Regardless of the team's record, Warriors fans are always out in full force at Oracle Arena.
Despite a long tradition of mediocrity, the Warriors have filled 95 percent of their seats over the last seven years.
Part of the team’s appeal has been its affordability. The average seat costs $35.70—that is $87.52 per ticket less than the New York Knicks.
Second-year guard Klay Thompson high-fives the loyal home fans on his way out of the tunnel.
“Nobody here is stupid,” says hardcore Warriors fan LaeCharles Lawrence, left. ”If we were the owners, we’d want to make a buck, too.”
Co-owners Joe Lacob (left) and Peter Guber are applauded for reviving the team—and reviled for wanting to move it.
We are in the backseat of a well-worn minivan, heading south from Berkeley along Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It is a rainy Tuesday night in January, and the vehicle is pungent with taqueria, its passengers gingerly dismantling burritos as flurries of tinfoil shards and tortilla chips drift down to the floor mats. Dinner, pregame-style.
We are headed to Oakland to see the Golden State Warriors host the Oklahoma City Thunder. Our driver is John Fike, a 51-year-old high school teacher in Berkeley and, like the two friends he is ferrying, a season ticket holder for some 15 years. Fike is an unrepentant basketball junkie, a former middle and high school coach and referee and, until hurting a hip last year, an active member of two regular pickup games. When he’s not at Warriors games, the married father of three is posting on Warriors message boards and watching the team play on TV. His basketball identity is defined not only by a love of the sport, but also by a wry acceptance of the sustained awfulness of the team he adores. The Warriors have embodied mediocrity for most of the last 20 years, making the playoffs only once since the 1993–94 season, while finishing below .300 twice as often (four times) as above .500 (two).
“One year, they passed out shirts at the arena with a picture of [marginal prospect] Larry Hughes on them and the phrase ‘We’re on to something,’” says Paul Lecky, 52, an Emeryville attorney who is sitting shotgun. “Then John crossed out the word ‘to,’ so that it read, ‘We’re on something.’ That just seemed more appropriate.”
In spite of its losing tradition, Golden State has somehow managed to fill an average of more than 95 percent of its seats over the last seven seasons—a testament to the loyalty (and patience!) of its East Bay fan base. These days, however, fans are actually coming to see the Warriors win. The team is in the midst of its best season since it went 48–34 in 2007–08 (while nonetheless missing the playoffs). These Warriors even boast two bona fide stars, Stephen Curry and David Lee, who in February became the team’s first All-Star since Latrell Sprewell in 1997. After nearly 16 years under the derelict ownership of cable TV magnate Chris Cohan—whom Yahoo labeled “the worst owner in the NBA” in 2009—the Warriors were purchased in 2010 for a record $450 million by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. The duo set about upgrading the organization, from facility to personnel, with inspired front-office selections and the first semblance of institutional competence in decades.
Now, Warriors merchandise sales are up, network TV exposure has increased, and wildly lucrative receipts from playoff games are within reach (at press time, the team was 44–33, two games away from clinching a playoff spot). Indeed, as Fike’s minivan spins onto 880 after adding one more member to its retinue in downtown Oakland, there’s no dismissing the atmosphere of excitement inside the car. The mighty Thunder is among the NBA’s best teams, but for once the Warriors’ faithful believe that their team actually has a shot at winning. These are, without a doubt, the best of times for the team’s long-suffering East Bay fans—except for one not-so-small problem: The Warriors want nothing more than to leave them behind.
If the Warriors’ owners have their way, the Oakland-based fans who have stuck by their hometown squad through four decades of disappointment will, within a few years, no longer have a team—at least not like they do now. At this point, it’s old news: Lacob and Guber’s ownership group is actively pursuing a privately financed 17,500-seat arena in downtown San Francisco, set to open in time for the 2017–2018 season. They’ve already hired the star Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta to design their dream home—which could cost upwards of $1 billion to build—in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. Such an edifice would bring a new type of venue to San Francisco, a palace dedicated not just to basketball, but also to attracting large indoor concerts and events for which the city currently has no adequate facility.
From a financial standpoint, the move is an easy call. From an emotional standpoint, though—at least for many fans in the 510 area code, particularly in the embattled neighborhoods surrounding the Coliseum—it’s nothing short of a betrayal. Oakland, long beset by municipal struggles, is in a particularly dark place at the moment. Crime is climbing; the police force is effectively being run by expensive East Coast consultants; the political leadership is at best feckless, at worst corrupt; and even the thriving art community is reeling from a fatal shooting at its beloved First Friday event. It seems that the only good news out of the city lately has come courtesy of the guys in the funky yellow pinstriped shorts. For the Warriors, an arena in San Francisco could mean great things—a massive infusion of capital, a facility to attract top NBA talent, and a location tailor-made for national TV glamour shots. What it would mean for fans on the wrong side of the Bay Bridge, however, is, above all, a heartbreaking loss of self.
Tonight, though, as we sit inside Oracle Arena—section 110, row 6, not far from Lacob’s courtside seat—that future betrayal seems very far away. Most of Fike’s group have owned season tickets for decades, long enough to transition the endeavor from a guys’-night-out activity to something that fathers do with their children. And right now, they are proud papas indeed: Their Warriors are taking it to the Thunder. Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant is unstoppable with 33 points, but Curry nearly matches him with 31, and the Warriors pour in 11 of the game’s final 16 points to snatch a 104–99 victory. The arena roars as the team shimmies off the court, Fike and friends high-fiving strangers as they filter toward the parking lot. It may be shocking to consider such a thing, but this kind of victory is becoming almost routine. Fike calls his nights watching the Warriors from his premium seat location “my little taste of the 1 percent.”
The Englander Sports Bar and Restaurant, located in San Leandro just four miles from Oracle Arena, serves as an inexpensive alternative for ticketless Warriors fans. Just up the freeway, Golden State is about to tip off against the Dallas Mavericks, and David Kehn, 43, a database administrator in Oakland, has reserved the big wooden table in the center of the room for maximum flat-screen vantage. Kehn is the founder of the online forum WarriorsRoundtable.com, and he is here tonight to meet a handful of the site’s moderators. When he was a teenager in Orinda, Kehn attended dozens of games each year with his father—floor seats, no less—for the princely 1984 sum of $25 apiece. He has spent the ensuing decades commingling his own identity with that of the team, and he is not happy with the potential move west. “I have no love for San Francisco sports teams at all,” he says. “The Warriors would be as cut off from me by moving across the bay as they would be if they moved out of state. San Francisco teams are the enemy.”
The moderators filter in slowly. Mike Moresi, 43, is the only one whom Kehn has met in person (they went to high school together in Orinda). The rest arrive separately, despite all having come from San Jose. Rob Vallez, 31, is a customer service rep. Joshua Affonso, 25, studies music composition. At age 20, Ray Arcayena Jr. is the baby of the bunch, but he has been contributing to the board since he was 14 and has been a moderator since age 17. Each of the men attends only a handful of games each season, but watches religiously on TV. As they get to know each other, a comfortable pattern develops: that of the lovable loser.
Arcayena: “We don’t know why we’re Warriors fans.”
Affonso: “I just started admitting it to strangers recently.”
Moresi: “Ever since Don Nelson got rid of Webber, then got fired the next year, it’s been a tough proposition.”
Ah, yes, Chris Webber—a perennial sore spot for Warriors fans, even those of perpetual optimism. In 1993, the team mortgaged its future by packaging soon-to-be superstar Anfernee Hardaway and three first-round draft picks for the rights to the University of Michigan standout, then signed him to a contract that inexplicably included an escape clause after the first year. Webber exercised it, and the franchise is only now fully recovering.
The discussion inevitably slides toward documentation of other Warriors failures: busted first-round draft picks like Patrick O’Bryant and Ike Diogu, and the granddaddy of them all, Todd Fuller—an oversize lumberer whom the Warriors selected in 1996, two spots ahead of a teenage Kobe Bryant. Soon, we turn to the team’s unknown future. “With my head, I think they’ll make more money and have a better chance at winning championships if they move to San Francisco,” says Moresi, who owns a construction business in Alameda. “With my heart, I think it sucks. I’ll keep rooting for the Warriors, but I will never, never wear any gear that says ‘San Francisco’ on it. Never.”
For now, however, Moresi is rooting with gusto. His team picks him up: Even with Curry nursing a sprained ankle on the bench, Golden State breaks open a 92–92 tie, utilizing five free throws and a Jarrett Jack 3-pointer down the stretch to ice a 100–97 victory. Second-year guard Klay Thompson leads all scorers with 27 points. The win feels good, but, nonetheless—for these men, anyway—slightly tainted. “When they move into that new arena, the edge that makes us so unique as a fan base will be gone,” says Kehn as he rises to leave the bar. “It will be all corporate. They had better put some solid product out there, because if you have another 17 years of crap, that building won’t have nearly the vibe that Oakland has right now, no matter how nice they make it.”
The Warriors are positioning their new stadium as a basketball mecca, but really, it has nothing on the Bladium gym. Set in an old navy hangar in Alameda, the Bladium is an indoor sports wonderland with an abundance of playing fields, a climbing wall, and a full workout facility. Its high school–size basketball court, wedged between two soccer fields, is where Miles Tarver is setting up a shot-return device under the north stanchion. Tarver, the 6-foot-8 program director of Triple Threat Academy, a kid oriented basketball-skills program that operates here, is expecting a class of 10- to 13-year-old girls to arrive in a half hour.
The 36-year-old was born in San Francisco but grew up in Oakland, where his fandom was sufficiently robust that he still has an autographed photo given to him at the Bayfair Mall in the early 1990s by once-promising Warriors forward Billy Owens. (The focus of another awful personnel move, Owens was acquired from Sacramento in 1991 in exchange for fan favorite Mitch Richmond.) Tarver played some himself, winning a state basketball championship at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School—about 3.5 miles southeast of where he is preparing the court—alongside future NBA legend (and current New York Knick) Jason Kidd. He then starred for the University of Minnesota (leading the Golden Gophers to the Final Four in 1997), and played pro ball in Finland and in the International Basketball League. But while he may have worn a multitude of jerseys, he has remained loyal to just one. “I’m a lifelong Warriors fan, suffering and proud,” he says. Tarver is a regular at Oracle, largely because he gets tickets from the parents of his students. His home, just off Seminary Avenue, allows him to accept a last-minute offer and be inside the arena parking lot within 10 minutes. Proximity, however, is way down on the list of reasons he would hate to see the team leave.
“Oakland has soul,” Tarver says. “It’s a blue-collar city, and there’s a reflection of that when you go to the games. There are a lot of working-class families there, just like mine was when my stepfather took me, back when I was a kid.” He doesn’t go so far as to belittle the perceived wine-and-cheese culture of San Francisco, but he clarifies that Oakland is more of a “Hennessy–and–hot dog crowd.” “When the team moves to San Francisco,” he adds, “there’s going to be a huge loss.” Tarver returns frequently to the idea of Oakland pride and what role the Warriors play in it. The fact that the city’s other two sports franchises—the A’s and the Raiders—have also actively, publicly, humiliatingly been exploring the possibility of leaving town makes a potential Warriors move weigh even more heavily.
“There’s always been a sense in Oakland of being the underdog,” Tarver says. “San Francisco usually gets the pub for being the city in the Bay Area. Whenever they show a nationally televised game in Oakland, they show clips of San Francisco’s skyline. We’ve come to accept that because we know what we are and because we have the team. If they take that away, though, who knows how much will change?”
Pappy’s Grill & Sports Bar, just a couple of blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus, is a barbecue joint geared toward the college crowd, but the Warriors hold significant purchase. Tonight is not a good night for them, though, as they fall behind Houston by some 30 points before the fourth quarter. Watching the big screen from a table in the corner is LaeCharles Lawrence Jr., a 44-year-old web developer from Oakland who is best known for his YouTube videos espousing East Bay pride. (In his most-viewed appearance, on a video called “Berkeley Enough,” he excoriates his pal, Los Angeles musician–rapper David “D.J. Dave” Wittman of “Whole Foods Parking Lot” fame, for losing touch with his Berkeley roots.)
The extra-large Lawrence is wearing an extra-large Warriors jacket, his full head of dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail as he tucks into a decidedly un-barbecued meal of salad and iced tea. He remembers going to games as a child in the 1970s with his father, LaeCharles Lawrence Sr., a naval gunner’s mate based in Alameda. His fandom is as resolute as his hometown pride, but the man is relentlessly objective. “Nobody here is stupid—if we were the owners of the Warriors, we’d want to make a buck, too,” he says. “That said, the prices will be going up if they build that arena. San Francisco corporations are going to latch on quickly, and the seats they buy will be the ones currently held by fans. It’s almost like gentrification, where they just push out the people who are already there.”
This is the final piece of the puzzle of local anguish. Warriors games aren’t just convenient for Oakland fans—they’re also (relatively) affordable. The $35.70 average ticket price ranks 23rd out of 30 NBA teams, according to Statista.com, $6.43 more than the bottom-rung Charlotte Bobcats, but a whopping $87.52 less than the top-ranked New York Knicks. The latter discrepancy will almost certainly change when the team arrives at its new waterfront digs.
Lawrence’s friend Ethan Roberts, 41, a Berkeley High alum, wanders in mid-conversation and jumps right in. “The Haas family owned the A’s in the 1980s, when they were one of the best teams in baseball, and for most of the decade you could afford to go to a game,” he says. “We need a benevolent billionaire to step in and help this community like that when it comes to the basketball team.”
The sentiment isn’t quite Occupy the Hardwood, but it’s similar, speaking to the helplessness felt by the Warriors’ fan base—the blow to their pride being compounded by the anticipated blow to their pocketbooks. The truth is, many of them can barely afford to attend games as it is, and billionaire benevolence can go only so far. Lacob and Guber have spoken at length about keeping things affordable; about how nearly half of all Warriors fans are from non–East Bay places like the Peninsula and Marin and San Francisco; how BART will deposit fans just as close to the new arena as it does to the current one; how the westbound drive across the Bay Bridge will be against traffic; how there will be 14,000 parking spaces within a 20-minute walk; and how that particular slice of San Francisco waterfront is just about the most central location one could acquire when seeking convenience for the Bay Area at large. Emotionally, however, places like Hillsborough and Pacifica and Fairfax do not need the Warriors in the way that West Oakland and Fruitvale and Alameda need them. For many denizens of the area surrounding Oracle Arena, this basketball team isn’t just an entertaining diversion—it’s a member of the family.
As NBA owners go, Joe Lacob is a natural for the role of the loving, if paternalistic, Team Dad. His hands-on involvement with the Warriors—he sits courtside for virtually every home game and makes himself available to the fans around him—has had an undeniable impact on the team. (His business partner, Guber, based in Los Angeles, is less often in attendance.) It’s a testament to Lacob’s openness that he’s agreed to a discussion about everything I’ve been hearing from the team’s anxious followers. We meet privately inside Oracle Arena’s interview room, where head coach Mark Jackson will give his postgame press conference later.
Lacob is personable, earnest, and accessible—in sharp contrast to the evasive public figure cut by his predecessor, Cohan—and he is a bona fide basketball junkie. He has held Warriors season tickets since 1998, is a regular at Stanford games, owned a piece of the Boston Celtics before purchasing the Warriors, and was an investor in the women’s American Basketball League. (He is late to our meeting because he was watching a Lakers game on TV.) This fandom is what has him so wrapped up in the Oracle Arena experience, which he and the arena’s owners recently augmented with $4 million in scoreboard and audiovisual upgrades, despite the team’s plans to leave four seasons hence.
Lacob is certainly entitled to a new arena if he can get one—Oracle is the NBA’s oldest—and the fact that he has not publicly explored moving the team from the Bay Area is worth something. Why, though, can he not build an arena here in Oakland, on either the existing site or one closer to downtown? In 2011, Oakland mayor Jean Quan unveiled a vague plan for something called “Coliseum City,” which was to include venues for the Warriors, the A’s, and the Raiders, as well as a plethora of retail outlets, restaurants and hotels, and a convention center. Why does that project hold so little interest? Why can’t Lacob have his cake while continuing to feed the hungriest members of his fan base?
“It’s a good question,” he says. “We tried to talk to Oakland—had several meetings, actually—and just didn’t get very far with the administration. They may have been early in their thinking at that point, but we were also getting a very warm reception from San Francisco. We began to deal with a proactive mayor [Ed Lee] to come up with a spectacular site that happens to be fortuitously available.”
The meetings with Quan took place in late 2011 and early 2012, after she had floated the idea of Coliseum City but before the team had come to an agreement with San Francisco on the proposed waterfront location. The trouble, says Lacob, was that Quan was alarmingly short on details (a verifiable claim, inasmuch as the mayor is still short on details: Quan’s office would not respond to numerous requests for comment). “We kept talking to her about ideas, but they never gave us an answer and kept asking us to wait,” says Lacob. “Our lease here expires in 2017, and it’s going to take five years to build an arena, no matter where we do it. I guess we could have sat and waited another year until she got it pulled together, [but] they really didn’t have any idea of what to do.”
At this point, I bring up the story of Paul Nunn, a 40-year-old mental health rehabilitator who lives one exit away from the arena, in San Leandro, and who has been a Warriors season ticket holder for the last three years. In October 2010, Nunn’s 18-year-old son, Kwame, was killed by gunfire at a party. The Nunn family—Paul and his wife, Tricia, also have two daughters, Kayla, 12, and Kyra, 6—was devastated. Basketball had always been a refuge for them—game night was family night—and when they needed it most, the sport came through. Lacob made sure of that.
“Joe Lacob emailed me multiple times,” says Nunn, who hadn’t previously met the owner. “We’re still in contact—he talks about his kids with me and asks what I think about the team.” Lacob covered Nunn’s ticket costs for the remainder of that season. Around Christmas, guard Monta Ellis showed up at the Nunns’ house with autographed balls and memorabilia for the girls and smiles and hugs for the parents.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Nunn has a difficult time stomaching the proposed move. Why, when faced with spending up to $1 billion for a San Francisco arena, couldn’t the team’s owners simply drop similar (or less) money in Oakland? “I don’t know why you’d go to the unknown when you know that you’re selling out every game right here,” he says.
The mention of Nunn’s name sparks immediate emotion in Lacob. “For Paul’s family, what we did was a really big deal. We’re trying to provide entertainment and make money and win games, but it’s also about having a positive impact on people’s lives. I know that basketball isn’t as important as some things—but it is for some people.”
With that, Lacob hits on the notion that I’ve been trying with such difficulty to square: The man’s genuine sentiment toward an individual fan— every individual fan, even—simply does not translate when it comes to the masses. Wanting to move the Warriors from a depressed area hardly makes Lacob evil—every owner who has ever relocated a team has had to face similar circumstances, and few have done so as thoughtfully as the Warriors boss—but it puts him in some particularly tricky crosshairs.
Instead of stumbling for answers that aren’t there, Lacob does the only thing he can. Part businessman, part basketball fan, and all optimist, he turns his attention in the one direction that makes any sense: forward. “It’s very hard to make everybody happy,” he says. “I struggle with that because I always want to please people. Some people are going to be unhappy with us moving no matter what, and if we do end up moving, I’m sorry for them.”
He pauses and smiles. “But I’d also really like to convince them that they’ll enjoy going to San Francisco as well.”
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.