Get an inside look at how “Sign Lady” and “Mr. Sign Lady” – staples at Kings games since 1985 – have sent hundreds of positive messages to players and have been rewarded with countless expressions of gratitude and timeless memories.
The final buzzer sounded on the night of Chris Webber’s Sacramento Kings home debut – a 22-point win over the Grizzlies – but rather than join his teammates in heading back into the locker room, the All-Star forward took time to thank a pair of longtime, diehard fans sitting in the lower level of the arena.
Barbara Rust, a retired kindergarten teacher of 32 years, and her husband Niko, an elementary school physical education instructor – better known as “Sign Lady” and “Mr. Sign Lady,” respectively, to Kings and NBA fans across the globe – brought a handmade, carefully constructed poster to the game in Webber’s honor. A humbled No. 4 – who’d recently received negative press after missing practice with his new team – felt compelled to express his gratitude.
“He walked up to the rail that was between me and the floor and signaled to me to come over,” recalls Barbara. “I walked down and met him, and he stood there for at least a minute, saying, ‘I just want to say, Thank you for doing that. I really appreciate it. It means a lot to me.’”
“I was amazed,” adds Niko. “He was just looking her right in the eyes – I think it was for more like two minutes – talking to her. All these people were (yelling), ‘Chris! Chris! Chris!’ and he was ignoring everything and was just standing there talking to her and saying how much he appreciated it. I think it had a big effect on her.”
While the couple has been a fixture at Kings home games since the first contest played in Northern California, until then, they’d seldom brought signs inside the arena. While a few were prevalent during the mid-1990s in honor of the likes of Mitch Richmond, Corliss Williamson and Michael Smith, Kings games would never be the same after Feb. 7, 1999.
“Sign Lady is the official mother of the Kings,” said Webber in a recent interview, adding her presence defines home court and had a calming impact on him and his teammates.
“I would love seeing ‘Chris’ Court,’ ‘Vlade’s Kingdom’ – whatever it was,” continued No. 4. “We would wait to see what she would have for the day, so were excited to see her at the games. She’s a very special lady, and we really thank her for the support.”
In the left corner of the Rust residence upstairs closet – which contains dozens of personalized jerseys, jackets and memorabilia – is an area filled with the now-famous, handmade, carefully constructed and glittered signs. What began as a small stack in the late-1990s has expanded into a collection of more than 300 iconic poster boards, spanning the course of Sacramento-era history.
“It used to just be a handful, but then all of a sudden, someone would have a great game and we didn’t have a sign for him,” says Niko. “So then she started saying, ‘I’m going to have a sign for everyone ready, so if they (play well) tonight, we have the sign for it.’”
Barbara explains the original idea developed when the couple bought a pair of seats in the third row in Section 120, sight-unseen, prior to the 1988-89 season and was in awe of the view.
“I’ll never forget the first game we went to, and the usher was walking us down and down and down and down, and my eyes were getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Barbara. “She put me in my seat, and I looked up and realized, ‘Oh my gosh – there’s the team, right there in front of me!’
“After awhile I realized if I wanted to send the guys a message or say something to encourage them … they would see it because I’m that close to them. Hence, I said to (Niko), ‘I want to make a sign for the players.’”
The location turned out to be even more suitable for the couple, since rather than being situated side-by-side, one seat is behind the other on the aisle.
“Nobody wanted them because most couples want to sit next to each other, (but for us) it was perfect because when I hold up a sign, the main person I’m blocking is him,” says Barbara with a chuckle. “In retrospect, it was obviously all meant to be … it was just the perfect place to give them messages.”
Barbara – donning an unmistakable jersey with ‘Sign Lady’ on the front and ‘Diehard Fan Since ’85’ printed on the back to each contest – discloses while being featured on TV and being recognized by Kings fans has been fulfilling, the signs primarily represent the pair’s way of backing the team and helping create an uplifting vibe in the arena.
“I’m a big believer that what you put out in the world is going to come back to you,” she says. “The positive love and passion that we have put out, it does come back. People are really, really nice to us and very supportive – even from other teams.
“It’s a real feeling of connection. I think this whole concept that our coach came up with this year about family couldn’t be any more perfect. That is exactly how we feel – when we go to a game, we are spending the evening with family. Not just the players, but all the people who work there.”
Over the years, the Rusts have had memorable interactions with many past and present Kings players, including Vlade Divac, Bonzi Wells, Kevin Martin and Darrick Martin, who the couple agrees had the most memorable reaction to a sign, which read “Drivin’, Dishin’, Dazzlin’ Darrick.”
“The night we held it up, he went absolutely ballistic,” tells Barbara. “He started running all over the court. He was yelling up at his wife, ‘Look, look – I got a sign!’ I’ll never forget that. It’s an example of how sometimes you don’t realize how much you’re affecting somebody.”
The pair later formed a special bond with Kevin Martin when the Zanesville, Ohio native’s family visited Sacramento.
“They said they were flying out here for the game, and they were saying, ‘I hope I get to meet the Sign Lady!’” tells Niko. “His grandma took a picture with every Kevin Martin sign we had in the case.”
“They’re telling me they saw these signs (in Zanesville),” says Barbara. “That really brought it all into perspective for me, because I don’t really think of it outside of Sacramento, people are watching some place else.”
On Nov. 2, 2009, the Rusts showcased a new sign, which, by the end of the evening, proved to be astoundingly prophetic.
“We decided it was catchy to say, ‘48 Minute Martinizing,’” says Barbara. “The very night that we held it up for the first time, (Martin) scored 48 points.”
Current Kings players have continued to show their appreciation for Sign Lady and Mr. Sign Lady – from DeMarcus Cousins, who hugged Barbara at the Kings 2012 Draft Party, to Isaiah Thomas, who ran into the couple on vacation in Hawaii.
“That was crazy,” says Thomas. “I played in a charity game out there, and that’s when I formally met them. They had some Kings gear on and there wasn’t even a Kings game, so you know they’re huge fans who show their support wherever they are, and I can’t thank them enough.
“(During games) she’s always in that seat, she’s always there for you, always cheering no matter what the score is. You feel lucky when she has a sign with your name. She’s a real blessing to have (when) you see her in the stands everyday, knowing she believes in you.”
After the final game of the 2011-12 season, Francisco Garcia gave Barbara his game-worn jersey as a sign of his appreciation.
“She’s a true fan and always comes to every game, so I showed her my support,” says the eighth-year veteran. “(The signs) mean a lot to us – that’s really the reason why I did that for her.”
Much like the Webber-led teams made sure to glance at Barbara’s messages after coming out of the tunnel before each game, many present players peek into the stands to see what she has in store.
“I appreciate all the signs she brings to the game – she had one for me the other night, which was pretty cool,” says rookie Thomas Robinson with a chuckle. “I just try to read them, see what they say – she’s right there, so I can’t not notice them.”
“She’s just been here from Day 1 – she’s always at the games supporting us and she’s a big part of the Kings family,” adds Tyreke Evans. “I remember (the 20-5-5) one and just her having a sign about us being a family.”
Newcomer James Johnson has quickly embraced the tradition, respecting the inspirational and truthful messages conveyed to players.
“I saw the signs early in preseason,” he says. “It’s hard to miss her when you’re warming up and she’s right there.”
No. 52 even has his own sign idea for the Rusts, highlighting his shutdown defense.
“Maybe some chains with some shackles on it, saying, ‘Lock somebody down’ or something like that would be fun,” said Johnson smiling.
Jason Thompson has been impressed and inspired with the couple’s ongoing sign-making endeavors, noticing Barbara oftentimes holds up a celebratory message during a timeout after he makes a big play on the court.
“She adds color to it, a little spunk and a little different flavor,” he says. “It relates to how that player plays his game, and it’s refreshing to see.”
The Rider product adds he has not only appreciated Sign Lady embracing him with open arms from the moment he arrived in Sacramento, but the way Barbara and Niko have frequently gone out of their way to show their genuine affection.
“She came to some of my (charity) events,” says No. 34. “I think the most meaningful time I’ve spent with her outside of the arena was when she came when I signed my contract (in July). She obviously didn’t have to, and I’m sure she has a busy schedule, but she came out. I gave her a hug and talked to her a little bit.”
Niko says recognition from past and present players further validates the pair’s longstanding goal.
“I think it’s always special when a player will acknowledge her,” he says. “Anytime they do mention her, I take it as a big compliment.”
With nearly two decade’s worth of sign-making experience, the diehard fans – who are often asked if they work for the organization or own a printing company – have developed a tried-and-true process, picking up tricks along the way and mastering the ideology of a perfect sign.
“We have figured out over the years that each sign takes approximately three to four hours to make,” says Barbara. “And that doesn’t really include the time for brainstorming, which is the most time-consuming part.”
Once the couple settles on an initial idea, after exchanging numerous back-and-forth suggestions, Barbara lays out bulletin board letters from her teaching days on the signboard and outlines the words in pencil. Niko then colors in the letters by hand with magic markers and sharpies – usually while catching a football or basketball game on TV – before Barbara glues on a Kings logo and sprinkles glitter for an added sparkle.
Yet, while the Rusts spend countless hours making signs throughout the season and are constantly in the spotlight in front of thousands of Kings fans, they’ve never viewed it as an obligation or burden.
“To me, it’s a complete labor of love – it’s a joy,” says Barbara. “Some of the happiest moments of my life have happened watching the Kings – all different teams. I feel gratitude that I’ve been able to do this.”
Although Niko has largely stayed behind the scenes, his craftsmanship has been instrumental in their partnership.
“There’s no way I could do the signs without him,” says Barbara. “It really does take a lot of input between the two of us to get from the beginning of the brainstorming through the end product of the sign.
“It’s a hobby – it’s something we both enjoy,” she adds. “We are creative people. We actually enjoy the process. We love when it’s done, and we love being able to take a new sign for the first time and show it to the team and the fans.”
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– One of the couple’s most prized possessions, proudly exhibited atop a display case filled with Kings memorabilia, is a signed basketball with a special inscription.
“(The team) used to have Fandemonium every year in early October, and a lot of times they’d fall on my birthday,” says Barbara. “This particular one actually did fall on my birthday, so I made this quick, little sign and it said, ‘Thanks for the Party’ and ‘It’s My Birthday!’”
Towards the end of the team’s scrimmage, the duo watched as Webber and Divac took turns scribbling a message on a basketball they’d taken off the rack.
“Next thing I know, the ball boy is walking in my direction and hands me this ball and says, ‘This is for you from Chris and Vlade,’” tells Barbara, who has never asked a player for an autograph. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ It actually says, ‘Happy Bday’ on it.”
The Rusts have since developed a friendship with Webber, who invited them to his Center Court With C-Webb restaurant VIP opening.
“It was awesome … just the idea that he wanted us to be there,” says Barbara.
“After that, (there were) a couple of different times we went down and actually had one-on-one time with Chris in his restaurant, which was really special.”
When Webber returned to Sacramento as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers in February 2005, the Michigan product made sure to acknowledge Sign Lady in his press conference.
“He actually took the time to thank her publicly because he wanted everyone to hear that,” says Niko. “The fact he wanted to do that, really backed up how much it meant to him and all the players.”
– Inside the Rust household, numerous Season Ticket Holder gifts, nostalgic prints and framed magazine covers cover the walls, with their Sixth Man Hall of Fame chairs proudly displayed next to an autographed pennant from the Kings inaugural season in Sacramento.
“In 2006, I was inducted into the Kings Sixth Man Hall of Fame, and that was a very proud moment for me,” says Barbara. “(The chair) has never come off the wall.”
“We decided instead of just putting them out and ruining them by sitting on them, we’re going to just hang them up and make them part of our Kings Hall of Fame wall,” explains Niko, who was inducted in 2010.
Around the corner, many of the couple’s favorite collectibles – ranging from Opening Night pins to plush toys to autographed programs – line nearly every inch of the guest restroom interior.
“We were trying to think of a place to put all of our Kings collections, and we thought it would be kind of funny if we put them in our Kings bathroom,” says Barbara smiling. “The reaction is always a lot of fun – sometimes people will stay in the room about 20 minutes because they’re trying to take it all in.”