On February 28, after losing 113-83 to the Chicago Bulls, Don Nelson said "it doesn't look like it's going to work out this year." On May 3, the Golden State Warriors beat the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6 to seal the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. "We Believe" went from a lone homemade sign, to a punch-line among die-hards, to a local rallying cry, to a national catch phrase. It's hard to say that Bay Area pro basketball was reborn last spring (because it never truly flat-lined), but the roars of the Arena woke it from a long, dark night. So, now what?
We've spent the entire off-season talking about the changes and challenges ahead for this team. It's worth spilling at least a few thousand words over what's ahead for us: the fans. Not that anyone has forgotten, but let's set the stage with a quick rundown of the last few months in the Golden State.
The night of May 3 was the greatest moment to be a Warriors fan since the team hoisted its championship trophy in 1975. There aren't enough sports clichés to capture how Game 6 felt. I remember the small, frail woman in the row behind me - in her mid 60s - repeatedly stringing together an assortment of words you can't say on television with "Mark Cuban," "Dirk," and "the entire state of Texas." When it was over - after the Jackson threes, the Barnes dunk, the Richardson scream, the Pietrus crowdsurfing - I remember high-fiving fellow fans who would have been complete strangers but for the names on their ill-fitting jerseys. Davis, Richardson, Ellis, but also Mullin, Jamison, Webber, and even Sprewell. It was as if the whole extended family - even those members long gone - was back in the building to celebrate. I couldn't field congratulatory phone calls in the parking lot thanks to the steady pops of fireworks (or were those gunshots?). I woke up the next morning with ringing ears, no voice, a throbbing head, and a sense of total accomplishment. Past Warriors players suffered through losses only for their years on the team. As fans, however, we never got traded away to winners. We might not have been out on the court sinking baskets, but we rightfully took pride in our endurance in the stands and glued to our radios and TVs.
Beating the Mavs was good for a two-day buzz. Then reality started to scrape the shine off our newfound glory. We had flat legs (and free throws) in Utah. Next came ugly fouls and laughable (literally) technicals, topped off with a creeping sense that lightening wasn't going to strike twice. Still, even in defeat, there was excitement. I was ready for the 08 season to start the moment Utah won the right to be cannon fodder for the Spurs. The loss seemed like a bump in the road, not the end of what we'd started.
Then June rolled around and things got weird. Mullin and company replaced Jason Richardson's broad shoulders with Brandan Wright's big ears. Only time will tell whether the move made the team better. But we recognized instantly that Jason would be missed for far more than the digits in the box scores. In July, some people confused the Warriors for their fantasy basketball team. They were sorely disappointed when the opposing owner hit the reject button on their proposed 5-for-1 swap. Things got heavier in August with lots of money talk. When the dust settled at the end of September, Foyle was gone and Nellie was back. Now, we're left with a team that looks just enough like last year's squad to remind us how great they were, but not close enough for us to start printing playoff tickets. This uncertainty worked its way out in strange ways. I hope never again to care about preseason basketball as much as I have this year.
With real basketball just around the corner, the wait's almost over. The question is what are we waiting for? If we're expecting another run like last year, we're going to be bitterly disappointed. What we saw (and heard) during the spring was years in the making. We bottled up a decade plus of frustration, shook it manically with an all-or-nothing sprint to the finish line, and then popped the cork by knocking off the best team in basketball. You only get to be the long shot once. The Warriors aren't lovable losers anymore. On the shock and awe scale, we should expect less from this team in 08.
When it comes to winning basketball games, however, we should expect more. If I had to guess (and I do, because I'm as new at this Warriors-as-winners business as everyone else), I'd say the year ahead holds subtler pleasures. I'll have less of an us-versus-the-world chip on my shoulder now that we're on national cable more than the Toronto Raptors and people actually know where "Golden State" plays. I can swell with pride each time the NBA replays in one of its constant league promos Baron's destruction of AK-47 or the pain on Cuban's face. (David Stern, try a new punishment next time Cuban gets out of line: make him rewatch the Warriors' series start to finish.) There might never be another post-game interview beer for Nelson or pre-game pat-down for Jackson, but after the 2007 training camp tattoo exhibition, I have no doubts that this group will always find new ways to entertain. The last 20 games of this season aren't likely be as thrilling as The Run, but the first 62 should be a whole lot better than what DunMurphy and endless injuries gave us last year. If we make the playoffs, there's no way it'll be a bigger rush than shocking the world. But then again, I don't have the faintest idea what it feels like to win a second round series. I'd sure like to find out.
Success creates expectations. Rising to those expectations earns respect. And for a team still dismissed by much of the NBA as a fluke, respect seems like a damn good thing to play for in 08.
Read Adam regularly at the San Jose Mercury News' Warriors Fan Blog: Fast Break.