The Stockton Kings had paid attendance of 2,303 on Jan. 27 against the Oklahoma City Blue. (Photos by Graham Womack)

Making a Play in Stockton

Stockton boasts multiple professional sports teams, long history of pro sports

Back Web Only Feb 23, 2024 By Graham Womack

Skal Labissière hasn’t given up. 

Once one of the top college recruits and a first round NBA draft pick in 2016, Labissière played three years for the Sacramento Kings before struggles with his play led to his departure from the organization and, later, the league. He resurfaced in recent months with Sacramento’s farm club, the Stockton Kings of the NBA G League.

And, through the early going, he’s been making the most of his second chance in the Kings’ organization, averaging 16.8 points and eight rebounds a game through his first 13 games.

“It feels like a fresh start,” says Labissière, still just 27.

In a sense, Labissière is a bit like pro sports in Stockton — things haven’t gone completely as planned, but there’s clearly still so much potential.

Only the latest

A tank along the south side of Interstate-5, near city limits, still bears the name of defunct sports franchises that once called Stockton home.

There’s the logo for the Stockton Thunder, a minor-league hockey franchise that helped open what is now Adventist Health Arena where the Stockton Kings play and was once a major draw. The indoor soccer California Cougars haven’t existed since 2011, but their logo is also still on this tank, which welcomes drivers to Stockton.

The Stockton Ballpark is home to the Stockton Ports, a minor league baseball team that has won 11 California League titles.

In 2022, city leaders told ABC 10 that this tank would be repainted in two years, but it hasn’t happened yet.

This, in a nutshell, is Stockton. The city has a proud and storied history as an agricultural manufacturing hub, helping bring innovations like the tractor to market.

There’s a proud sports history, too; the minor league baseball Stockton Ports have won 11 California League titles in their history. There’s also the long rumor that Ernest Lawrence Thayer was inspired to write his classic 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat” by Stockton, though the story might be apocryphal.

Stockton’s troubles in recent decades are well documented, though, including the city filing for bankruptcy in 2012. So whether for lack of resources or a desire to cling to better times, things don’t always change quickly in Stockton.

“Sometimes we feel like we’ve been bouncing back for 100 years,” says Wes Rhea, president and CEO of Visit Stockton.

Currently, the G League Kings are one of two pro sports teams in Stockton, sharing a parking lot with the Ports, the Single-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. Arguably, the city might be known as much athletically for University of the Pacific, whose men’s basketball team sometimes makes the NCAA tournament and once had a No. 1 overall NBA draft pick in Michael Olowokandi.

Executives for other pro teams that used to play in Stockton aren’t hard to find locally.

There’s Dan Chapman who, after serving as general manager of the Ports, was president of two teams that no longer play in town: the arena football league Stockton Lightning, which operated from 2006-09; and the Stockton Thunder, which played locally from 2005-15 before relocating to Glen Falls, N.Y. (He also served a term on Stockton City Council in the mid-2000s.)

The Thunder left town in a complicated deal in 2015 that led to an NHL team, the Calgary Flames, operating a local minor league affiliate, the Stockton Heat, that departed two years ago. But Chapman still remembers the community response to the Thunder after the team debuted in 2005. It was, he says, like nothing he’d ever seen.

“We weren’t even that good,” says Chapman, 61, now CEO of YMCA of San Joaquin County. “First year, we had the worst record in the ECHL. But you would have thought our guys were the Rolling Stones. I mean, we’d go on player appearances in the community, and they’d walk in; the people would go crazy.”

Adventist Health Arena, where the Stockton Kings play, was once home to the minor-league hockey franchise Stockton Thunder.

The Thunder might have even been a better draw than the Stockton Kings, who had paid attendance of just 2,303 on Jan. 27 against the Oklahoma City Blue. The stands looked less full than that. This could be because the Kings held a pregame vendor fair, part of Hip Hop and Sneaker Night, one of the team’s biggest promotions of the year; people might have bought tickets just to go to the fair and left before the game started.

Aaron Morales, vice president of business operations for the Stockton Kings, says the team has struggled since relocating from Reno, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that things are looking up. “Right now, we’re sitting at 42 percent growth year over year,” Morales says. “So we are making traction to where we want to be.”

Stockton’s future as a professional sports market

Harry Black is realistic about what Stockton can do as a professional sports market and what his city’s ownership of Adventist Health Arena and Stockton Ballpark, where the Ports play, might yield.

He considers the arena financially healthy, due to the work of its contracted operator ASM Global, though that doesn’t mean it always breaks even.

“You’re not going to make a massive profit off of something like that, because it’s not really designed for you to do that,” Black says. “It’s designed to provide an additional offering to the public.”

Black’s career previously took him to cities like Baltimore, where the development of Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1990s helped spur revitalization of the surrounding area.

The same can’t yet be said of the area near Stockton’s arena and ballpark along the city’s waterfront, though Black says he’s “confident that the elements exist by which we can pursue leveraging these facilities from an economic development standpoint.”

ASM Global noted in a Jan. 9 release that 2023 was its best-ever year of revenue for Stockton and that the company’s local division had been overseeing $3.2 million in renovations to the arena, including the installation of a new scoreboard.

“Since 2020, I can say that there’s been a pivotal shift in the city’s view of the venues and it really now is their sense of pride,” says Jason Perry, general manager of ASM Stockton. “And they recognize that we need to invest in the properties.”

The Stockton Kings take a time out during their Jan. 27 game against the Oklahoma City Blue.

Organizationally, the Stockton Kings’ main selling point for its parent organization is that it’s about a 45-minute drive away. For fans, it could be that the games are cheap — tickets are around $10 to $15 for many seats — and that the team is 9-4 as of this writing with a roster that bursts with talent. 

Labissière is one of four former first-round draft picks currently on the team, along with Jeremy Lamb, Stanley Johnson and Shabazz Muhammad. As it is with the city of Stockton, there’s a chance that anyone who invests emotionally in this team might witness a good comeback story, something that could feel familiar for anyone who’s endured years of Sacramento Kings fandom.

Labissière, who recently earned a selection to the 2024 NBA G League Up Next Game on Feb. 18 as part of the NBA All Star Weekend, looks like he has potential to play again in the NBA. But he didn’t sound impatient following Stockton’s game on Jan. 27.

“I’m glad to be here,” Labissière says. “We are getting better every day. I enjoy the good that we have, the coaches that we have. So it’s been good so far.”

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