint was in Golden State when that franchise was sold.  There wasn’t fear of relocation attached, so clearly this situation carries more emotion.  Smart takes the questions in stride, just like his predecessor Paul Westphal had to in 2011 when rumors of a Kings’ move to Anaheim popped up.

It was the same then.  A coach preparing for a game had to take time out and answer questions that he knew or could say very little about.

“You can’t help but see that it’s all over the news,” Westphal told Cowbell Kingdom just days before the Mar. 1 deadline for relocation in 2011.  “I’m very much hoping that things work out in Sacramento.  These fans deserve the Kings to be in town and I think that the sellout for the Clippers game is going to be an emotional, magnificent time and I hope it galvanizes people to make something magical happen.

“Right now, we are all the way across the country, concentrating on the two games we have to go,” Westphal added. “And a lot of the players don’t have any idea of the intensity that is going on in Sacramento and I don’t either – I can only imagine and from reading the articles and talking to you.  I have always said that Sacramento loves the Kings and it’s an important thing to make it happen for that love affair to continue.”

Call it experience or media savvy, but Westphal was able to compartmentalize the situations he was in.  There was basketball and there were the off-the-court issues.

With Smart, it’s a little more muddied.  He is there to talk about basketball.  He would prefer the local news reporters coming to the scene of the crime weren’t there.  But like he is in most situations, Smart is always cognizant of his players.

“We’ve got a lot of young players on this team and as you guys start making your way over to the locker room, (I hope) that you respect these guys, because they still have to get ready for a game to play tonight,” Smart respectfully requested.

We have to ask the players for comments.  It’s the job at hand, but it doesn’t feel right.  They shouldn’t be answering questions about the future of a franchise or the future of a fanbase.  And neither should the team’s head coach.

“I didn’t think it would be that way,” Smart said when asked if he ever imagined coaching a team with so many off-the-court issues. “But I knew that I would be prepared for it.”

Smart has prepared the best he can.  Perhaps the cruellest twist of all is that there are no promises for the coach of the Kings.  In the rough and tumble world of the NBA, he is forced to stand in front of a firing squad one minute then consider his own mortality as a head coach the next.  Whether it’s new owners in Sacramento or Seattle, Smart isn’t guaranteed anything but payment for the last year on his contract.

Such is life for the coach of the Sacramento Kings.

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