OAKLAND, Calif. — On Sunday for the 332nd straight game, a stream of fans will form a sellout crowd at the NBA’s oldest arena, wedged between the 880 Freeway and a BART station and flanked by an industrial park where delivery trucks rumble in and out and belch smoke. When poet Gertrude Stein years ago uttered her famous line about her hometown — “there’s no there there” — perhaps she had this gray patch of pavement specifically in mind.
Oh, and yet … once inside Oracle Arena, there is life and soul. There is strong and loyal support, once again, for Oakland’s basketball team, winners of three of the last four championships. There’s a there here, although not for long. The next time the Warriors play a regular season home game, it will be at their splashy new palace in San Francisco this fall and filled with fans of a different cloth; meanwhile on that same night, Oracle will be filled with crickets and Oakland’s heart with ache.
Well: Where do we begin to describe the nearly five decades when the Warriors made Oakland their home and Oakland embraced the Warriors as its own? The days and mostly nights of the unforgettable players and coaches and characters: Run-TMC and KD, Nellie and Sleepy, Spree and Splash? There are still blue and yellow fragments of victory parade confetti floating in Lake Merritt, after all. And now there will be a permanent separation between the team and The Town, which was always inevitable and understandable because money talks, but still.
Understand, this isn’t the Colts packing up the Mayflower and sneaking out of Baltimore at night, or the Sonics stolen from Seattle; the Warriors will only be a $5 Bay Bridge toll away ($7 at rush hour). Besides, the Warriors began in San Francisco via Philadelphia in 1962 and so they were on loan to Oakland, so to speak. It’s the biological parents finally showing up at the doorstep after all these years and coming to reclaim the adopted child.
And maybe it’s just as well from an identity standpoint. The Warriors are a better fit for San Francisco for what they’ve become: A white collar, glam-franchise jointly owned by a venture capitalist and a Hollywood mogul and observed from courtside seats by latte-sipping Silicon Valley eggheads. Success and economics have priced the Warriors right out of gritty Oakland, where most folks here can’t afford tickets anyway. The new arena is only eight miles in the distance but it might as well be a world away.
If nothing else, everyone involved will always reminisce about the shared experience on this side of the Bay, which has enriched the Warriors and their soon-to-be former home for the better.
“This is all I’ve ever known,” said two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who has spent his entire 10-year career with the Warriors and made the East Bay his year-round home, “and it’s been good for me, my family and the team. Oakland has a special place in my heart. An amazing relationship.”
Curiously, the Warriors didn’t rush to Oakland when the city built what was then the redundantly-named Coliseum Arena in 1966; they weren’t sold on Oakland until the 1971-72 season. They were coached by the gravelly-voiced Al Attles, who quickly became a local legend for steering the Warriors to the 1975 title and always carrying himself with class and dignity around town.
The first superstar in Oakland was Rick Barry, famous for the underhanded free throw and salty demeanor but embraced despite that flaw in Oakland where he played for two pro teams — the Warriors and briefly the ABA’s Oakland Oaks. In the ’75 Western Conference finals Game Seven, Barry played poorly, got benched, then bailed out by his teammates to reach the Finals. As time expired in that game and the fans stormed the court, a trainer somehow found and fetched little Jon Barry, now an ESPN broadcaster, then a shaken ballboy who got lost at sea.
Here’s a fun fact: Barry and the Warriors then swept the Bullets for their first title in Oakland (they previously won a decade earlier as the Philly Warriors) but the clinching game was played at the Cow Palace in San Francisco because the folks who ran the Coliseum Arena didn’t think the Warriors were title-bound so they booked the Ice Follies featuring Big Bird and Sesame Street.
And so, not until the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in 2017 for their third title did Oakland celebrate a championship in-house.
Afterward that ’75 season came a revolving cast of characters, from Sleepy Floyd to Don Nelson and Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber and of course, the Chris Mullin-Mitch Richmond-Tim Hardaway trio that became the league’s best entertainment value. From a results-standpoint, though, there was a dry spell that would make the Sahara jealous: From 1991 until 2012, the Warriors won exactly one playoff round. At least that one round was deliciously historic; the scrappy “We Believe” Warriors with Baron Davis upset the 67-win Mavericks to become the first eight-seed to beat a one-seed in a first-round best-of-seven.
Yes, the pre-dynasty Warriors were mostly dreadful except for this: Oakland never abandoned them, no matter how bad they were.
“The fans still came out,” said Barry. “The fans have always been great, loyal, and they got even better once they got a team worthy of the support.”
A quirk in the team-fans relationship came a decade ago when the Warriors held Chris Mullin Night and the ceremony was interrupted by boos for Joe Lacob, who had recently purchased the losing team and subsequently approved a trade of popular guard and leading scorer Monta Ellis. Barry grabbed the mic and scolded those fans for being insensitive to Mullin and prematurely judging Lacob.
“It was only a small portion of the people who booed,” said Barry. “It was Chris’ night, and to take that time to voice your displeasure was not the right thing to do. I told them that we have more class than this, and as far as Joe was concerned, I told them to give this man a chance. As it turned out, trading Monta was a great move on the part of the Warriors.”
Trading Ellis allowed the Warriors to give minutes to rookie Klay Thompson and also more responsibility for Curry. It created the Splash Brothers backcourt and a dynasty took root.
The rest, you know: Championships in 2015, 2017 and 2018, a near-miss in 2016, and pole position for a fourth ring this summer. The Warriors have popped plenty of shots and corks since the turn of the decade. And this did wonders for the psyche of Oakland, a city that suffers in comparison to its wealthier and more sophisticated neighbor, yet surfed the Warriors’ wave of championships to the mountaintop, high above the fog that forms here.
The connection between the Warriors and Oakland was never confined within the concrete walls of Oracle, though. While the locals often wondered why the team name never reflected the home — “Golden State” seems so impersonal — and the Warriors only two years ago introduced “The Town” jerseys featuring the city’s Tree symbol, there’s always been a bond. The practice facility sits atop the Oakland Convention Center, right around the corner from mom and pop stores and blocks from a park where the homeless gather.
The players, then and now, aren’t ghosts around town and with few exceptions made their homes in the East Bay. That’s because Oakland and the East Bay (where they can buy homes with big backyards, unlike San Francisco) was always welcoming. Demographically it was a good fit, too; the large African-American makeup of Oakland agreed with a mostly-black league, culturally, socially and politically. The players shop in San Francisco but party in Oakland. And the food choices here, diverse and delivered with love, can rival any city of its size.
But it goes even deeper: Oakland is a good and necessary community to serve, and the Warriors, especially in recent years, have stepped up their off-court game to be seen as more than just athletes.
The epicenter for this is the East Oakland Youth Development Center, a place where real life meets and often conflicts with fun and games. The Warriors have had a two-decades relationship with the center and the kids who use it, showering the EOYDC with appearances, funding, charity events and clinics.
“Our home is located in the middle of a challenged community,” said Regina Jackson, the long-serving CEO of the center. “There’s prostitution, gang violence, homelessness, unemployment and it can be fairly violent. There are things that are not healthy for young people. It is the very reason the center was created 40 years ago. There needed to be a beacon of hope, a north star, a safe place where you can go and get away from some of the negatives of the community. You can come here and be empowered, encouraged and valued. That is the culture that runs through our organization. Sometimes kids come in with traumatic experiences and they don’t trust very much.”
Even the most troubled kids can trust a superstar with a smile, which is why Curry will always be worshiped at the center. The Kia Sorrento SUV he won for being named the 2015 MVP was donated to the center, and he caused a stir last year when he made an appearance.
Curry arrived in the early morning, no entourage, “just drove up and walked in the door,” said Jackson. Once there, she asked him to sign in, “like everyone else.”
Curry’s response: “Alright Miss Regina.”
The kids had no advance notice that the game’s greatest shooter would be their guest — had that happened, the center would be crammed with mothers and fathers and friends and it would be madness — yet once he appeared in view, madness ensued anyway. As Jackson recalled, before her staff could spring into action, a commanding voice took over, a voice belonging to Curry, who asked everyone to calm down and he’d have time for them. And quickly, order was restored. You know how hard it is to get kids to sit still and listen? That was more impressive than hitting three-pointers from half-court.
That day Curry handed out water (“like a ballboy,” said Jackson) and mingled and it seemed so natural for him and special for the center.
“He has a presence,” said Jackson. “When his presence enters the room there’s an energy that can be telekinetic, like energy that pops up on a heart monitor. He always seems to be surprised by the reaction when he walks into a room, as if kids aren’t supposed to be excited. And that speaks to his humility and transparent nature and foundation of being a regular guy.”
But it’s not just Curry; a number of Warriors have beaten a path to the EOYDC and other community centers over the years: Hardaway, Chris Webber, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, etc., etc. Durant sponsored a bus to be used by the championship basketball teams from a pair of Oakland high schools in the Warriors’ victory parade and they rode in the same caravan as the Warriors.
“With this group, their niche is about being fairly accessible,” Jackson said. “You know, when these organized appearances happen, it starts out as a team thing but then it is up to the individual player to be convicted toward why they’re going and what they’re doing. You can feel when somebody doesn’t want to be here, but we’ve never felt that vibe from the Warriors. The way they play on the court is the way they play off the court.”
And now what? Something will be lost when the Warriors boomerang back to San Francisco. How can Curry replicate those pregame shots he takes from the mouth of the tunnel at Oracle? Will someone punch a hole in the wall near the visitor’s locker room, as Dirk Nowitzki did following the Dallas loss to the “We Believe” Warriors? What will be the climate created by the buttoned-up San Francisco crowd?
Regina Jackson, who’s lived in Oakland for 50 years, speaks for many in town regarding the move, with a sigh of resignation.
“I can’t tell you I’m happy because I’m not,” she said. “What you end up saying to yourself is we were really lucky that this happened in our lifetimes. A lot of our young people got to go to their first game, tour the facility, be on the Jumbotron. But we had a very close relationship with this team that was not just going to the games. These are lifetime experiences. While the Warriors have maintained they’re going to continue an Oakland presence, it won’t be the same. We can’t roll down the street and make it to Oracle anymore.”
Everyone leaves with a parting gift, a favorite memory. Steve Kerr’s is beating the Rockets in Game 5 of the Western finals in 2015 which put the Warriors in the championship round.
“There was about a minute left and we were up 12 or something so it was kind of apparent that the game was over, and just soaking in the emotion from everybody,” the coach said. “I stood at halfcourt and just kind of scanned the whole building. My goosebumps were everywhere. ‘Just wow, this is really happening.’ I remembered coming in here many times as a player and as a broadcaster, where you know, ‘The Warriors aren’t going to the Finals, right? That’s not happening.’ ”
A new arena awaits across the Bay, worth north of $1 billion, constructed with technology and the well-heeled in mind. The Warriors have traded up. The Chase Center will be high on the wow factor and low on discomfort. Those who’ve taken a tour of the construction site usually come away envisioning something amazing.
“It’s got a great location, all the bells and whistles,” said Barry. “It’s going to be tremendous because the Warriors are going back to their roots. But bittersweet.”
The new building will import the championship banners and raise them high although those will merely be cloth on hangers. Yes, the banners will symbolize what the Warriors did.
But what about how everyone felt when the Warriors did it? That energy cannot and will not make it across the bridge. That will remain right where it happened, in Oakland. Which means, there will always be a there there.
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