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Golden Break: Waving, Not Drowning

With roughly four minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday night, someone in the upper deck of the Arena decided to stand up and sit down.  Then he or she got some friends to do it, then the next row, then the next section.  Before you could say "Kelenna Azubuike shooting two," the Arena witnessed its first NBA basketball fan wave since well before Monta Ellis was born.  As the wave crested somewhere around section 122, Kelenna bricked the first free throw and hit the second.  The wave crashed to shore with the resumption of the game a few seconds later.  In its wake, however, we've been left with a question tugging at us like the cold Pacific undertow: what's happened to the Arena crowd?

For those sick of this topic and ready to move onto the Spurs, here's the short answer: we're victims of our own success.  Now move along and get started on figuring out how Kelenna Azubuike is going to guard Tim Duncan.  For those willing to linger for a few more minutes on what it means in April 2008 to be a warm body in the Oracle Arena, here's what I think we're witnessed over the past year.

In March 2007, Warriors fans were a hardy, loyal, world-beaten bunch.  We'd had our hopes dashed so many times that we'd come not only to accept it, but to revel in it. Warriors fans were the ones who would root for their team no matter what the odds or the margin of defeat.  When Paul Wong rolled out his first We Believe sign early in March 2007, I'm guessing it provoked as many cynical chuckles as fervent cheers. Then, as the 2006-07 Warriors gradually started rolling towards the playoffs and picking up speed, something totally unexpected happened: all of those starry-eyed, die-hard Warriors fans went from laughing stock to toast of the town.  After so many years of losing, the fan base had been whittled down to a rabid, committed few -- there for the love of basketball, Bay Area sports, or both.  When we were unleashed on the NBA playoffs, the joy was visceral and pure.  It didn't matter whether the "We Believe" sentiment was stuck on a t-shirt with a Comcast logo or picked up as a David Stern talking point, the fans during the playoff push and Mavs series were part of something special and unforgettable.

What happened next is a quick lesson in consumer culture.  With story upon story lauding the Warriors and their fans, people took notice.  They watched games, bought tickets, and joined the crowd.  It looked like fun, and everyone likes fun.  Some of those new fans immediately took it upon themselves to scour the internet for information on the team, watch every minute of every game, and cheer every Ws' basket as if it could be their last.  Other new fans spent the first quarter of games standing in line for mixed drinks, screamed the loudest during the pizza give-away, and asked you to sit down when you gave Monta or Baron or Jackson a standing o.  We can bitch and moan about the way those fans behaved (and still behave), but the problem doesn't lie in their newness.  We were all new fans once.  We're all riding on this bandwagon together.  Some of us are more recent passengers, sitting closer to the sides.  Some of us are trapped in the center and will be clutching to broken boards long after the shaky contraption lands in a ditch.  

Hokey images aside, the closest analogy to the old / new fan debate is gentrification: crappy neighborhood X gets resurrected by dedicated individuals wanting to improve their home.  As the neighborhood improves, others see what it has to offer and want a piece of the action.  When the new people move in, they can either blend with the neighborhood and contribute to its improvement or set themselves off from the community, defeating the very process from which they sought to benefit.  If there's limited space in the neighborhood, an even tougher process begins by which each new arrival with money to pay for rising property costs signals the departure of one of the old guard, responsible for the value-adding turnaround.  If this is our situation in the Arena - every new fan forces out an old dedicated one - then it's a pretty bleak outlook for those of us left in the stands.  

Fortunately, I don't buy that the gentrification analogy holds entirely.  It works so far as both processes are inevitable.  As the Warriors become more successful, more people will like them and want to be a part of the experience.  It also works in the sense that those "new to the block" should be judged by their actions.  Are you so unaware of what's happening on the court that you're doing a wave during crucial free throws - distracting our own player?  Are you imposing your own idea of when people should stand up or sit down at a basketball game without taking a moment to look around to see whether everyone else in the Arena is standing up and cheering?  Or did you just buy your tickets hoping to sell them off for a profit, maybe to a Lakers fan like the one in front of me last Monday night who offered to knife me when I met his Kobe MVP chants with boos.  If you fall into the above categories, I have a bone to pick with you (but no, I won't knife you).  Otherwise, welcome to crowd.  Cheer early, cheer often, just don't cheer during our free throws.      

The gentrification analogy still holds up on the economic end.  As the Warriors eased into almost-certain sellouts during the second half of this season, seats in the Arena became a scarce commodity.  Chris Cohan knows more about supply and demand curves than jump shots and crossovers, so I had no doubt that the surge in attendance would soon push ticket prices with it.  Season ticket holders got the bad news last month.  Single game buyers better start saving their pennies for the fall.  Some fans won't be able to afford to go to games after this year.  It's a sad fact not worth denying.  

That said, the measure of a fan has never been his or her ability to get into the Arena or stadium or ballpark.  Whether you can drop money on a ticket -- or even live in the same city or state as the Arena -- says nothing about your love for the team.  The community of fans isn't limited like a neighborhood or a stadium.  Whether it's wearing your team's logo with pride, screaming at your computer for the stat-tracker to update, or rambling on for way too long on blogs like this, there are endless ways to represent. One more person joining in doesn't bump another out.  We believe in the same team.

Adam Lauridsen blogs regularly at Fast Break: the San Jose Mercury News' Warriors Fan Blog.  

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