Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Warrior Eulogy

Start with the name – Golden State. Not Oakland, or Bay Area, or San Francisco or San Jose (and yes, I know they don’t play there, but that doesn’t stop the East Rutherford Giants or Jets or the Not Detroit Pistons or the Arlington Rangers and I’ll just stop it and move on).

It is, in the top three of North American sports leagues, the only marketing moment involved in the name of the team. You don’t hear about the Orange State Heat, the Keystone State Steelers, or the Peach State Braves. Only the Warriors are so, well, mysterious.

As a child learning about the NBA for the first time, with the usual childhood fascination with maps and places, the name intrigued me. What made the team Golden? Did the team have a Golden player? Was the floor gold? Where the hell is the Golden State, anyway? My map had no Golden listed on it.

Then, I finally saw them play against the mid-‘70s Sixers of Julius Erving, Bobby Jones and Henry Bibby, the first team of my NBA consciousness. Their uniforms were weird, they only had one player that anyone would ever remember (Purvis Short, a scoring small forward who shot jumpers with such a pronounced arc, it was like he was trying to hit the ceiling), and the Sixers crushed them like bugs. Next. Portland is where? What’s a Port?

Time passed, and my basketball consciousness formed in the range war that was Sixers-Celtics. The Warriors were of no real concern. Then, suddenly, Run TMC. A frantically paced, wildly entertaining team, especially if you haven’t seen it all before in Don Nelson’s previous incarnation as the ringleader of the Milwaukee Bucks (though, to be fair, Tim Hardaway was always more fun to watch than Sidney Moncrief). They did what Nellie’s teams always do – entertain, intrigue, inspire a fan base, scare the hell out of teams in playoff matchups, then fail due to their lack of quality big man. Same as it ever was.

It all ended spectacularly badly, as life usually does. You can blame Chris Webber, Nelson, PJ Carlessimo, Latrell Sprewell, or Chris Cohan, the Warriors’ secretive and mostly useless owner. None of it really matters, because the simple fact of the matter is that Nelson wasn’t going to win in Golden State, even if everyone involved ate the happy pills and loved each other. Those Warriors weren’t the Magic Lakers, or even the Hakeem Rockets. No championships were harmed in the destruction of the franchise. Chris Webber is going to end his career without a ring. (Yes, I like the West in the finals. Big surprise.)

Time went on. I discovered, up close and personal, what the destruction of a franchise looked like, as a Sixers season ticket holder. (It looked like Doug Moe and Harold Katz – which is to say, it looks a lot like the down market version of Nelson and Cohan.) Then I moved to the Bay Area for work, and got to know the Warriors and their fans, and discovered what an underdog attitude (Oakland is to San Francisco as Newark is to Manhattan) looked like when it was tempered with a fantastic and ludicrously expensive place to live – nice, but with an edge. I started watching Warriors games.

Believe it or not, they always had talent. Gilbert Arenas was a joy. Antawn Jamison was flawed as all get out and far from a plus on defense, but you always got the feeling that he was a coach away from being an asset, since he could score without being the focus. Larry Hughes can do some things; the Warriors, in a classic bad organization move, forced him to play point, exposing everything he couldn’t do. Erick Dampier was, like many NBA big men, a heart away from wreaking havoc.

In other words, they were just intriguing enough to keep an eye on. And that’s what over 15,000 people did, on average, for years. They didn’t even really grumble all that much about it. They just came, sat on their hands for a club that was beneath them. After about 50 games every season, the debilitating “injuries” would start piling up, the team would roll off a 3-30 type finish, and the coach would get ran out of town. The next season, the team would make some mildly intriguing high draft pick (J-Rich... hmm... and Troy Murphy looks like he cares about winning... maybe), and 15K+ people would show up all over again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’d point out the crowds to out-of-towners, and we’d all wonder how they were doing it. It must be the marketing – the multi-game packages, the strong numbers of people in the Bay Area who aren’t originally from there coming to watch their team, the Sacramento sellouts of RVing Kings fans, the strong Laker numbers, etc. But it really wasn’t that. It was, simply, this – the Bay Area likes basketball. It gets basketball, more than baseball or even football. Cal and Stanford draw, too. And finally, this year, they got some.

Some people have talked about how the Oaktown crowd that took out the Mavericks benefited from an organization that Gets It – that there is less artificial noise and nonsense then in many NBA arenas, and that this is the way that things used to be, dammit, when the world was young and better. Well, perhaps – I haven’t been in so many arenas as to know – but the Whiff Of Bullshit is strong here.

Others have congratulated the Warriors for having the courage to roll the dice with hardened playoff performer and well-known lunatic Stephen Jackson. Well, OK – it’s not like the team gave up much for him. (If nothing else, getting Mike Dunleavy Jr. off your roster alone should be worth five more wins a year.) But that trade wasn’t canny or brave. That trade was about two teams dumping their problems on each other, and the Warriors making out better in the short run. In the long run, none of the four players involved inspires a ton of confidence. And besides, this is a team that paid Adonal Foyle – Adonal Foyle! – to seven years and $41 million, mostly on the strength of his media interviews.

Nelson, to his credit, took a good hard look at Adonal and pretty much put him in the NBDL. He did similar surgery with Patrick O'Bryant and Ike Diogu, then gave earned minutes to Andris Biedrins, Monta Ellis and Mikael Pietrus. Baron Davis decided not to be injured this year, and voila – an actual team, lightning in a bottle, the rebirth of basketball in an area that had been crying out for it for 15 years.

But – and this is a huge but – the current cast of characters won’t do it. Harrington has no defensive position. Davis can’t stay healthy. Richardson isn’t really a franchise player. Biedrins is going to get a contract and stop developing (and the reason why I’m down on him is simple – there is no way that an NBA player should still be shooting free throws like that 100+ games into his career). Jackson is, well, Stephen Jackson. Say this for them – at least they go down fighting.

After 1-2 more years of the same level, Nelson will move on, and Mullin will keep trying to recapture this false spring – with big men that aren’t quite good enough, with remarkable athletes that don’t know / won’t learn how to play the kind of eat your vegetables defense that inevitably wins in the NBA.

And the crowd will go fallow once more, the lushest field in the Association, just waiting for another Golden Spring.

2 comments:

Jack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack said...

Touching. I was sad to see the lack of scoreboard awareness in the 4th quarter when they were jacking up 20-23 feet jumpers with a 5 point deficit that grew while the misses piled up.