This is a story about the Warriors trying to leave Oakland without leaving Oakland, about the strange ritual of a grand opening for charity that forces people of good will to be all about surfaces, and about people trying to find a little human connection anyway.
It all unfolds in the heart of Oakland on June 6, 2019 in the middle of the NBA Finals.
1. Draymond nervously over-shares
Draymond Green is nervous about public speaking. No, really. He’s perhaps the most brash and outspoken player in the NBA, speaking in press conferences and on the basketball court in front of millions. But he’s not on the familiar basketball court anymore. Well, technically he is, but it’s not a basketball game. It’s the opening of a new NBA Learn and Play Zone at the Ira Jinkins Recreation Center in the heart of Oakland.
To Green’s left are his teammates Alfonzo McKinnie and Damian Jones.
Jones has been to this annual charity event two years before, but McKinnie being the famously new guy, has not. He doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into. By the end of this story, we will see McKinnie struggling to be heard over a pack of dogs and kids and making smoothies. But for now, it’s an occasion for formal corporate theater. This clashes with Green’s coping mechanism for stress: over-sharing the truth, appropriate or not. (Compare his famous dissertation on Paul Pierce’s lack of retirement love, or his recent self-takedown calling himself a crybaby that was “disgusting to watch”.)
Green walks uneasily to the podium and quietly greets the crowd, almost mumbling. “First off, thanks to everyone for being here and having me... um. You know, I still get nervous.” Awkward pause. The court is covered with chairs and the chairs are covered with national and local important people. There are also thirty restless kids seated on a mat in the front. “I’m actually a talker, but I get nervous speaking,” Green continues. “But I love to speak in front of people. It’s the craziest thing ever.” Everyone laughs.
Everyone wants to laugh. The crowd has patiently waited through speeches by Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA players union, Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, and Rick Welts, president of the Warriors. The speeches have been short and skillful, but there is a palpable tension because of the Warriors’ impending move from Oakland to San Francisco.
Mayor Schaaf talked about how great it felt as an Oakland kid when the Warriors won their first championship in 1975 and how it felt like it validated her Oakland community in the national eye, and she says to the kids, “You feel like a champion, don’t you?” Disorganized muttering from the kids. No, the kids don’t feel like champions. The kids are restless and too young to know an applause line when they hear it. The grownups are also mostly dignitaries and residents of Oakland, and hearing how important the departing Warriors were for local pride is bittersweet. Do they still get to be proud next year? It’s awkward. Every celebration of Oakland is a reminder of future loss.
Big love for @Money23Green + @nbacares for hugging on #Oakland. Ira Jinkins Rec Center is all spruced up and ready to keep our kids + community healthy. #StrengthInNumbers pic.twitter.com/ZovAuxwoS2— Libby Schaaf (@LibbySchaaf) June 7, 2019
Schaaf remarked on the coincidence that she started her job five years ago when the Warriors began their dynastic run. But it’s also been a five-year countdown since the announcement that GSW was leaving Oakland. Roberts followed, saying she has been on the job for, surprise, five years, and that as long as she’s been in her job; if it’s June, she’ll be at the Finals here in Oakland. That’s an applause line, except, well, you know. Adam Silver noted that he started his job -- wait for it -- five years ago. Countdown, countdown, countdown.
Rick Welts reminded people that the Warriors will stay engaged in Oakland non-profits and are converting the old practice space into a non-profit incubator space.
This is all true and is a tangible on-going benefit to the city of Oakland. Nevertheless, his applause line “so the Warriors are not leaving Oakland” is met with thudding silence. The kids are tired of being still and the grownups who are listening are trying to compute the relative truth of the statement.
So, the audience is ready to laugh with Draymond Green, but he’s still nervous. He starts over-sharing. He talks about how this charity event comes at a terrible time. It’s always on an off-day between two home Finals games when players desperately need rest, game planning time, and medical treatment. So he did the event in 2015, but has successfully avoided it since then, a sign of how odd and unfulfilling these events are. But he was realizing that the event is important, and now he is ashamed for skipping the event for the last three years. He actually apologizes to everyone.
Honest but awkward. But by the end of the event, I can see why he skipped it.
2. Mysterious reporters ambush
There are perhaps twenty reporters here who aren’t NBA employees. This isn’t very many compared to the hundreds covering the Finals games and practices. For most of the event, I don’t understand why there are even twenty here. Past newspaper coverage of these events has been very minimal. TV coverage is on NBA TV, naturally. I’m here because this is only the second Finals I’ve gotten to cover live, and I missed the charity event last year. I’m not a jaded veteran reporter and I’m still curious about how these charity events unfold.
But the event comes at a bad time for many reporters. Open practice and player/coach availability happens essentially from 12 to 2. The shuttle to this event leaves at 2:30pm. Today’s availability has been extra spicy, with news and quotes coming down on the NBA’s punishment of the Kyle-Lowry-shoving co-owner of the Warriors. That means many reporters are too busy writing their stories on the availability to be able to attend this event. Furthermore, this ceremonial ritual is carefully designed to make no news beyond a live pageant version of the self-congratulatory press release. And yet, there are indeed a few reporters. I can understand why perhaps reporters low in the pecking order might be sent to cover this, but two of the most famous national reporters are also here. I wonder what angle they’re taking to write about this charity event or why else they might be there.
In fact, it’s sweet that this might get more coverage. Oakland is going through complex changes but still gets portrayed nationally as a murder zone. The Ira Jinkins Recreation Center, also known locally as the Brookfield Rec, has been a rock of the neighborhood for years. The space is used for local events, including hosting the Junior Warriors Basketball League for ten years. Indeed, famous native Damian Lillard practically grew up at Brookfield Rec, just around the corner from his grandparents’ home, fighting grown men on the gym floor instead of retreating to the game area which has since been refurbished into the celebrated Learn and Play Zone.
After the speeches, Alfonzo McKinnie goes with the luminaries and a small number of kids to the entryway for a ceremonial ribbon cutting with the oversize scissors -- itself a bizarre ritual that needs its own documentary -- and everyone freezes with forced smiles for the familiar taking of the formal photograph.
The kids mill around uncertainly. Are they allowed to talk to the players? Finally an NBA rep says, “Who wants to high-five Draymond?” The kids are unleashed and crowd around and high-five him. They start peppering him with questions like “how tall are you?” After sitting around for two boring hours, it’s a very fleeting contact for the kids in a loud and chaotic room. But as they are led away by a handler, I see a couple jumping up and down yelling “I HIGH-FIVED DRAYMOND!!”
The event is fairly tightly managed. Alfonzo McKinnie is led away to the Learn and Play back room where he will read to kids. Draymond Green is led back to the gym where he will exercise with some kids. Damian Jones goes to make goop with other kids. Before the speeches, the celebrities had their own Green Room to avoid having contact with the masses or press. Gary Payton, Daveed Diggs and Mistah F.A.B were formal parts of the public event but didn’t speak and don’t seem to have much time with the kids before they are whisked away.
But for a fateful minute after the ribbon photo, Commissioner Adam Silver is left unprotected in the front room. Quickly and mercilessly, a pack of veteran reporters pounce on him. They put cameras in his face and start peppering him with questions about Kyle Lowry’s harasser, like “why is the co-owner only banned for a year?” The Lowry business is still blazing hot and the public and press are desperate for more material. Silver handles it with grace and gives an impromptu press conference. When he finally leaves, most reporters leave with him.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver explains why Warriors investor Mark Stevens was given a one-year ban instead of a life-time ban pic.twitter.com/54dxMMObCc— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) June 6, 2019
The reporters were obviously there to grab Silver all along, and I feel very naive and foolish for thinking big time reporters were here to cover kids in Oakland. Later, when I return to the Oracle Arena press area, one friend says ruefully, “Man, I should have gone with you to that charity thing. That was a great place to catch Silver for new quotes.” I nod wisely like a jaded veteran reporter.
3. Alfonzo McKinnie and the loud pile of kids and dogs
In the spanking new Learn and Play Zone, Alfonzo McKinnie is seated on a couch, trying to read a story. You’ve possibly seen video of NBA players reading to groups of children. You probably suspect that the players don’t get lots of time with the kids, especially in the middle of the NBA Finals. You are right, of course. And naturally, there are a lot of kids who would love to have a little time with a McKinnie. So many that there are actually two shifts of kids.
This NBA player reading is unusual because it also has a bunch of dogs wandering around. The dogs are cute, well-behaved, but they have a destabilizing effect on the kids. Kids are following the dogs and petting them. McKinnie gamely tries to read. Behind me an NBA rep points at the pile of McKinnie, dogs and kids and says, “This is public relations GOLD!” Photographers are sent in and politely snap away, but they can’t be ignored.
I'm still emotionally processing the whole NBA Cares dedication of the Brookfield Rec remodel, but until I write it up, enjoy this short clip of Alfonzo McKinnie hanging out trying to read to a pile of kids and dogs. - @EricApricot pic.twitter.com/a6zra765Yr— Golden State of Mind (@unstoppablebaby) June 7, 2019
The room is loud. In addition to McKinnie reading and kids wandering after dogs, the previous shift of child listeners is being escorted out of the room. In one direction, random visitors are poking at a set of new Mac laptops. In the other direction, a pack of reporters (possibly roaming ferally after Silver’s departure) is now interrogating Oakland Mayor Schaff about losing the Raiders and the Warriors. She answers by pointing out the Warriors’ on-going commitments to Oakland and by describing the promising plan put forward by the Oakland A’s to revitalize Jack London Square. In the next room, it looks like Adonal Foyle, ex-Warriors player who is involved in so many Warriors community outreach programs, is watching highlights of the Warriors-Raptors game with another group of children. On closer examination, it’s not real; it’s a video game simulation, another surface.
As McKinnie reads his way through the book over the din, I turn to quietly ask a representative of Pet Partners what the dogs are doing there. Do they just have therapy dogs around to play with kids in this reading room? Of course not. It’s more interesting than that. Kids who have issues and anxieties around reading actually read to the dogs! The therapy dogs are cute and don’t judge the kids and love the attention. This creates a less intimidating setting for the kids to work on their reading.
Today, we partnered with the @NBA and @Warriors to unveil newly renovated spaces at the Ira Jinkins Recreation Center for Oakland youth and their families. Proud to team up with organizations who share our commitment to community health. #NBAFinals pic.twitter.com/zLvN6TAq1I— Kaiser Permanente (@aboutKP) June 7, 2019
No question that it’s always cute to have kids and dogs wandering, and the still photos will look good and won’t show the actual fuss of the reading. McKinnie holds up the book, titled, “How To Read A Story,” which he reads in a room where children are meant to be seen and not to hear. I think I’d rather watch photos and videos of kids (and Alfonzo) reading to dogs -- the actual program -- rather than this simulation of human outreach.
The whole day’s ritual is strange. There’s actual good work happening: an important local community center got refurbished with new furniture and computers. Many kids got a memorable experience of a few minutes with an NBA player. NBA players got to feel like they can make a difference in a community. Dignitaries and elected officials are seen as publicly caring. Reporters get to interrogate a commissioner and mayor.
But it’s also a tiring event that takes important work and makes it superficial. The only importance of the actual events is that everyone showed up to do the events. And a pall hangs over the event: the Warriors are trying to figure out how to thread the rhetorical needle of leaving Oakland without really leaving Oakland.
4. Two genuine moments
I don’t know how fulfilled Draymond Green and Alfonzo McKinnie are by the experience. It’s probably better than having random people screaming at them to sign autographs. It’s for a good cause, but I see why Green wanted to skip it for three years. The only times I see the two players get to show genuine emotions are two spontaneous moments of human contact.
For the first moment, we return to the start of this strange ritual with Green at the podium, nervously pausing in front of the crowd. He is trying to follow the script and behave well enough to not ruin the occasion, when something knocks him off script. The kids have been so behaved all afternoon but, maybe being tired, maybe being over-excited that Draymond Green is standing right in front of them, two kids in the front start talking to him. Green points at the kids and says, “You two.” The audience is confused. What is about to happen? Is Draymond Green going to scold them? Cheerfully quiet them?
No, Green points at the two and says, “Fantastic. Never lose that. You’re here with your peers... You just spoke in front of the commissioner of the NBA. That’s amazing.” The kids have reminded him of himself, the whole reason he wants to support this kind of charity. He’s talking to the kids, but he’s talking to himself in the present and he’s talking to kid Draymond in the past. “Like for me growing up, as a kid from Saginaw, Michigan, and it only being a dream, and I had no idea how I’d ever accomplish it. Never lose it. And the rest of you, don’t be afraid to speak, don’t be afraid to let your voice be heard. It’s an amazing thing. Thank you, because you all just gave me a little courage to get up here. Like if they can talk up here, maybe I can too. It’s amazing.”
Second moment. As McKinnie wanders out to leave after the readings, he passes the entryway where Silver was ambushed. Now it’s McKinnie’s turn to be ambushed. Anthony Forrest from Planting Justice has been educating passers-by about healthy eating by making smoothies. He grabs McKinnie and insists that he makes a smoothie. McKinnie hesitates, saying “I’d have to wash my hands from all the dogs…” but Forrest will not be denied. He shows McKinnie what to do, and as the recipe continues, McKinnie gets more and more into it. (I cringe when Alfonzo cuts up a pineapple.) He then gets on a bike to run a blender.
Something tangible is happening; he is flexing muscles and the vegetables and fruits are becoming a nutritious drink. When it’s done, McKinnie suspiciously sniffs the kale-heavy goop. But he drinks it. It’s okay. Then he shares it with the kids and few remaining reporters. He’s feeding people. The world has gotten a little better. I ask what he calls it. Forrest yells “Fonzo’s Finest!” Now Alfonzo really gets into it, and he starts hamming it up, performing into a camera. “Fonzo Finest! Hey #1 smoothie in the Bay, man! Fonzo Finest!” Everyone takes a (suspicious drink). It’s not bad. We all smile, sharing nutrition.
Then of course someone calls for a photo with the kids, and it’s back to surface work.