During a rapturous, history-making season, the Warriors made believers out of hardcore fans and hoops novices alike—everyone, it seems, except the teams gunning for the Dubs in the playoffs. Subscribe now for the in-depth coverage, only in Sports Illustrated. The article appeared in the April 18-25, 2016 issue.
OAKLAND — On Wednesday, as Steph Curry chased history at Oracle Arena in Oakland—leading the Warriors to a record 73rd win and then keeping a net as a souvenir—Beth Keiser, a thousand miles away in Black Mountain, N.C., stayed up late to do something she hardly ever does: watch sports. Beth is 78 years old, a retired English professor at Guilford College. Her husband taught religion; her son moved to Ghana and instructs locals in sustainable gardening. In a long, full life, she has rarely thought much about basketball.
This season, however, Beth became hooked on the Warriors after seeing part of a game while visiting friends in California. She was riveted by Curry, and began DVR-ing Golden State games to share with others. Soon enough she was staying up til 1:30 a.m., agonizing over outcomes. She emailed friends, including this reporter’s mother, to ensure that they too were witnessing the grace of this unselfish team, the “contagious pleasure” they took in the game, as she puts it.
Normally, sports must intrude upon the real world to capture the attention of people like Beth. Joe Paterno, Ray Rice, Jason Collins. But here we have a rare phenomenon: Sports atheists converted solely on account of the virtuosity of a star and his team.
“Light years ahead of probably every other team,” said Warriors owner Joe Lacob recently, in a rare moment of hubris from an organization that prides itself on humility. But there’s truth to his comment. Across the league, franchises have rushed to mimic the magic. But how can you replicate Steph? The warmups-turned-pay-per-view. The OKC half-court heave. The flitting and weaving and ankle breaking. He will win the MVP; he could just as easily be Most Improved Player. After last night’s 46-point performance, he finished the season at 45/50/90, only the third player in NBA history to do so, joining Steve Nash and Steve Kerr. In the process, he set records unlikely to be broken by anyone not named Steph Curry, all while appearing to live in the moment. There he was last night, after the win, walking through the tunnel beneath Oracle, high-fiving fans, giggling, and hugging his mother, Sonya, who shouted out “There goes that man!”
From the start this season felt different. Golden State opened with a record 24 straight wins, forcing many fans to care about the NBA a good two months early. In the process Draymond Green evolved from defensive maniac to all-around maniac. He played point-forward—and at times point-center—becoming the first player in NBA history to finish a season with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocks. He led the league in plus-minus—not to mention flexing and bellowing “AND ONNNE!” after every attempt. He is not, we now know, a robot.
The only team to have the Warriors’ number, strangely enough, was the Lakers, who beat Golden State twice. O.K., so the first time was in an exhibition game—the Warriors actually had a losing record in preseason—and the second came when the team played at noon on a Sunday, after Steph chose to see a midnight showing of Deadpool the previous evening. Some of his teammates headed off on less-cinematic adventures, leading media folks to note that Los Angeles on a Saturday night remains undefeated.
As the season wore on, and the wins piled up, every Warriors loss became reason for concern. They were never allowed to have a bad day. The players dissected any stumble. Ah, that game against Detroit. Such is the price of chasing perfection.
Gradually, all other NBA storylines receded. Kobe’s final season stumbled along, a distant hum in the background, at least until his 60-point finale Wednesday. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns convincingly impersonated Tim Duncan, but few paid much mind. Russell Westbrook averaged close to a triple double and may not receive a single first-place MVP vote. Instead the Warriors became a black hole, sucking up all our attention. In one week The New York Times Magazine put them on the cover, only to see ESPN the Magazine devote its entire issue to the team. (SI ran two cover stories in two months, including this week) Then again, how much do you remember about the 1995–96 season, outside of the Bulls’ traveling circus? Our hearts go out to that campaign’s ignored stories—Damon Stoudamire’s Rookie of the Year win, the Kings’ surprise playoff appearance—and now, another season’s worth of moments slips away.
Perhaps in time we’ll also forget that the Warriors made it to midseason without their head coach. For Steve Kerr, off-season back surgery led to a second surgery which led to debilitating headaches. Kerr, as optimistic a man as you’ll meet in sports, in what should be one of the best times of his life, instead went to what he says was a dark place. Slowly, the pain eased. Finally, he returned to the bench, after Luke Walton led the team to a 39–4 record and ensured an off-season full of job offers (a striking result considering many wondered, before the season, if the team could survive the loss of last year’s top assistant, Alvin Gentry, to the Pelicans).
As the world pressed in, the Warriors held their ground. Danielle Steel visited practice, as did Arianna Huffington, Lydia Ko and, earlier this week, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. Green appeared at a local Peet’s to serve coffee, only to cause a craze, the line stretching two blocks hours before his arrival. Occasionally the wave crashed too hard. A railing broke in Utah as fans tried to reach Curry for autographs. In Toronto, at All-Star Weekend, Curry’s security guy, Ralph Walker, a former Oakland police officer, had to lead Steph on a dead sprint through a department store, running low like back in the days of a house raid, to escape a mob of fans. (Recently, a friend of this reporter, who lives in Berkeley, became excited because his young daughter managed “eye contact” with Ayesha Curry at an event.)
In the final weeks seemingly everyone weighed in on the team. They should rest their stars! Prepare for the playoffs. Screw that, go for the record. Meanwhile, NBA alums, including Oscar Robertson and an assured Scottie Pippen, lectured us on how, back in the day, this Warriors team would have gotten absolutely smoked. Finally, center Andrew Bogut, a caustic Australian, responded on Twitter. “My under 14 team in Melbourne Australia would have beat these @warriors 109-99,” Bogut wrote. “Fat Jimmy would have locked down @StephenCurry30!!!!”
How do you deal with the weight of history? Kerr brought in guest speakers, including the author Michael Lewis, who noted how important it is to have people around you who can help you stay grounded. GM Bob Myers read books at night when he couldn’t sleep, then passed them on to coaches, firing through Boys on the Boat before giving it to Ron Adams. Myers knew he was supposed to be elated at the team’s success but says it only made him more anxious. His wife, Kristen, says that when the Warriors hosted the Spurs last Thursday, with 70 wins on the line, it was the most nervous she’d seen her husband in a long time. Hoping to lighten the mood, she suggested during the game that they go on the Dance Cam together. Bob did not laugh.
The Warriors won that game, just as they won three days later in San Antonio in a performance that further cemented Curry’s competitive legend—he scored 37 points, many of them in absurd fashion—while reinforcing what we already know about the team as it heads into the postseason. Namely: As go Curry and Green, so go the Warriors; offensive magic aside, the team wins when it plays D and limits turnovers; and don’t ever fail to contest a Curry shot, even when it’s from 60 feet (the distance from which Curry banked one in at the end of the third quarter against the Spurs, only to have the basket waved off).
And then, Wednesday night in front of a giddy sellout crowd draped in blue, the record-breaker. The game itself was never really close—a 125–104 final—though the Warriors seemed intent on putting on a show, almost as if performing a tribute to themselves. Everyone did their best Steph: a Bogut scoop reverse and a Mo Speights lefty push shot and a Draymond deep three. But really, it was all about Curry himself: six threes in the first quarter, including a couple from no-man’s land; the usual improbable cross-court passes; and, finally, a pair of remarkable statistical feats: a 30 ppg season in only 34 mpg (the fewest ever) and 402 three-pointers, obliterating his own NBA record of 286. Said Curry afterwards, in a comment that might seem arrogant coming from anyone else: “I feel like I really can do anything.”
When time expired, confetti fell, the speakers blared Flo Rida and Green sprinted onto the floor to secure the game ball which, he later explained, he planned to have cut up so that every player could keep a piece (the players also signed each other’s jerseys; in Curry’s case, he also signed a pair of shoes for one of Matt Barnes’s sons). Afterward, Kerr admitted that he didn’t think the 72-game record would ever fall, comparing it to DiMaggio’s hit streak. Now, he really doubted it. “Someone has to go 74–8….I don’t see it.” Curry called the record “a cool accomplishment,” noting of the playoffs, “It would suck not to finish the job off.” Green first joked about the reputation of the team, saying, “We lucked our way to 73 wins this year.” Then, asked what the record means, he was more serious. “It means,” he responded, “I’m part of the best team ever.”
That might be true. But for new converts like Keiser, this magical season hasn’t been about wins, or stats or accomplishments. It’s not about the what, but rather the how. In Beth’s case, she says she watches the Warriors for the simplest of reasons: joy.
Theirs at playing the game; hers in watching them do it.