Basketball is a dance for 10 and the ball keeps time.
The rhythm of the game is inescapable, from the bounce of the ball to the repetitive rituals that surround and inhabit it. The bippity-bop of the crossover. The slow exhale before the free throw. The dance of the net when the ball touches nothing else.
Though the music can't be heard by normal ears, the great players move with a rhythmic grace. The great teams dance through the opposition without a wasted motion.
The fans respond in kind. Throughout the gyms and arenas of America, "air-ball" starts on F and drops to D. Every time. Here in the East Bay, the chant "Waaar-yers" echoes through Oracle Arena in perfect rhythm, in perfect pitch.
These shared experiences usually emerge with specific teams, at specific times. They offer identity, comfort and a sense of community, of shared experience. And with this year's Warriors — a miraculously special group of young men who somehow play this game to a tune only they can hear — they range from the stroking of the right arm with the left hand when yet another three alters the scoreboard to the inhaled breath when Steph Curry releases yet another impossible shot.
The experience begins well before game time, with the line of fans outside Oracle, a line that forms well before the doors open 90 minutes before the game. A junkie, I was there with a hundred or so others on a sunny Northern California Sunday afternoon in April to wait for the doors to Oracle Arena to open, happy to have tickets for the Greatest Show in the Association against run-and-gun Portland, and eager to drink in the quickly-becoming-legendary Steph Curry warmup, which supposedly began just as the doors opened.
Fans as well as players have their little rituals. I compulsively check to make sure I haven't dropped my ticket (it's happened), and I try to prepare in advance for the metal detectors and search that is now required of every attendee. (This new ritual is a sad reminder that not all change is for the better.)
When we spilled into the arena, I hurried to the area where I thought the Warriors and Curry would make their appearance -- but as it turned out, there was no rush. Curry didn't make his entrance until about an hour before the game, which allowed me time to find a spot that I hoped would give me a good view of the routine that had become semi-famous.
It also allowed me to once more appreciate the pregame rhythms of the sport. For many years, I covered the Sacramento Monarchs of the WNBA on a regular basis, and in order to do interviews, I needed to be at the arena 90 minutes early. From that vantage point, the routines -- setting up the portable baskets, certain players getting their shots in, the rush of the early bird fans -- revealed themselves. It was all orchestrated in a sense, slightly different every night but in some fundamental way, the same.
I could sense the same patterns at Oracle, even from the stands, but when Curry came out of the tunnel, the focus suddenly sharpened. All eyes were on the slender man at one baseline, percussively dribbling with both hands. Forward, back, forward, back, the balls almost blurring as they sped from fingers to floor and back again. It was clear that the routine was the same each night, the steady progression from one pattern -- between the legs, figure eight, behind the back -- to the other was locked in.
Then came the shooting, and variations on a theme. Curry took a series of shots from five spots beyond the three-point line: right corner, right wing, top of the key, left wing, left corner. He started with straight threes, but then quickly would improvise a move. It might be a two-dribble step-back, or a one-foot jumper that it would seem would never be taken in a game. But Curry had only one rule: He had to make the shot he improvised, no matter how many tries it might take.
Some he hit the first time, but others required multiple shots. When he had finished his ritual at each spot -- standstill jumper, move to the right, move to the left, two steps back from the line -- he moved to the next.
When stars collided, Curry shined the brightest
The NBA is a point guard league right now, and for the foreseeable future. For the Golden State Warriors, they are blessed to have the best point guard in the league manning the controls for the present.
Here it's time to pause a little, and appreciate the purity of his shots. Before he began shooting from beyond the arc, he just took midrange jump shots. Of course he made almost all of them, but he was so smooth, so smooth, that when the shot grazed the rim going in, it seemed like a miss. It only counted if it was a perfect swish, if the net alone danced with the ball on its downward arc.
Curry is amazing, a wonder, and though he makes it all look so effortless, his level of play is an otherworldly combination of innate ability and finely honed skill. He's the most amazing shooter I've ever seen, and when he moved five feet behind the three-point line, ten feet behind the three-point line, and launched shots that seemed no more demanding than a free throw, again the assembled masses were surprised if there was any contact with the rim.
And when he was done, there was one more ritual to perform. Curry somehow got in the habit of taking a pass from a particular usher, an older black man, in the hallway some 15 feet off the court. The usher would give him an underhand, softball pitch of a pass that varied in its accuracy, and Curry would shoot from just behind the basket, off the court, on concrete, from a distance that made no sense. He missed the first two, to the oohs and aahs of the crowd.
The third dropped through, the net singing, the crowd exhaling.
The ritual complete, Curry disappeared into the locker room. The atmosphere in the arena shifted, replaced by other familiar routines: The pregame beer (or in my case, margarita); the stroll through the concourse; the shoppers lining up at the Warriors' store, looking for the perfect item with the number 30 on it.
Then of course, came the game itself, and the 2015-16 Warriors played out yet another familiar script: They won again, and won with words that don't usually apply to games -- they won with panache, with elan, with espirit.
And they danced to the rhythm that only they could hear.
Clay Kallam is a Bay Area writer, basketball coach, and former high school assistant athletic director. Check him out on Twitter: @ClayKallam.