Tyler Blint-Welsh | @tbdubez
As a sports fan born and raised in New York, rooting for my local teams has always proved difficult. The Knicks haven’t been much better than mediocre for the last two decades, the Rangers always seem to leave Gotham City feeling disappointed, and the Jets are -- well they’re the Jets. So living in San Francisco while the Golden State Warriors put together one of, if not the best season in NBA history is certainly a sight to behold.
New York fan bases are definitely loyal (or delusional, depending on how you look at it), but I've discovered nothing comes close to the love that the Bay Area shows Golden State. MUNI flashes “Go Warriors!” on the tickers of the busses, storefronts decorate their display windows with Warriors gear and colors, and restaurants hang “Authentic Fan” posters on their doors like badges of honor. After walking past all this Warriors pride on a daily basis for a few months, I did what any self-respecting sports fan would do: I bought a jersey so I could officially hop on the Dubs bandwagon.
On Friday afternoon as I’m leaving my apartment for the Montgomery St. station at 4:30 P.M. to head to Oracle, I can’t help but get a little giddy as I slip on my 1980’s throwback Stephen Curry jersey. Walking down the street with Warriors gear on in the Bay Area is about the same as having a bullet proof vest -- you just feel like the man. All of the subtle hat tipping and nods of approval fans give you on the street, combined with the jealous stares from the other fans who wish they were on their way to the game like you are, stroke your ego just enough to make you feel like you could hit LeBron James with a double crossover then pull up from the logo in front of a sold out crowd just like Steph.
As I’m waiting to cross the street and head to the train, a waving flag from atop the BART station catches my eye. Typically, buildings fly the American flag, or maybe a state flag if they want be a little different. But BART isn’t typical. No patriotism or no homage to the California Grizzly Bear.
A 10-foot wide bright yellow Golden State Warriors flag gleaming in the sunlight, as just another blatant reminder of where you’re at in case you forgot. Finally inside the station, I put my Stephen Curry-themed BART ticket into the machine and head down to the platform to wait for my train under the bay to Oakland.
It’s 5:18 P.M. when I get off the crowded train, and as the doors open at the Coliseum station a stream of blue and yellow flow out onto the platform. As we all cross the pedestrian bridge connecting BART with Oracle Arena, you see can kids in No. 30 jersey’s running ahead with excitement, and hear grown men gleefully discussing Steph’s latest heroics, (a 31-point effort in an OT win versus Utah.) As the Warriors inch closer and closer to the best regular season record in NBA history, you get the sense that the fans are also aware of the magnitude of the accomplishment. They’re not just at the game to watch their team play. They’re here to make sure the Dubs come out with a win, and you can feel it.
As the doors to Oracle open up at 5:56 P.M., I make a beeline for the tunnel that leads to the Warriors locker room, hoping to get an autograph from the best player in the world. At the railing, there’s a team of a half-dozen security guards trying to keep the dozens of raucous fans in check, reminding us repeatedly that last week a railing at another NBA stadium collapsed because of fans jockeying for position to get a Steph autograph. With about 90 minutes left before tip-off, Curry comes out onto the court for his pregame routine and the crowd is immediately mesmerized by his presence.
As he moves effortlessly around the arc draining trey after trey, you hear comments from fans on his quick release or the flawless arc on his jumpshot, and it starts to make sense why he’s become the darling of the league over the last two seasons. His greatness isn’t linked to his size or strength like Shaq, or to his unmatched athletic ability like LeBron or Jordan. He’s not the best at being strong or athletic; he’s the best at being most skilled. And after he hits his third straight pull-up three from the logo near half court, you realize what exactly that means.
When he finishes his warm-up, he jogs over to the tunnel entrance and begins his autograph rounds, setting off a feeding frenzy amongst all the fans in the area. Despite the ushers barking reminders of the rules, and throwing stone cold stares at fans who refuse to follow them, every fan leaned over the glass divider hoping to get their memorabilia in range for the "Baby Faced Assassin" to sign.
Having watched games at other stadiums, I’ve noticed that most NBA players usually jog back into the tunnel and give fans some high-fives or sign just a few autographs after warm-ups. But Steph took the time to sign every single shirt, jersey, hat, or shoe in his sight, even making multiple rounds down the aisle. The humility and character shown in that moment helped shed some more light on why the Bay Area fans are so passionate about their team. There’s a mutual sense of respect and appreciation between the players and the fans that I don’t think exists in any other city. After all, no other city’s home team was heading into Friday night with a year-and-a-half long home winning streak.
Warriors fans unconditionally love their team and as a result, the team unconditionally loves their fans. As me and about thirty other fans try to contain our excitement as we walk away from the aisle with Curry’s autograph in our hands, my friend and I get some drinks, and settle into our seats.
With less than an hour left before tip-off, Oracle slowly gets more and more packed, the vibe getting set by Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo blasting through the arena speakers. My friend and I managed to sneak into the lower bowl despite our tickets being in the nosebleeds of the stadium, and being that close to the court makes you appreciate what it means to be in the NBA. The purpose the players put behind every movement, the level of focus and dedication they have to live with, and the sheer skill necessary to be amongst the best 450 players in the world isn’t something you ever really think about until you’re sitting about 200 feet away from some of them.
Since we were in a section we didn’t have tickets for, we got bumped to almost ten different spots before settling in behind a group of Warriors and Celtics fans dressed as leprechauns and pots of gold. As the lights dim and the starting lineup gets announced, you feel the stadium start to rumble, culminating with a roar from the sellout crowd as the PA announcer introduced everyone’s favorite "6’3’’ guard out of Davidson." The game begins with two straight Draymond Green treys, and both were followed by deafening screams from the thousands of fans jumping up and down with joy.
After the second three, one of the pots of gold in front of us puts his hands back for a high-five and introduces himself. For the rest of the game, we slapped five after every single Warrior basket. Five minutes and about a dozen high-fives into the game, I’m convinced that no other environment in the league can compare to Oracle. The fans don’t just clap or cheer when their team scores; they jump up and and make it a point to get as loud as possible every single time. The cheers are louder than any other stadium, and the boo’s and insulting chants hurled at the refs are intense enough to almost make you feel bad for them.
The leprechaun sitting in front of us was the lone Celtics fan in the section, and after every crowd roar in response to a Warriors big play, he slinked deeper and deeper into his chair, almost as if he was embarrassed to show off the Kevin Garnett jersey hung around his neck like a cape.
At halftime the Warriors found themselves in an unfamiliar position: losing? Steph had just six points and turned the ball over seven times, and the Celtics were absolutely suffocating the Dubs on the perimeter. Regardless, you got the sense that every single fan assumed the Warriors were going to come out on top in the end. In the third quarter, Curry erupted for a 21 point period, opening up his entire repertoire to try and put away the gritty Celtics all on his own. He hit pull-ups, stepbacks, a shot from about a foot in front of the logo, and after each you could feel his confidence building more and more off the unrestrained energy of the Oracle faithful, punctuated by a deep three over Isaiah Thomas while his mouth guard hung from the side of his mouth. Despite his efforts, Golden State still found themselves down three points heading into the fourth, leading a woman behind me to comment, “They’re losing, this is so unusual.”
And for a team that’s won 90% of their games by an average of over ten points, it certainly was. When the starters got reinserted to the game after the bench let the team fall behind by as many as nine, the crowd started to feel the sense of urgency, and responded accordingly. The relatively civil high-fives from the man in front of me turned into us jumping in the air and slapping hands as hard as possible before waving our hands in the air to pump up the crowd. The anticipation the Oakland faithful showed as every shot rotated to the basket felt even more anxiety filled than before. The cheers of the first half turned into voice straining roars that made Oracle feel like it was trembling.
Yet somehow, none of it was enough. The Celtics were poised and confident, unfazed by the craziest fans in the NBA. When Steph’s final shot of the game clanked off the rim, and Harrison Barnes’ last gasp attempt to tie the game bounced off the backboard, the collective disbelief of the fans was more powerful than any of their collective excitement. The arena, whose bright yellow floor almost invites happiness and excitement, felt like all its occupants just witnessed a murder. Fans held their hands over their heads, children began to tear up, and the Warriors started slowly making their way back through the tunnel, looking more dejected than I’d ever seen them before.
As the stadium emptied out, one fan pointed out that fact that they still have 68 wins on the year. And after that, the loss seemed to sting just a little bit less.
I realized then, I was just lucky to be there.