A version of thisstory appears in the June 1, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Forgive Warriors fans if they revel for a moment. Last night’s series-clinching win over the Rockets wasn’t pretty. It required a whole lot of Harrison Barnes, a healthy dose of Andre Iguodala and a surprising amount of Festus Ezeli, but in the end what matters is this: the Warriors are back in the Finals for the first time in 40 years. Reflexively, Golden State fans are celebrating, while they can.
You see, even with the historic win, the ghosts still haunt the halls of Oracle. Stephen Curry cannot shoo them away with his jump shot, nor Andrew Bogut with his grimace, nor Steve Kerr with his cheerful pragmatism. They have been here too long. Only a banner can banish them.
And so they drift down the concrete stairways, bumping into things and dropping easy passes and setting inadequate screens. There is Todd Fuller, and Chris Washburn and P.J. Carlesimo, faint red rings encompassing his ghostly neck. The Warriors have played in this building on and off since 1966, when it was the Oakland Coliseum Arena, leaving occasionally for San Jose, San Francisco and, once, San Diego, where the team played six "home" games during a bizarre stretch in 1971-72 when it was marketed as "California's" team.
The rest of the time they've been in Oakland, for better or worse. Though mainly worse. Few teams have been as inept for as long. The Warriors turned Robert Parish and the draft pick used on Kevin McHale into center Joe Barry Carroll, who in turn transformed himself into a center so listless that he earned the nickname Joe Barely Cares. In 1996 the Warriors drafted the plodding Fuller over the decidedly unplodding Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. While the Lakers and the Bulls collected titles, Golden State collected bumbling big men: Washburn and Tellis Frank, Les Jepsen and Uwe Blab, Felton Spencer and Andrew DeClercq, Jason Caffey and Ike Diogu. And who can forget Erick Dampier, around whom the Warriors constructed a marketing campaign titled, with admirable optimism, "The Center of Attention"?
Not my brother and I, that's for sure. We were born too late to remember the team's 1975 title but early enough to witness all that ensued. The most exciting—only exciting?—moment of our youthful fandom came in '87, when Sleepy Floyd, the team's skinny, mustachioed scoring guard out of Georgetown, improbably dropped 29 points in a quarter to lead the Warriors to a 129–121 victory over Magic Johnson's Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. It was as electric a sports moment as I can recall, in part because it was so unexpected. A few years later we recorded a rebroadcast on VHS and it became a prized family possession, busted out for repeat viewings, each one capped by Grep Papa's classic, hoarse-throated call of "Sleepy Floyd is Superman!"
Of course the Warriors lost that series 4-1. And later logged 14 losing seasons in a 16-year span. I wonder, though, if all that losing only strengthened our bond to the team. To grow up with success is to take it for granted, as happened for us with the 49ers, and no doubt for the current generation with the San Francisco Giants. But the Warriors made you earn your fandom. Maybe that's why they possess the most loyal supporters in the Bay Area. To experience the roar and swell of Oracle at its best is to breathe in decades of history and misery and hope, to feel the heart of Oakland beating, to know what eternal optimism amid perennial disappointment feel like.
And now, suddenly, the Warriors are good. Not just sorta good, but title-favorite good. They’re led by a humble, likeable coach and a humble, likeable superstar. They’re so unselfish that at times the players appear to be competing to see who can register the assist: Andrew Bogut passes between the legs to Iguodala, who pings it to Draymond Green, who hooks it to Curry, who fires it behind the back to Klay Thompson. To understand this year’s squad, you need only look a few seats away from Kerr on the Warriors bench, where David Lee has spent the majority of this playoff run. Every once in a while, his number is called and Lee sprints onto the floor, slapping teammates’ hands and doing his David Lee thing: charging after rebounds and shooting ambidextrous half-hooks and shouting a lot. It’s enough to elicit nostalgia. Because, in many respects, Lee represents so much of the Warriors history: A big guy who’s not quite big enough, an offensive talent not suited for playing D. And this is not to pick on Lee: He’s a former All-Star who plays hard, a key cog in past teams. But these Warriors are different. They are so deep, and defensive-minded, that they don’t even need Lee.
Meanwhile, the Bay Area is besotted. An Oakland brewer sells DubNation IPA; Berkeley buses read GO WARRIORS! instead of a destination; local band Stroke 9 recorded a song called “Dem Dubs Doh’ to the theme of the Love Boat. Longtime fans are unsure what to do. They’ve never been overdogs before. Rather, their touchstones are flashes of unsustainable brilliance: Floyd’s magical night; Run-TMC knocking off the Spurs in the first round in 1991; the “We Believe” team upsetting the top-seeded Mavericks in 2007 in the first round (still the loudest I’ve ever heard a basketball arena); Baron Davis blowing up Andrei Kirilenko (in a series the Warriors lost). So now they exist in a state of bewildered euphoria. Jeff Chang, a season-ticket holder who wore Purvis Short's number 45 when he played high school ball, returned from watching the Game 1 win over the Rockets in the conference finals and realized he'd totally forgotten that night's draft lottery. Which was funny, Chang told me, "considering that was usually the highlight of any season after December."
John Fike, another longtime season-ticket holder from the East Bay who in 2003 launched StayGilbert.com to try to persuade free-agent guard Gilbert Arenas to remain in Oakland, is in awe. As he writes in an email: "We aren't some scrappy, plucky, overachieving Cinderella, with every win some sort of shooting-star, four-leaf-clover lottery ticket." Rather, he says, echoing Grantland's Zach Lowe, we are, “dancing to the championship.” San Francisco native Rich Harper, an old friend, now lives in Washington, D.C. and has been attending the Wizards-Warriors game for years, a speck of yellow in a sea of red. For him, this year is all about validation. "For all the bad years, for all the bad trades, for all the bad draft picks, false starts and one and done playoff runs."
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Then there is my friend Chris Heine, born and raised in Berkeley. His father took him to his first Warriors game in 1981, and he says he's never loved a player more than onetime Warriors forward Larry Smith, an African-American, blue-collar hero in a predominantly black, industrial city. A couple of weeks ago, when Golden State advanced to the conference finals for the first time in 39 years, he found himself tearing up. It was a lot to process—savoring a historic victory and purging a lifetime of disappointment. And yet, Chris says he feels a sense of urgency. "Now that the team is at long last rich and beautiful and the darlings of the league, the City wants them back," he tells me. "I get it. Dotcom billionaires fill courtside seats. Winning is for winners. The City can have any and all championship trophies. The soul of the organization will remain always in the East Bay."
Indeed, but the future lies in San Francisco. An arena in Mission Bay, reportedly in the next few years. Restaurants and shopping complexes. Money—an ungodly amount of it—flowing to the Warriors' coffers. But for now, the team still plays in an old concrete bowl hard by the 880, rising in the flatlands of south Oakland. The parking lot smells of malt liquor and weed and despair. It's beautiful.
Recently, I took my two daughters—Callie, eight, and Eliza, six—to a game. They screamed for Steph Curry and ate soggy hot dogs and, when it wasn't too loud for their liking, had the time of their lives. When we got home Callie decided to create a color-coded chart in which she ranked each Warriors player as either Good, Great or Excellent. When she was done, all but two—Leandro Barbosa and Justin Holiday—were in the last two categories. (No offense, guys.)
I found it amusing. When I was her age, my Warriors categories would have been Pretty Good, Overmatched and At Least He Tries Hard. Then again, I was conditioned for pessimism. Bay Area kids around my daughters' age don't know better. As far as they can tell, the Warriors have always been good.
And who are we to ruin it for them?