Although this will be my second season following the Santa Cruz Warriors - if only from afar at times - I probably wouldn't call myself a D-League "fan" just yet: for the most part, I'm still following the team as a function of my Golden State Warriors fandom.
It was pretty easy to zero in on a NBA theme in last night's 121-101 win against the Reno Bighorns, the first game I've attended this season: Golden State affiliate player Seth Curry was going up against Sacramento Kings assignee Ray McCallum, a promising second round pick who is on the same assignment-recall yo-yo that we've seen Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Tyler and (possibly) Nemanja Nedovic on. That battle alone, as well as the decision to have Cam Jones take over the defensive assignment after the first quarter, was enough to consume most of my attention.
Yet while sitting courtside at Kaiser Permanente Arena - which doesn't exactly have a particularly expansive media section, meaning every game is a new experience - I was reminded of one of the things that makes me keep coming back to the D-League even when there isn't a matchup on the floor with NBA implications.
Reno Bighorns starting center Mikki Moore, who last played in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors in 2012, would definitely be one of those players who you'd want to ask about his decision to return to the D-League not only instead of going overseas but also perhaps instead of retiring. When asked by a staff member if I'd take the over or under on the 38-year-old Moore having played for 10 teams, I instinctively took the over even before I'd even counted the teams he had been on - I would've lost that bet, though not by much.
At this point in his career, Moore doesn't have quite the incentive to impress as some of the younger guys who NBA execs are evaluating. Yet you wouldn't know it from his sideline demeanor: Moore was totally lost in the game, wearing a seemingly permanent mean mug while attentively watching from the bench and lamenting every mistake he made on the court.
Sitting just a few feet away from him when he returned to the bench after picking up two quick fouls in the first quarter, I was able to hear all the sage instructions and encouraging words he was yelling at teammates from the bench throughout the game.
"Hey B," said Moore, capturing my attention for the first time as teammate Brandon Heath got up to go to the scorer's table to replace DeQuan Jones who had also picked up a second foul in the first quarter. "Just flop - that's all they doin'."
Ok, so many of Moore's most vehement, er, engaged words were directed at the refs who were, um, not doing a satisfactory job, if I can paraphrase Moore's statements from the bench. But seeing a guy like Moore completely immersed in the flow of the game and Heath sitting anxiously on the bench - as in, at one point not even able to sit still - saying he just wanted to get back in to play, makes these players somehow easier to relate to than the NBA players who, fair or not, can seem to be going through the motions at times. Listening to his running commentary - both his refutations of the refs' interpretations of the rules of basketball and conversations he was having with teammates - it was clear this was a dude who just absolutely loves basketball, contrary to the dominant stereotypes of NBA players as millionaire prima donas who crave fame above all else.
RT @SherwoodStrauss: I just wish more NBA games felt like events, as opposed to something teams and fans are slogging through.— RealGM (@RealGM) November 27, 2013
Of course, the Santa Cruz Warriors are not without those guys: D-League veterans Maurice Baker and Taylor Griffin are both guys whose NBA hopes are fading, if alive at all, who continue to show up and give everything they have even as their playing time is directly impacted by every Golden State assignee who's given minutes to build confidence. And then there's 5-foot-7 Kiwi Gardner, who is chasing a dream a bit more distant than the other players on the court and has quickly become a fan favorite.
Video from Larry Rachleff during Santa Cruz's win over the Austin Toros.
Asked by media what he thought of the blowout win in which "We Want Kiwi" chants erupted early in the fourth quarter after the outcome of the game was seemingly no longer in doubt, Gardner mentioned in passing, "It was kinda awkward."
But he's going to have to get used to the awkward victory cigar-ish attention from Santa Cruz fans: it's almost impossible not to root for this guy. Throughout the game, he's up off the bench cheering, high-fiving teammates, and just being a great teammate; as a familiar point of reference, Gardner is Santa Cruz's answer to what Bazemore gave us from Golden State's bench last year. It's easy to at once acknowledge the awkwardness of those moments on the path to his dream and yet find it impossible to avoid cracking a smile when entire sections of kids exhort coach Casey Hill to give him some run.
Gardner brought all that energy he had been bottling up on the bench to bear on the game almost immediately and the crowd matched it: every time the man touches the ball, every deflection, every steal, the crowd erupts in cheers. And the place went completely nuts when Gardner took an outlet pass from fellow rookie Orion Outerbridge, started looking up at the rim as if intending to get a transition dunk regardless of who was in front of him, and headed toward the basket. Had Gardner actually dunked on Jones, or even missed a dunk attempt, there might now exist a crater where Kaiser Permanente Arena still stands - even with satisfied fans already leaving the building throughout the fourth quarter, the 2544 fans in attendance got about as loud as it had been all night when Gardner managed to put enough touch on the ball to roll the ball into the basket while taking contact and getting the and-1 opportunity for his first (regular season) points in a D-League uniform.
"I'm the youngest on the team so everybody - besides messing with me and joking with me and picking on me - they really help me a lot and really encourage me a lot," Gardner said when asked about his teammates. "They want me to when I get in (to) 'Shoot the ball, shoot the ball.' But, you know, I learn a lot here. It's awesome being here. In practice I'm learning a lot. Coach Hill teaches us a lot every time we get out.
"It's all about getting better and we just get better everyday. And I think the guys, the vets, do a really good job of helping me get better. So I'm appreciative of that. It's not often that you got guys that's really going to take you under their wing and really show you the ropes...With them just embracing me and taking me in it's awesome - it's a beautiful thing."
Santa Cruz has rallied around this team in ways that we're not totally accustomed to seeing in pro sports these days, at least not in the mainstream media. And it's easy to see why: of course, this has become THE event to attend in a city that can begin slowing down during the winter months in less than a year. Yet aside from the standard reasoning that there simply isn't anything else to do there, it's really difficult not to get caught up in what's going on down there.
It won't be the best basketball around for Bay Area fans who are finally being rewarded for years of irrationally sticking with the Warriors. But from a very fundamental human perspective, there's a type of joy you can get from watching these games that isn't all that common in pro sports.