"Thank You Warriors" - Dub Nation’s 40 Year Journey to the Promise Land

  (PHOTO BY BECK DIEFENBACH)

(PHOTO BY BECK DIEFENBACH)

By Josh Hunsucker | @jphunsucker

How are you supposed to feel after your team wins the title? Since the 75th Anniversary of the NFL, when Steve Young tossed six TDs for the Niners’ fifth Super Bowl title, I haven’t felt that feeling. I was twelve in 1995, I was six and seven when the Niners won Super Bowls three and four and when the A’s swept the Giants. Think back twenty years, think back twenty-six, twenty-seven years. Do you remember when something, anything, happened that long ago? Not only do you remember what happened, but do you remember how that made you feel?

I don’t. My first sports memory is eating Cheetos at my Dad’s friend’s apartment in the Marina with 3:10 left in Super Bowl XXIII when my Dad said, “Come here, you should watch this.” I sat on the floor in between my Dad’s legs, watching Joe Montana coolly march the Niners down the field for their third championship. I remember the two Bengal defenders colliding as Jerry Rice broke into the secondary. I remember John Taylor jumping and thrusting the ball towards the sky after he caught the game-winning slant. I remember all of that. I have no idea how that made me feel.

I remember watching cartoons before Game 3 of the Battle of the Bay. I remember watching the A’s parade on KTVU. I remember 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. I remember Rickey Watters and Jerry Rice shredding the Chargers. I remember saying that we would win Super Bowl XXIX because Stan Humphreys was horrible in Tecmo Super Bowl. I specifically remember Gary Plummer pulling the “Monkey” off Steve Young’s back. I vividly remember all of that. I have no clue how that made me feel.

In the last quarter century-plus, I have ended every Warriors, A’s, and Niners season in one of two ways: a loss, or having missed out on the playoffs entirely. In more recent years, I remember how I felt when those seasons ended. The emotions run the gamut, most notably: comfortably numb (‘04-’08 Niners, ’09-’10 Warriors, 2010 A’s), hopeful (2000 A’s, ’10-‘11 49ers, ’06-’07 We Believe Dubs), frustrated (’07-’08 Dubs), distraught (2003 A’s), dead inside (’11-‘12 49ers, 2013 A’s), and confused (’14-’15 49ers).

As an A’s and 49ers fan, the fanbase and to a greater extent my fandom is shaped by history and tradition. Even when the teams experience success in the present, we feel trapped by the ghosts of the past. The A’s ever-changing Moneyball roster, regardless of success, gets lost in the glow of Rickey’s neon green Mizuno batting gloves and cannot escape the shadows that covered Stu’s eyes. The Niners of the present, similarly, are always compared to champions of the past and played under the unreasonable pressure of being 5-0 in the Super Bowl, which culminated in 2012 when someone briefly forgot that Frank Gore was on the team. We are rear-view mirror fans. We always look back and long for the better times of the past. Whether we like it or not, it is who we are.

As a Warriors fan, when I look back, I try to remember the good times. That means Run-TMC and Nelly Ball 1.0, when the Dubs got as far as the Western Conference Semis. That means C-Webb, one year and a first round exit. That means “We Believe,” a Baron Davis “And 1” in garbage time of a series we eventually lost and being the best team ever to miss the playoffs. That ultimately means the 1975 champs. A team that played before I was alive and was coached by a man that we called “The Destroyer.” In fact, my best memory of the 1975 team was having Al Attles run the defensive segment of Warriors Basketball Camp circa 1995 and making a t-shirt with his likeness. Relatively speaking, my best memories as a Warriors fan are suboptimal when compared to my memories as an A’s and Niners fan.

  (PHOTO BY JOSH HUNSUCKER)

(PHOTO BY JOSH HUNSUCKER)

40 years is a long time. Since 1975 the Warriors had made the playoff 10 times in 39 years, heading into 2015. That is not much of a history. Part of being a pre-2015 Warriors fan was embracing mediocrity of the franchise. Ask any Warriors fan that liked the team before the Steph Curry era and especially before the “We Believe” era and they will delight in telling you their favor awful/cult hero Warriors players, their favorite underrated Warriors (“Oh yeah, he was kind of awesome”), a reference to three to four crap teams that meant something to them, and their favorite memories as a fan, generally in that order. For example, here are mine:

 

Favorite Awful/Cult Warriors Heroes

1.    Adonal Foyle – Epitome of  the “sadsackedness” era. The guy played so hard but was very limited talent-wise. I will always love you Adonal!

2.   Tony Delk – Held MJ to 14 points and scored 17 points in a tough 87-80 home loss in 1998.

3.    Chris Gatling – Gat Gun!

4.    David Wood – Inexplicably made 1998 USA basketball team.

5.    Larry Hughes – Larry Hughes Headband Night.

6.    Rony Seikaly – Spray painted his shoes black because he did not have team colored shoes.

7.    Anthony Randolph – I still don’t know how he didn’t become a more athletic Chris Bosh.

8.    Earl Boykins/Speedy Claxton – Professional versions of “Circus” King.

9.    Vonteego Cummings – Name alone.

10.  Kent Bazemore – All-time bench guy. Honorary 2015 Champ, right?

 

Favorite Underrated Warriors

1.    Sharunas Marshalonis – Lefty wingmen have a special place in my heart, so does anyone that Bill Walton loves.

2.    Latrell Sprewell – Still one of my favorites.

3.    Jason Richardson – The bright spot on a lot of crap teams.

 

Favorite Crap Teams

1.    ’97-’98 – Almost beat the Bulls at home.

2.    ’02-’03 – Made me think that a team that played absolutely no defense and featured a big three of Antwan Jamison, Gilbert Arenas, and Jason Richardson was worth watching on a nightly basis.

3.    ’93-’94 – C-Webb’s first year, Mully, Spree, Avery Johnson, and Jud Buechler!

 

Favorite Memories

1.    My first game: Mully drops 25 in a 126-118 win against Portland.

2.    Only time seeing MJ live: We lose, Tony Delk holds MJ to 14 points. Tony Delk drinks for free at my house for life.

3.    Pizza Pizza Pizza: Jud Buechler hits a three with under a minute to go to give the Warriors 120 points and all fans in attendance free pizza.

The sad part is that I ripped that off the top of my head in about five minutes but that is exactly what my Warriors fan friends and I talked about. Yes, we sometimes talked about Mully. Yes, we talked about the “We Believe” team. Yes, we talked about the current Warriors and how they may be something special. But all of those conversations existed in the context that the Warriors definition of “best” was being something other than comically awful or being merely a fleeting moment of success.

Being a Warriors fan has meant dreading the end of basketball season. Not because I miss watching below average professional basketball, historically speaking, but because it meant I was weeks away from the team perpetuating its losing tradition through the draft.

Last week, Bleacher Report NBA editor and all-around great human Chris Trenchard asked “What was your low point as a Warriors fan?” My knee jerk reaction was the 11th pick of the 1996 NBA draft. I thought and I thought, that really cannot be my low point. There had to be a gut wrenching loss or a bad trade. There had to be something else, right? Well, there isn’t.

I was at UCLA basketball camp. The Warriors were three years removed from Don Nelson pushing Tim Hardaway out of the organization and heading into the '96-'97 season, the Warriors were looking at washed up versions of Mark Price and B.J. Armstrong as their point guard tandem. I was hopeful that the Warriors would pick Section 925er, Santa Clara alum, and Steph Curry prototype, Steve Nash. That did not happen, this did:

David Stern slowly walks to the podium, the TNT camera focuses in on Stern, he looks at the draft card, “with the 11th pick in the…,” he looks at the draft card, “…1996 NBA Draft…,” he looks down at the draft card, “…the Golden State Warriors select Todd…,” he looks down at the draft card, “…Fuller from North Carolina State University.”

My 1996 self did not notice Stern looking back down at the card four separate times in 12 seconds, but since the advent of YouTube I can honestly say that I can account for at least 18 of the 12,403 views associated with the Todd Fuller draft clip. Every time I watch it I try to talk my self into the idea that maybe David Stern keeps looking down at the draft card because he does not want to misspeak at the podium. I really do. But he looks down four times in 12 seconds. 1/4 of the time he is verifying what he is reading is actually true, this can’t be overlooked or under-analyzed.

The key look down moment is after David Stern says “Todd.” When he says “Todd” he is looking dead-on at the camera, just seconds after he had previously looked down. Then he pauses and looks back down right before he says “Fuller,” as if he is flabbergasted as to why the Warriors refuse to make a good draft pick, let alone why in the world anyone would spend a lottery pick on Todd (pause...look down) Fuller.

Not convinced? Compare the Fuller look down to other lottery picks. David Stern either looks at the name the entire time (Allen Iverson and Peja Stojakovic) or looks up the entire time (Marcus Camby and Ray Allen). Generally, this is based on the complexity of the name. Well, Todd Fuller is about as vanilla as you can get. Yet, he looks down. I knew it, you knew, David Stern knew it, and the Warriors must have known that was an awful pick.

Smash cut back to 1996, I'm in the UCLA dorm common area. David Stern just uttered the name of the 11th pick in the draft and 14-year old me’s heart sinks and I blurt out “Are you F**KING serious, that is why we suck.” I remember thinking to myself, “Why do I like this team? Why do I like a team that never wants to get better? Why do we need another slow white center? Are we ever going to be good? What did I do to deserve this?” I should be having teenage angst over a girl that didn't like me back, not an existential crisis about liking a horrible basketball team. I’ve never been more miserable for a worse reason but that was my nadir as a Warriors fan.

In the grand scheme of sports fandom, having Todd Fuller define your low moment is arguably more depressing than say, Kirk Gibson’s walk off, not handing the ball off to Frank Gore, or being a Cold War Russian hockey fan. At least being an A’s or Niners fan meant that you went to the World Series or Super Bowl and being a Russian hockey fan in 1980 meant that you basically hadn’t lost in forever and hadn’t seen "Rocky IV" or "Miracle" yet. Those teams were relevant. True, those moments were historical gut-punch loses, but at least members of those fan bases can collectively share in those low moments. Having Todd Fuller as your low moment is isolating. It’s 12 insignificant seconds in the history of the Warriors that only 12,000 some odd people in the world have cared to actively remember. Nonetheless, because it’s an objectively trivial moment that I have given a lifetime’s worth of importance, to me it's the worst kind of low point.

Being a Warriors fan means truly appreciating the fleeting moments, like a good sideline closeout by Danny Fortson. Being a Warriors fan means growing accustomed to keeping games close, climbing back but never getting over the top, and making a fatal fourth quarter error to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but always getting sucked into thinking we can win next time. Being a Warriors fan means understanding that we will never have the best player and being OK with that. Being a Warriors fan means consistently showing up in the face of assured doom. Being a Warriors fan meant not being defined by our history because we never really had any.

These qualities forged a fan base that irrationally loved many unlovable teams. For the last 25-plus years, Warriors fans have filled the Coliseum/Oracle to near capacity. Inexplicably, they never quit on teams that quit on them. That is not to say that the organization did not push us close to our breaking point on a few occasions. When Chris Cohan low balled Baron Davis and broke up the “We Believe” Warriors, something shifted. Warriors fans had seen competent basketball for the first time in over a decade and in two seasons the Warriors were back to losing over 50 games again.

  (PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

(PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

In 2009, the Warriors drafted Steph Curry. My top three draft options that year were Johnny Flynn, Steph Curry, and Ty Lawson, in that order. In defense of Johnny Flynn I saw the UCONN game that year and became a believer. That draft was the only good and lasting thing that Chris Cohan did for the Warriors besides bring back the “The City” style uniforms and selling the team.

Under new ownership, Warriors fans were exposed to something new, an ownership group that gave a crap about winning. Initially Joe Lacob’s absolute positivity baffled and confused us. Saying something like this: “I'm looking forward to a tremendous ride on our journey to the return to greatness. We will work extremely hard to represent you as the championship organization that you deserve and the team that you will be proud to be a part of,” just doesn’t compute to a Warriors fan in 2010. It was too lofty for me not be skeptical. Return to greatness? When? Championship organization? Yeah, ok.

This attitude boiled over on the disastrous Chris Mullin Jersey Retirement Night when Joe Lacob inexplicably took the mic to address the crowd right after he traded fan favorite Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut. There was a poison in the crowd that I had never seen come out in all my years of watching Warriors hoops. Although Lacob was ultimately vindicated by the trade and correct in his assessment of the Warriors impending success (which were not helped by Rick Berry’s futile pleas to the crowd), he was tone deaf to the emotions of a fan base that had experienced decades of losing and refused to be put on by another owner that they felt was lying to them about working “extremely hard” to build an organization that the fans deserved and could be proud of. The Warriors finished 23-43 that year and the status quo was felt as though it would remain firmly in place.

  (PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

(PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

With Mark Jackson in his second year and a core group of competent players, the 2012-13 Dubs started to give off a “We Believe 2.0” vibe. There was guarded optimism when Steph made it through the season healthy and we actually gave the Spurs a series in the Western Semis. More importantly, basketball was fun to watch again. We played hard. We played creatively. We, as Jalen Rose says, “gave up good shots to get great shots.” We played together. This carried into the 2013-14 season, which ended in the most hopeful and satisfying seven game series loss in all of sports.

I remember thinking last year after the Clippers series, “we can actually be proud of that team.” We were banged up, down in the series, and fought all the way until the end. We were eliminated but there was a pseudo-Spartan romanticism to losing, “with your shield or on it.” I can live with those losses. As a Warriors fan, I am not gut punched by those losses because losing in seven games and going down swinging was better than we, yes “we,” had ever done as long as I had been alive. Were there problems with the team? Yes. But they were fixable basketball problems, not systemic organizational issues that infected and poisoned the team as they had previously.

The 2014-15 season was like playing a season of NBA 2K on a skill level setting which is one below the level that think you might not be able to beat. Sure the computer may go into “no effing way the user wins mode,” at times, but for the most part, everything fell into place perfectly under new head coach Steve Kerr. Losing not only became rare, it became surprising. Literally almost everything went right and success turned into legitimate cultural significance.

Steph gets the most all-star votes, “Steph Curry with the shot,” “Chef Curry with the Pot,” thisthisthis, and this all became things, then we led the Association in wins, offense, and defense, Steph won the MVP, swept NOLA, out-grinded Memphis, overwhelmed Houston, and Riley Curry set the world on fire. Before we could even realize what the hell was going on, we were squaring off in the Finals against the “best player in the world”/ best player of this generation.

  (PHOTO BY EZRA SHAW (@EOSHAW))

(PHOTO BY EZRA SHAW (@EOSHAW))

Going into the Finals my inner Warriors fan took the position that making the Finals was gravy. We haven’t suffered like MJ did against the Pistons or LeBron against the Spurs and Mavs and just making the Finals seemed like enough of a happy ending. Another part of me felt abject fear whenever the name LeBron James was uttered. But still, a part of me remained that said, "hey, we can absolutely win this."

With the exception of Games 2 and 3, where the Cavs played harder and smarter than the Warriors, the Dubs put together four of the most beautiful basketball games I have ever seen. They played their best basketball, on the biggest stage, in the history of the franchise. As the final moments of the fourth quarter of Game 6 ran out I focused on one thing, remember the feeling, soak it in.

It is hard to describe the wave of emotions that come with winning the title. Joy and disbelief were the first that hit. That joy was pervasive for most of the night after Game 6, as I watched interviews and highlights well into the start of the next day.

However, after looking back on that night, witnessing the win in Game 6, reading about the celebration at Morton’s the next day, watching the championship in-flight Coco video, sharing in the happiness with 1,000,000 of my blue and yellow clad basketball friends at the parade, and re-watching the parade on Saturday, one feeling has been present through this entire playoff run and has only grown since the clock hit 0:00, thankfulness.

  (PHOTO BY JASON MILLER)

(PHOTO BY JASON MILLER)

Being in a position where I have no effect on the outcome of the games (contrary to what I tell myself while executing any of my dumb superstitions), I am thankful that I get to watch a team that plays unselfish basketball and does so in a way that it is not only entertaining but, as a basketball junkie, is beautiful to watch. I’m thankful that Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber meant what they said when they bought the team and acted on it. I am thankful that Bob Meyers had the vision to build a championship team out of a mold no one had ever used, or at least used properly. I am thankful that Steve Kerr decided to take a coaching job close to his kids. I am thankful that Kerr surrounded himself with a great coaching staff (and that on some level Bill Walton’s mojo was aimed in the Warriors direction). I am thankful that everyone on the team embraced their roles, even when they changed. I am thankful that Steph Curry has no ceiling, that Iggy has no fear, and that Draymond has no filter.

Most of all I am thankful that we as fans all got to be a part of this ride. When Steph Curry spoke at the parade his first words to the millions in attendance were “We did it! We did it!” WE. It was clear that “We” extended to everyone, not just the team. This Warriors team embraced the motto strength in numbers (in case you missed everything this season) and a big part of that was making us fans feel like we were a part of the team. The MVP continued to emphasize the theme of inclusion, asserting that “We deserve this,” an assurance to the fans that stuck through the lean decades that suffering through every 50-loss season or bad draft was worth this moment of glory.

As I listened and re-listened to Steph’s speech this weekend the overwhelming feeling that runs through me continues to be thankfulness. For all I know, the parade that I went to on Friday may be the only one I will ever get to experience as long as I live. If it is, I am thankful guys like Steph Curry, who made that parade possible, understood the importance of making every fan feel like they just as well could have been up on that stage too. “Celebrate this trophy like there is no tomorrow,” Steph urged the crowd as he closed out his speech.

Thank you, we will.