I heard the legendary Jim Barnett interviewed on 95.7 the Game the other day.
The Warriors had just nailed down an NBA record 45th straight home win the night before, so Barnett was asked about the Oracle home court advantage. The usual platitudes: It's the best I've ever known...The fans are always so supportive and loud...They've always packed this place even in bad times.
Like any Warriors fan, I loved every second of it. That affirmation of our investment, and our contribution to a historically great team -- what could be better? Except a small part of me realized that Barnett's words were simply untrue.
The narrative that Oracle Arena was always rocking, always drawing fans, and always a fearsome place to play is a myth. A sweet-sounding, delicious, self-serving myth, but a myth nonetheless. And an unnecessary one.
I'm 31 years old. Not old enough to have seen the Warriors at the Cow Palace, but old enough to have seen the entirety of the Warriors' post-Chris Webber nadir. I started following basketball closely in 1994 or 1995, and I remained a committed fan through the early 2000s, We Believe, and up until now. If you weren't there, trust me: Back in the Chris Cohan days, the arena did a lot of things, but it hardly rocked unless the team had earned the fans free tacos for scoring 100 points (inevitably, in a loss).
Back in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s, the Warriors were a miserable team. Hopeless. You think the 76ers are bad, now? At least Philly has a knowable plan. The Warriors had no plan. They were a collection of role players forced into starring roles (B.J. Armstrong), marginal talents (Bill Curley) and a slew of misfit draft selections. They rarely resembled a professional basketball team.
The fans responded with their wallets. Attendance fell below 13,000 fans per game for multiple seasons. Against other bad teams, entire lower bowl sections looked abandoned. Tickets couldn't be given away. No sports network would mention the team, even in passing. The newspaper was far more concerned with major sports -- like baseball and football -- no matter the time of year.
Every game was marketed as an opportunity to watch Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, or Karl Malone and John Stockton. You know, actual basketball stars. And when those teams came to town, they laid an epic beat down on the home team. Everyone cheered. Why? Because most weren't even Warriors fans, at least not that night. The holy grail of watching basketball in Oakland was, without question, seeing the Bulls come to town. Seeing the Warriors win wasn't even a secondary consideration.
This is the honest truth: if you were a big fan back then, you were potentially the only one you knew. Every fan I've met from that period remembers getting excited about Jason Caffey and Danny Fortson. Or Vonteego Cummings and Bimbo Coles (if you don't recognize these names, there's a reason for that). Only they had no one to share their joy with because all of their friends were Lakers fans (or for a few years, Kings fans) anyway.
And that's okay!
Fan bases are just people, and nothing about the bay area, or Oracle Arena makes people more rabid about basketball, or more predisposed to support the hoops team. You can largely predict how a fan base will respond to their team, given their performance, recent history and outlook. Unless you have an incredible dearth of inventory (think the Knicks, in 10 million-person Manhattan), no team can reasonably expect to fill a stadium for a garbage product. That's why suggesting the Warriors are some special fan base is unfair to Warriors fans -- especially the ones who really did avert their eyes or suffer through those awful years. No one should be made to feel badly about themselves, or their level of dedication, because they aren't willing to support an obnoxious loser like the old Golden State Warriors.
Being a casual fan is fine, and more importantly, it makes sense given those circumstances. Even pausing your fandom entirely makes sense given the unexplainable level of suck. There's nothing wrong with owning up to it.
On topic, there's no need for analysts, broadcasters, talking heads and fans to keep propping up these myths. The fan base isn't better for pretending to not care about the quality of product on the court. Newer fans aren't going to stop being fans when they find out that the Warriors didn't sell out before Mark Jackson coached the team to the playoffs. They're fans, regardless of how casual or rabid they are.
Golden State fans deserve a winner because they went so long without even having a chance to be fans of something. And I'm delighted the team is finally delivering for its fans. But enough of the fake nostalgia. We can do without lying to ourselves, I think.