This is the real NBA Finals, the one that transcends Larry O’Brien, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Doris Burke, Woj, Adam Silver, dynasties, the next Why-The-Lakers-Are-On-Fire tell-all, the works. This is Oakland’s last stand with the team it raised from a pup, its last healthy bite of an apple that after a half-century of worms and blight finally ripened and became pie-worthy.
The Golden State Warriors begin their fifth consecutive title hunt starting Thursday in another country, and away from the business at hand, which is trying to finish up all outstanding business in Oaktown—the place that took the Warriors when nobody else wanted them, and now has been priced out of the game.
The Warriors have tried to make their departure from Oakland to San Francisco a seamless and happy thing, even for the city left behind. The new digs have been declared by its owners to be a state-of-the-art basketerium. As such, it is open to all potential customers as long as they have a wheelbarrow and money to line it. (Deadspin doesn’t use corporate names for athletic emporia because of some predictable moral tic, so let’s just call the new joint Moo Two in honor of the Cow Palace, one of the franchise’s San Francisco homes back in the day.) This is, ultimately, the nature of things, and unlike with many franchises in many places, owner Joe Lacob has made no secret of his desire to bring the team back to its secondary digs in San Francisco. There is no treachery here, just abandonment of one city in favor of the city that the team left more than half a century ago, and when the team is at its absolute zenith. If there is one more parade, the kick in the Y-fronts is that it will be one last parade.
Oakland as a cultural entity has always felt like the dog to San Francisco’s walker, the wrong end of the Bay Bridge. The Warriors were a way for them to show their civic grit to a more upscale audience, and it worked. From the years when the arena hallways were made entirely of secondhand smoke, through the years when that elusive 20th win occurred in March rather than November, the fans gave more to the team than the reverse, and from 1989 on they essentially filled the Arena as an act of defiance. They would come to watch the opponent and wince through the locals, but they came and kept coming because they knew that the San Francisco Warriors would not be loved the same way. Whether it was true or not didn’t matter as much as Oakland wanted it to be, because Oakland has a slab on its shoulder about San Francisco, and it shall always be so.
It may seem to outsiders like an absurd distinction to two towns six miles apart, but go argue with hurt feelings. Oakland has always felt ignored and dismissed by its snootier brethren and sistren to the west, and while it has endured the loss of the Raiders to Las Vegas with relative equanimity, having the Warriors so near and yet so far at what has been their apogee stings now and will sting all the worse once the parade cleanup begins.
The Warriors’ history in Oakland has always been a bit blurry anyway. The franchise credits Oakland with having been the deed holder for 47 years, going back to 1972 when it first claimed to hail from Golden State, the NBA’s sunnier version of “parts unknown.” It is a falsehood; Oakland’s first taste of the NBA was actually 10 years earlier, the year the Warriors had moved from Philadelphia, in a March 1963 game against the then–Cincinnati Royals. Oakland got a few games every year, usually all the Philadelphias and Detroits while San Francisco always got the Lakers and Celtics.
That ended in 1968 when the Coliseum Arena was first built. Owner Franklin Mieuli put nearly half the games in the new building and left the remainder in the Cow Palace and chandelier-festooned Civic Auditorium (which is now named for the late rock impresario Bill Graham), and moved all of them to Oakland in 1969 while still calling the team “San Francisco.”
In other words, the Warriors played the equivalent of five full seasons in Oakland and played for two championships before bothering to claim Oakland as its home. Well, before claiming “Golden State” as its home—Mieuli was flirting with putting some games in San Diego to hedge his bets in Oakland because the NBA moved the San Diego Rockets to Houston in 1971. Thus, Oakland has never been the team’s actually credited home. It might as well have been The Duchy Of Grand Fenwick, Narnia, The Island Of Misfit Toys, or Planet X.
Which was fine enough as far as that went; Oakland had the team, no matter what its name, and even if they lost much more than they won (they missed the playoffs 29 times in 35 years from 1978 to 2012), they still belonged to Oakland in that “Well, you didn’t want them so we took them” sort of way. Until Lacob and a small coterie of investors, most notably showbiz entrepreneur Peter Guber, swooped them up from the depressing hold of Chris Cohan in 2010, nobody else minded that Oakland had a team and San Francisco didn’t, because San Francisco also didn’t have an arena. But Lacob said in his initial press conference that he intended to build one, and after a shambolic first attempt ran afoul of self-delusion and local politics, Moo Two was conceived and eventually erected.
By happenstance, the building was approved and begun just as Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala became That Thing That Couldn’t Be Killed, and as soon as the Finals end, so will Oakland’s time as their home. Though the players have embraced Oakland with numerous trips into the neighborhoods, they’ll all have a new neighborhood now, and the old neighbors will feel no less abandoned, six miles or no six miles. It’s an Oakland thing; you’re in all the way, or you’re out all the way.
In short, the Warriors as Oakland’s best face to the outside world can only end badly, either with a parade that leads to the bridge and across the bay, never to return, or with a parade in Toronto. One can almost imagine the most hard-bitten of Oaklanders hoping that when these Warriors run their course, as they surely shall, they do so quickly, so that they can snarl, “Couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?”
And of course, nobody can these days. In a world in which what’s yours is yours until I can catch you looking away, Oakland’s best team is about to belong to its contemptuous neighbors for no better reason than they could lift them.
But if it helps, the new arena looks out toward the east, where a sea of middle fingers will always be part of the landscape.
Ray Ratto remembers when Oakland’s last basketball team, the ABA’s Oaks, won a title and then skived off to Washington, D.C., where it died, moved to Virginia and died again. Now that’s what Oakland calls a relocation.