The Golden State Warriors visit Oklahoma City for a nationally televised game against the Thunder tonight, but more than the actual game, the story is about how they are apparently still smarting from February’s emotionally-charged matchup, Kevin Durant’s first in OKC since leaving the Thunder. ESPN’s Chris Haynes reports that the Warriors were “furious and bewildered about the inactivity” from the Thunder organization in the lead-up, and that they think “someone from ownership or management should have addressed the media on Durant’s behalf to help ease the tension upon his return.”
Apparently, that is, the Warriors believe the Thunder should’ve publicly thanked and praised and honored Durant in a news conference, and that their organizational silence was what led to a hostile atmosphere during the game.
When Durant left in July, the team released statements from owner Clay Bennett and general manager Sam Presti thanking Durant for his nine years with the organization. Then came Russell Westbrook’s constant passive-aggressive jibing towards Durant, his signing of an extension and transformation into a triple-double monster wholly embraced by Thunder fans, Zaza Pachulia flagrantly fouling Westbrook in Oakland, and probably a million other things I don’t remember.
Were the Thunder obligated to do anything upon Durant’s return? Of course not. Presti gave a few perfunctory quotes to a local reporter, and there was no welcome back video or any other in-game acknowledgement of Durant, due apparently to a strange and fairly unique team policy. But they provided a court to play on and enough security to prevent the powder keg from exploding, and that’s enough.
Should they have done more? Who knows? It seems at least a little strange that Bennett didn’t shake hands with the best player in team history, and that he didn’t get thanked over the PA system or get a tribute video. Maybe that reflects poorly upon the Thunder; maybe that reflects their awareness that a Durant tribute would have gone over with the fans about as well as releasing a plague into the crowd. But they have also moved on, have turned the team over to Westbrook, are still packing the arena every night, and have become a different team.
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The far more bizarre reaction here is the Warriors’. What in God’s name are they doing letting their near-constant hurt feelings get chronicled by the press? Do they think they look strong whining about a tribute video? Do they really think there’s much the Thunder could have done to lessen the venom directed towards Durant, or that it’s their responsibility to do so? Why do they even give a shit about what the Thunder and Thunder fans think? Durant is embraced by the Warriors and Warriors fans, and isn’t that the salient thing here?
One part of the explanation here is that Warriors management takes its cues from owner Joe Lacob, and Lacob is a pud, the same pud who said the Warriors were light-years ahead of everyone in the game months before they lost in the NBA Finals, and who constantly overestimates his own intelligence. It isn’t particularly surprising that he doesn’t understand that the Warriors are thought of as heels in a way they weren’t three years ago, or why Thunder fans have a raw reaction to Durant leaving for Golden State.
The other part is that the Warriors have a fundamentally different approach to former players than the Thunder. That isn’t to say better—one professional sports organization isn’t particularly more virtuous than another—just different. A sentiment bouncing around verified basketblogger Twitter last night and this morning is that if Steph Curry left the Warriors, he would be treated similarly to how the Thunder are treating Durant.
This is unequivocally false, and that people don’t understand why probably does something to explain the wildly disparate reactions here.
The Warriors and their fans—almost to a fault—relentlessly honor the former players in the team’s meager history. This is a fanbase that venerates a team that got its ass kicked in the second round of the playoffs. When the star of those We Believe Warriors, Baron Davis, abruptly left the next season for the Clippers, he was cheered upon his return. Hell, he still gets standing ovations, and will for life.
The two most famous incidents of Warriors fans booing in the last two decades are when they booed the terrible then-owner Chris Cohan in 2000, and when they booed current owner Joe Lacob in 2012. It is telling that Lacob was booed because he arrogantly stepped all over a jersey retirement ceremony for Warriors legend Chris Mullin, and because he had recently traded fan-favorite Monta Ellis. He was booed, in essence, for improperly honoring former Warriors.
If Steph Curry—who will be a free agent this summer—walks, no matter the circumstance, he will be greeted upon his return with perhaps the most raucous standing ovation Warriors fans have ever given. Unlike Durant in OKC, he ended the team’s long championship drought, and might add another in June. Warriors fans have also never thought he would undoubtedly stay forever, as he has obvious and very strong ties to Charlotte. And finally, not to go all coastal resident, but the Bay Area’s identity isn’t entwined with the local basketball franchise and superstar nearly as much as Oklahoma City’s seemed to be.
Which is all a long way of saying that while the Warriors are obviously being giant babies and incredibly stupid about this, there are historic and organizational reasons why they feel this way. And the most telling lines in Haynes’s report aren’t any of the ones about how hurt the Warriors are, but these:
Durant’s mom, Wanda, was even the target of constant mockery.
Durant was emotionally drained after that game, and he too felt that the situation could have been handled better prior to his arrival.
Kevin Durant, unlike the rest of the Warriors organization, has a legitimate cause for hurt feelings here: He has been alternatively ignored and shat upon by the Thunder and the entire Oklahoma City metropolitan region for eight months. (To be fair, Durant and his family aren’t exactly innocent here.) You can imagine, even if you feel it’s an appropriate reaction to Durant leaving, how much that might suck, and how shitty it might feel.
When Lacob took over the team, he cleared out most of Chris Cohan’s apparatchiks, except for two: pugnacious longtime PR man Raymond Ridder and homerific play-by-play man Bob Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, in particular, is still around because Lacob likes his style, how he makes excuses for Warriors losses, how he builds up Warriors bench players, and how he zealously protects Warriors stars.
And so the Warriors are arrogant and different from the Thunder, and Kevin Durant is extremely hurt. That’s why, a month after his first game back in Oklahoma City and on the eve of his second, we’re still talking about the proper protocol for a ceremony that was never going to happen.