OAKLAND — Forty years. Forty years of bad trades, bad drafts, bad luck and bad actors. Forty years of mostly awful seasons interrupted every now and then by a burst of hope that always proved fleeting. Forty years of Golden State Warriors fans filling their arena and showing their team love and loyalty that the performance on the court so rarely justified. Forty years without a trip to the NBA Finals.
The four-decade wait is over, and the Warriors are in the Finals for the first time since they won the championship in 1975. Granted, there is still work to be done, as nearly every Warrior was quick to mention after they eliminated the Houston Rockets with a 104–90 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday. The Cleveland Cavaliers, the Eastern champs, were already sitting back with their feet up on Wednesday, waiting for the Warriors to join them. But just getting this far, winning the West and being just four wins from a title, is an accomplishment for Golden State, one that just a few years ago seemed like a pipe dream. “I didn’t want to be overconfident or arrogant, I’m just an optimist, but I did think that within five years we could do this,” said Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who bought the team in 2010, after a 26-56 season. “You have to be a little lucky, I admit that, but we’re right on track. We’re right where we want to be.”
The players, predictably, prefer to stay in the moment. Thoughts of history will have to wait until the postseason is over. But as the blue and gold confetti floated down, some of them could feel the weight of the 40 years floating away. “The crowd was loud there at the end,” said swingman Andre Iguodala, who was still rubbing his jaw and shoulder after taking a Dwight Howard elbow late in the game. “This franchise was down for a while before most of us got here, and they all stuck with it. That had to feel great for all the fans who sat through the bad times.”
And there were so many bad times. How far back do you want to go? There was the trade of Robert Parish to the Celtics in 1980 that brought the Warriors center Joe Barry Carroll, whose lack of enthusiasm eventually earned him the nickname Joe Barely Cares. There was the ill-advised Mitch Richmond-for-Billy Owens deal in 1991 that broke up Run TMC, the wildly entertaining Tim Hardaway-Chris Mullin-Richmond triumvirate. There was the 1996 draft, when the Warriors took Todd Fuller with the 11th overall pick, bypassing a high school kid named Kobe Bryant. There was Latrell Sprewell performing one of sports’ most famous choke jobs, the throttling of coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997.
Even when things seemed like they were looking up, the Warrior karma turned them sour. One moment Chris Webber was winning the Rookie of the Year award, the next he was feuding with coach Don Nelson and getting traded away. The “We Believe” Warriors of 2007 upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, but by the 2008-09 season the ringleader of that group, point guard Baron Davis, was gone to the Clippers and the losing started again.
That was the Warrior way, wandering in the NBA wilderness for 40 years, until the series of developments that changed everything. Curry lasted until the seventh pick of the 2009 draft, allowing the Warriors to grab him. Lacob took over the team. He hired Mark Jackson as coach, whom he eventually replaced with Steve Kerr, a controversial move that turned out to be not just a home run but a grand slam. There was the trade of Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for injury-prone center Andrew Bogut, another move that many observers questioned at the time. There was, at last, shrewd drafting—the 2012 draft brought the Warriors Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, all of whom played prominent roles in the victory on Wednesday night.
That victory, milestone though it was, was not one of the Warriors’ more elegant efforts. They shot just 40.7% from the floor, made only 21 of their 31 free throws and threw so many passes into the crowd that it seemed like some sort of promotional giveaway. Stephen Curry, wearing a yellow sleeve on his shooting arm, which he banged up in his nasty fall in Game 4, was only so-so by his standards, with 26 points on 7-of-21 shooting.
But the Golden State defense was stellar, in Kerr’s opinion. James Harden, who strafed the Warriors for 45 points in Game 4, couldn’t do much of anything right on Wednesday, finishing with almost as many turnovers (13) as points (14.) “I thought the defensive performance was brilliant, was fantastic,” Kerr said. “This is what happens in the playoffs. I can remember so many games as a player where Michael Jordan, for example, has a tough shooting night, but he rebounds and defends and does everything he needs, Scottie, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, all the star players and the great teams, they have to rely on defense at this stage of the playoffs. Every possession is a difficult one. We were the No. 1‑ranked defense in the league this year, and so I would say this was in many ways a very Warriors‑like performance.”
For most of the last 40 years, that term, “a very Warriors-like performance,” had such a different, far more negative connotation. But now it means being tough, resilient, finding a way to grind out a win in the cauldron of the playoffs. Everything has changed for the Warriors, in a way that Curry, for one, always knew it would. In November of 2009, at the beginning of his rookie year, Curry made a vow to the Warriors faithful. “Promise to all the Warrior fans ... we will figure this thing out ... if it's the last thing we do we will figure it out,” he wrote.
He was true to his word. The Warriors have figured it out, and just like that, all those bad years, those sour memories, seem so insignificant. “Six years is a long time to wait,” Curry said, referring to his tenure with the Warriors. But then he remembered all those Warriors lovers who have had to be even more patient. “Obviously the Bay Area has been waiting 40 years,” he said. “I think it’s time.”