Going with the flow: Warriors cruising toward history with an unlikely leader
This story appears in the December 21, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
For more than 20 years Susie Walton has conducted parenting seminars across San Diego County, teaching anxious young mothers and fathers how to raise children in what she calls a democratic household. "Everybody works in cooperation," Susie explains. "Everybody shares mutual respect. There are leaders, but the leaders don't use the heavy hand, as they would in an autocratic society. Kids take on greater responsibility, not because they'll get in trouble if they don't, but because they are given greater freedom. And isn't that the whole point, preparing them to take on responsibility when you're not there?"
The seminar, called The Joy of Parenting, lasts eight to 10 hours and has spread to schools and businesses throughout Southern California. Some elements have remained the same for two decades, but recently Susie began to incorporate what she believes is the purest example of a democratic household. "Watch the Warriors," she tells her classes. "Whether they're ahead or behind, whether they have five fouls or no fouls, they don't have coaches going crazy. They don't get on each other's case. They play through the mistakes. They keep the joy. That's what you want in a family."
Generally speaking, December is way too early for dramatic declarations, but here goes: The 2015—16 Warriors might be the best NBA team of all time, in addition to the most familial. Golden State opened 24–0, the longest undefeated start in the history of professional sports, and the Warriors did not lose until last Saturday in Milwaukee—on the final night of a seven-game road trip and the second night of a brutal back-to-back, following a double-overtime victory in Boston. Still, the Warriors are pulverizing opponents with a point differential (13.1) larger than that of the 1971–72 Lakers, than the '95–96 Bulls, than the '85–86 Celtics, than ... anybody. The Warriors won the championship last season, going 83–20, and they are making that version of themselves look like chumps. Point guard Steph Curry captured the MVP with four times as many first-place votes as anyone else, and he apparently wasn't even loose yet. Curry, now leading the league with 32.3 points per game and turning 35–footers into layups, might as well collect the trophy on Christmas Day.
How Golden State went from a title team to a forever team, and how Curry went from a star player to a legacy player, is an outgrowth of the dynamic Steve Kerr implemented and Susie Walton recognized. Executives would call it a culture, but it's freer, looser, more ethereal and more fun. "A community," says one Warriors coach. "A consortium," adds another. "There's a show, a flash, a vibe," continues a third. "It's a space," explains Bruce Fraser, Kerr's close friend and a Golden State player development coach, "where plants that were potted can grow." "It's a flow," clarifies small forward Andre Iguodala, invoking a hip-hop term, "with a cadence, a rhythm, a boom, boom, boom. We understand." But how in the world can anybody else? "I don't envy you," says special assistant Nick U'Ren. "It's a very hard thing to define."
If you can't articulate this mystic force, maybe you can find someone who embodies it.
Bill and Susie Walton raised their four boys two blocks from the San Diego Zoo, and when the wind blew off the canyon at night, they could hear the peacocks howl. The Grateful Dead used to visit the Walton home, escorted by an armada of Hells Angels, and Jerry Garcia would tell stories under the 16-foot tepee in the backyard when he was not swimming naked in the pool. The front door was rarely locked. Wiffle ball in the living room was not just permitted but encouraged. Summer vacation once included a trip to an ashram in Colorado with no electricity. "Organized chaos," recalls Luke Walton, the second-youngest son, who was nine when his parents divorced in 1989.
Bill kept the house and made it a shrine to Garcia and John Wooden, a pairing that only made sense to the Big Redhead, a Hall of Fame center for whom music and basketball were one and the same. "Coach, please teach the boys how to tie their shoes," Bill intoned, over family lunches with Wooden, who coached him at UCLA from 1971 to '74. He prepared his sons' sandwiches for school—nonfat peanut butter, organic jelly—scrawling the Wizard of Westwood's sayings on the sacks. When Bill played for the Clippers, his kids often sidled up next to him on the bench, forcing teammates to sit on the floor. When he joined the Celtics in 1985, the little Waltons challenged Larry Bird to games of two-on-two, the Legend sinking every basket before feeding whichever boy was on his side for the clincher.
All the young Waltons could play, but Luke was the best. "I loved the skill, the movement, the extra pass," he says. "That's what my dad thought was beautiful about the game and what I thought was beautiful too." At Arizona, Luke became the first Pac-10 forward to lead the league in assists, delighting Wooden and enthralling another storied coach, Phil Jackson. "He may be Bill's son," Jackson says, "but I've been Luke's dad." Luke logged seven seasons under Jackson with the Lakers, but by the end, he spent many days sitting depressed in the training room because of back problems. Jackson presented him with a Spalding notebook holder and tasked him with charting possessions.
In spring 2014, Golden State gave Kerr his first head coaching job, and Jackson recommended that he interview Walton, recently retired from the Cavaliers. Kerr talked about the way he wanted the Warriors to play, with space and movement and freedom, and the way he wanted them to exist, which was sort of the same. He drew parallels to tennis greats, forever moving forward, toward the net. "Steve's creation had nothing to do with my childhood," says Walton, 35. "But it all made perfect sense to me because I am so comfortable with that whole style of being."
He is sitting in the lobby of the Conrad hotel in downtown Indianapolis, wearing sweats, a knapsack and a backward Chargers hat, the look of the most successful interim coach ever. He just got off the phone with Kerr, whom he calls every day, sometimes twice. They reviewed matchups and substitution patterns for the following night's Pacers game. Kerr has not coached the Warriors yet this season because he is still recovering from debilitating headaches, a side-effect of a spinal fluid leak caused by a summer back surgery. The pressure in his skull, the ringing in his ears, are soothed only by the knowledge that his community, his vibe, his flow—whatever you want to label it—continues unabated without him.
• MORE JENKINS: The incredible journey of Seth Curry (08.31.15)
The Warriors knew early in training camp, when Kerr had to sit down every 10 minutes during practice, that they would need a fill-in. Former lead assistant Alvin Gentry would have been the obvious choice, but he took over the Pelicans last May, and 68-year-old lieutenant Ron Adams was dedicated to the defense. That left Walton, who two years ago was playing for a rec-league team called Wonder Bread at Aviation Gym in Redondo Beach; moonlighting as a Lakers TV analyst on Time Warner Cable Sports; and working part-time as a flip-flop-wearing staffer for the L.A. D-Fenders of the Development League. Even last season, Walton was only a player development coach in Golden State, learning from colleague Chris DeMarco how to compile scouting reports. He handled the Warriors' summer-league outfit, but he also spent a lot of afternoons on beach volleyball courts in Manhattan Beach, with a squad that rocks tight-fitting Lakers uniforms and Afro wigs in homage to Fletch. Suddenly, this guy was in charge of the champs.
"Oh, you're good, we've got it," Walton assured Kerr when the call came on Oct. 1. Then he summoned the whole staff to the Warriors' Oakland headquarters for an emergency meeting. He practiced scribbling plays on greaseboards. His dad recommended six books. "I was so nervous," Walton says. He assumed Kerr would be out a week, maybe two. So it was O.K. that Golden State went 3–4 in the preseason and that Walton picked up needless delay-of-game penalties, discovering that it's easier to draw those plays in the living room than in the huddle. He'd sit in bed at night with his wife, former Arizona volleyball star Bre Ladd, second-guessing decisions and wondering if there was a better way to distribute minutes.
"I was walking in the arena thinking, I can't mess this up, and when you do that you're not in the moment," Walton says. "You're not enjoying it." He was veering from the philosophy that governed his life and his team. But he could relax. There was no way, he believed, Kerr would miss opening night. "Just so you know," Fraser informed Walton, as the regular season neared, "our guy isn't walking through that door anytime soon."
What would the Warriors' record be right now if their coach were a crash test dummy?" That was the question posed by ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard to Dubs beat writer Ethan Strauss in late November and echoed in slightly more diplomatic language around NBA locker rooms. Would they be 23–2? 22–3? People once asked the same kinds of questions about Jackson and the Bulls, because Jordan didn't need anybody teaching him to score, just as Curry doesn't need anybody teaching him to shoot. But after 11 titles, most agree that Jackson was essential to his teams' achievements, even if he wasn't tweaking Jordan's mechanics. Creating an environment in which elite talent can sparkle—and, in Walton's case, sustaining that environment—is arguably the most important part of the job. "It's no fluke," Jackson writes in an email, "that Luke is the right guy at the right time."
In 2003–04 every Lakers veteran could claim a rookie to haze within reason, and they all begged for Walton because they were angry about comments his dad once made about them on TV. Competition was so fierce they eventually held an auction, with Karl Malone outbidding Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton. "I heard Karl paid $25,000," Walton recalls. "He was going to make my life hell. He was going to make me his...." He pauses. "What's the appropriate word for bitch?" Then Malone met Walton and came to a sickening realization. He spent all that cash for nothing. The kid was too cool to haze. "I try to be myself," Walton says, "and it normally works out."
During one Warriors' practice in October, power forward Draymond Green grumbled about the organization of a drill. He was testing the substitute teacher. Walton halted the action and explained the value of the drill, defending himself and defusing his emotional star. "He's taken over this whole ship," Green says, "and run it." Walton has grown more comfortable in games, a transformation he traces to a talk with Kerr. "Not every decision will be right," the coach told him. "You have to make it and live with it." Walton, who grew up playing all four spots on Parcheesi boards, began to savor the strategy.
Like Jackson, Walton would agree that his best coaching is often the absence of coaching. When Green picked up his fourth foul to open the third quarter against the Clippers, Walton ignored the advice of his assistants and left him in, keying a 16-point comeback. When the Nets made a third-quarter charge eight games later, taking a five-point lead, Walton again spurned his staff's pleas for a timeout. Our guys are champions, Walton thought. They'll figure it out. Against the Raptors, he skipped Curry's normal rest to start the fourth quarter, and nearly paid with a loss. In the rematch at Toronto, he was tempted to do it again, just for a possession. "No," Curry said with a smile. "Didn't go so well last time."
Here is the democratic household at work. "We get high school and college coaches who come to our practices and think, I'm going to learn so much!" Walton says. Then they hear the music blaring and see the half-court shots flying. They wonder what plays are called, but plays are not called, not usually. "They walk out with their minds blown," Walton laughs. Some get the vibe, some don't. After a volleyball game this summer Walton jumped into the ocean with Chris McGee, a friend who hosts the Lakers' studio shows for TWC. "How hard do you think this season is going to be?" McGee asked. When Walton was with the Lakers, they traditionally struggled after championships, flipping the proverbial switch last April. "With our style," Walton replied, "I don't see that happening." The flow is never a grind.
• MORE JENKINS: Golden Hours: Inside Warriors' title celebration (06.17.15)
Walton still receives updates on his fantasy football league from McGee ("He's winning that too," McGee says, "which really pisses me off") and career counsel from basketball buddies like D-Fenders coach Casey Owens ("Retire immediately and come back to the D-League—$20,000 a year going to work?"). He leans hard on a pair of indispensable assistants who were in equally obscure roles at this time two years ago: former NBA center Jarron Collins was broadcasting West Coast Conference games for TWC; Fraser was in San Diego teaching a sales force how to peddle Joe Gourmet Coffee. Now, that SoCal trio oversees the NBA's most prolific offense ever while channeling the chill demeanor of their boss.
After home games, Kerr greets his staff in the locker room. "Thanks for the win!" he chirps, because each victory goes on his record. After road games, he calls or texts Fraser. "I'm proud of you guys," he says. It is crushing Kerr to be away from the Warriors, but their success is another testament to his leadership.
When the headaches subside, Kerr will return, but Walton will forever be linked with this historic surge. Some general managers will dismiss his impact because, really, how hard can it be to guide a group that doesn't miss? The Warriors attribute their incessant improvement to familiarity with their system and confidence from their title. Curry, for instance, has always excelled on the break. But against the Grizzlies in the second round last May, Kerr encouraged him to pass out of double teams and trust he'd get the ball back. Reluctant at first, Curry is now potent early in the offense and late, among the NBA's top shooters from the perimeter as well as the paint. "We flow with Steph," Iguodala says.
There it is, one of those amorphous words surfacing again, either hippie hogwash or special sauce. Despite the disbelievers, a GM eager to mimic the Warriors' small-ball scheme will also yearn to clone their communal approach. And hiring Walton will be much easier than acquiring Curry. "I sometimes wonder why Golden State's main guys never seem to miss a game that matters for injury," says an opposing GM. "I used to think it was luck. I'm not sure anymore. Something about the way they play, the joy they have, brings good things to their lives. It breeds positive events."
Curry left the Conrad the day before the Pacers game in search of a restaurant befitting an MVP's opulent appetite. He found it at the corner of West Maryland and South Illinois. He slid into a booth at Steak 'n Shake, along with fellow sniper Klay Thompson, oblivious to passersby staring slack-jawed through the window. Is that... ? Are they... ? Yep, Splish 'n Splash at Steak 'n Shake.
Meanwhile, Indiana forward Paul George seethed in anticipation of the next night's showdown with Curry, telling reporters: You've just got to be physical with him.... We just got to take the fight to him.... We're hungry for a win.... It's a must-win game for us. This kind of battlefield rhetoric, so common in sports, is foreign to the Warriors. "We just like to play," Walton says. The Dubs scored 44 points in the first quarter, including 22 straight. Walton doled out bro hugs and fist bumps. Curry tossed a no-look lob to center Andrew Bogut. Fans laughed. "This is ridiculous," said a scout sitting atop the lower bowl. "The chemistry is like clockwork. I don't see how anybody beats them." The scout was trying to chart plays, which proved difficult, because the Warriors only ran a handful. The Pacers' defense, ranked sixth in the NBA, coughed up 79 points in the first half. Only once since 1978 had Indy allowed more.
• MORE JENKINS: LeBron starting to feel the urgency in Cleveland (12.07.15)
Players across the NBA are following Golden State's start, either on televisions or arena scoreboards. The league is filled with talented underachievers—Rockets, Clippers, Pelicans, Bulls—many of whom attempted to impersonate Golden State's go-go attack. It's possible that some would-be contenders have been demoralized by the team they hoped so desperately to mirror. Besides the Spurs, the Warriors' most formidable opponent may be boredom. "Everyone is trying to figure out the spice they're using," said Indiana forward C.J. Miles. He suggested cayenne.
After vaporizing the Pacers, Curry sat at his locker, covered in terry cloth. He chuckled at a tweet from the Harlem Globetrotters, congratulating the Warriors on their 23rd straight win, but reminding them they remained 3,562 wins short of the Globies' streak. Raymond Ridder, Golden State's p.r. maestro, pointed out that the Warriors do not have the luxury of playing the New Jersey Generals every night. "New Jersey?" Curry responded, making a face. "Washington Generals."
New Jersey, Washington, Indiana. Whatever. Welcome to the 2015–16 NBA season, where if you're not a Warrior, you're probably a General.