A year ago, Steph Curry told SLAM how grateful he was that Oakland had embraced him “as one of their own.” He’s done his part, there: tons of local charity work, putting Oakland on a shoe and then giving 30 of them away. All of which is to say that he could likely tell you more about the town other than “they’ve got the Warriors and I guess the Raiders and A’s too.”
This is worth mentioning because it sets Curry apart from many of the people around me in the stands during the semi-drubbing that the Warriors received in Game 4 of their fifth straight Finals. It was my fourth straight year of observing this fanbase in the Finals since I got to the bay in 2014. They were winners when I arrived, to the point that people who had no interest in basketball two or three years previously had decided that Steph Curry was, in fact, their real son.
I watched my two NBA Finals games this year alongside a Celtics fan that had flown into town to yell “KYLEHHH LOWREEEH.” He did this with me once from the raised Mezzanine Club behind one of the hoops and the second time from as close to the court as I could get, which wound up being the Courtside Club. The idea was to witness and participate in an emotional goodbye to the city that the team has called its full-time home for 48 years*, and also to brutalize the Raptors as scheduled.
The Mezzanine Club is a surprisingly quiet $22,000-a-season, all-you-can-eat restaurant at which fans can enjoy prime rib and look down at/on the game as frequently or infrequently as they want. If that doesn’t move you, know that you can also look through a giant glass wall at the people who’ve bought giant box suites, a crowd of 31 poker-faced guys who all look precisely like Ed Helms. It’s kind of like watching basketball on TV, except you’re physically in the stadium, and if you yell a bunch of strangers frown at you instead of your spouse or children or pets.
The atmosphere in the club was electrically smug. Before the third game of an evenly split series, people were already loudly discussing how “this was a fitting end—another championship.” A red-faced man kicked off what swiftly became a one-sided conversation with a buddy about how much he loved Ronald Reagan by saying, “We’re gonna kick their asses injured.” All around, people scarfed down gourmet empanadas and drank Modelos and congratulated each other for supporting this Warriors team through “thick and thin.”
It was a sterile, gated-community way to watch a game—a way to be a “real fan” without having to sit next to the proles. It was, to be fair, also a notably nice, relaxed experience; prime rib is delicious. But it was unmistakably a corporate setting. These seats cost about the same as those in the Sideline Club, which made buying these instead akin to saying that you want to be at the NBA Finals, and to say that you were there, without any of the troublesome basketball shit.
You could hear the rest of the arena from in there, though, and actually see the game. The Warriors started slow, but the fans were the same dynastic Warriors fans I’d come to know. These were the ones that called any light breeze a foul, that yelled “MVP” the moment Steph Curry so much as looked at the basketball, that believed that they had not only earned but were owed a championship.
These fans had become accustomed, over the last years of concurrent basketball and technology booms, to a concierge NBA experience—Uber For Championships, a star-studded team that had paused the game, slammed all the sliders to 95 (not 100, it should look realistic), and then watched the ensuing carnage unfold. The arena would deafen itself yelling “Let’s go Warriors,” the DJ would yell about how great we all were. People were told to make some noise and then did. This was familiar, and the first ten minutes were familiar, too.
Then things got strangely quiet.
It wasn’t the first time the Warriors have faced a deficit—they spent the entire first quarter of last year’s Game 3 playing from behind—but there was something desperate in the way they were playing. The guy behind me sputtered about all the fouls being committed against the Warriors. “Everyone but Steph is playing injured,” he blustered. It didn’t take long for him to realize, along with everyone else, that the problem was that the Warriors kept straight up missing.
The DJ had mostly stopped asking everyone to make some noise, although the stadium absolutely needed some at that point. This wasn’t the Warriors valiantly fighting en route to being defeated by a real-life God, as in 2016. It surely wasn’t the years around that stunning loss, when the team crushed and cruised. This was just a depleted team playing like shit, being beaten by a team playing much better than that. I know this sounds harsh, but it felt strangely like being at a Raiders game.
The stadium was icy. The series was still tied, the game was still winnable and the series far from lost, but with the team down 12, fans were frowning and grumping, stomping around the Mezzanine talking about how they were being “fucked over by the ref,” that they were playing injured, that this was all deeply unfair. Eventually they just started to leave.
This went beyond them being pissed off at The Warriors for failing to play like The Warriors, and the disconnection was not localized to our section. The entire arena seemed cut off from the action from about the third quarter onward. Cheering stopped, signs were lowered and stayed down. Fans banged their pool noodles together during a few free throws, then stopped. Somehow the contingent of Canadians were louder than the entire Warrior Nation—Strength In Numbers, eh?
With about 1:47 left, the Raptors had the Warriors first 10 and then 13 points in the hole. I don’t know math good and will not claim to be a NBA expert, but that isn’t an impossible hill to climb for a historically great team with the most prolific three-point shooter in history on the floor. And yet, despite the cheapest seats to the game having sold at $500, something like half the arena just walked out. Those that stayed could see the Warriors looking at the sidelines. You already know what happened from there.
As I walked out after the buzzer, two people near me called me out for being British. They asked if I was a season ticket holder, I told them I wasn’t, and they talked over the rest. They started listing the team’s injuries, which I knew about; you don’t have to have season tickets to be a fan. I didn’t get it, they said. Everything they said already seemed to be veering sharply towards recrimination, and the past tense.
Two days later, we were far closer to the action, and the misgivings and sour vibes of the previous game felt far away. The Warriors ran out to a lead with the same speed to which fans had become accustomed, and the crowd responded in the way to which I’d become accustomed. They were chanting, jeering, all lit up about how great the team on the floor was—the “real” team, now, which “didn’t need Kevin Durant.”
Closer to the action and in the pull of a Warriors run, I considered that I’d misjudged the sound in the stadium from my earlier perch in the Luxury Tank. Perhaps these were the real Warriors fans, back with renewed fire after the disappointment and pissy gloom of Game 3. They sure seemed to think so, given the screams about how the Raptors were now in “their house” against “their boys.” The neutered version of that chant from the end of that movie where the one guy sneers “Warriors!”—my editor has informed me that the movie is called The Warriors—was deafening. It was far louder than the strangely brief tribute to Oracle Arena and Oakland that played to little response of any kind. This was undoubtedly one of the last NBA games that will be played in that city’s arena, but no one in the arena seemed to have considered that it might be the last, or to be worried about it at all.
A minute and a half into the third quarter, Marc Gasol briefly gave the Raptors the lead. The crowd did that thing that home crowds do at sports games where they go “Ahhhhwheeuuugh,” went quiet, and never quite woke up again, even when the Warriors briefly got the lead back. The “MVP” chants stopped. The group of Raptors fans behind the hoop that had been steadily hooting throughout the game were now not simply louder than the home fans but the only fans cheering at all. To my left was a Raptors fan who had been cheering perfectly normally throughout, while his team was losing and then when it was winning. An older Warriors fan had occasionally razzed him in response, which the Raptor fan had mostly ignored. As the lead opened and widened, the Warriors fan got testier. This started at “We’ll get you,” skipped to “Shut up,” then “Shut the fuck up,” then “You wanna say that to my face?”
With the Warriors down nine points, I began to despair and did something I’ve never done before. I tried to start a “Let’s Go Warriors” chant. I know how it goes—it’s not a complicated thing, really. Two rows behind me, one guy joined in with the enthusiasm of someone whispering at a funeral. He barely finished his second “let’s go” before sitting down. I asked why people weren’t cheering, and the guy behind me said, “Just fuckin’ look at them,” as if his pathetic team was down 30. Shortly thereafter, mid-piss and with a decent amount of time on the clock, I’d hear a man grunt to himself, “Shouldn’t have fucking bought these seats, fuckin’ trash team.” It wasn’t so much that fans were angry or sad so much as that they were sullen. They’d paid their ransom—anyone in the Courtside Club paid no less than $2000 on their luckiest day on earth—to watch their Bay Area Product™ destroy the hapless team that dared step into their house. This was not happening, which was not so much an inconvenience as a defect in the very expensive thing they’d bought. They had paid to watch their team win, and it didn’t. It was a ripoff.
The entitlement rankled, but also the Warriors really did look awful—tired, rushed, and increasingly brutalized. The lack of Kevin Durant doesn’t really explain it. The Raptors weren’t dominant or dazzling so much as they were capable of putting the ball in the hoop, of being cohesive, of seizing opportunities. Steph Curry looked exhausted and defeated, but people didn’t start leaving until there were about three minutes left in the game. None of this was Curry’s fault, really—well, there were some defensive rotations he didn’t make down the stretch—but playing what might have been his last minutes in Oakland to the fleeing backs of very rich people felt like a fitting tribute to his legacy, and maybe a sign of things to come for the future San Francisco Warriors. The revolution he’d helped make had rendered most of the arena unaffordable to local fans; the ones that would actually stick around during a loss were at home, watching on TV. The seats to my left emptied with the Warriors down 11. With 2:30 left, at least a quarter of the crowd was gone, including whole rows of seats that started at $8,000 a ticket.
And so what might have been the final basketball game at the most famously loud arena in the league ended up sounding like it was being played in a busy airport. The crowd rustled, but I’d never been to a game, professional or otherwise, where people seemed less interested in talking about what was happening in front of them. There were the honks about foul calls made and missed, but there was a faintly abstracted air of “I’d like to speak to your manager” in the annoyance of those left. They had paid premium prices for a particular experience, and none of what they’d bought was working.
The Warriors may be the most perfectly San Francisco Circa 2019 company there is. The success is undeniable, but somehow impossible to touch—after pricing out a true hometown crowd, they’re moving to a San Francisco-based, privately-financed arena, and transforming into a “sports and entertainment” company. They got all they could out of Oakland—given that they still owe tens of millions of dollars to the city, they’ve gotten maybe more than that—while doing little for the local infrastructure or broader community. They blew up all the same, and now are hopping over the bridge, taking the revenue and glory with them.
The success was earned; the Warriors really did break and remake basketball. The team’s ultra-stacked roadshow helped the owners raise the sponsorships and cultivate the rich fanbase that is paying up for five- and six-figure seat “memberships” in Chase Stadium. It hadn’t always been that way—the franchise still has a losing record even after these lopsided years, and the scrappy We Believe teams of a dozen years ago were the first Warriors squads to win even one playoff game in 15 years—but the monied fans that arrived after the boom were not cheering for those teams. They were, in many cases, off being rich somewhere else. When the boom boomed, their local team was one that playfully annihilated every team it faced. Everything lined up almost too well.
If the series doesn’t make it back to Golden State, those nine-year-long seat memberships are going to feel like late rounds in Uber, where around 81 percent of investor money is currently in the toilet. People bet on that particular disruption because they believed they couldn’t lose, and then they did. The same smart money talked itself into the idea that the Warriors were a can’t-miss proposition. It makes sense that the emotional rollercoaster of potentially actually fucking losing would render these fans mute or aggro or despondent. They hadn’t really considered the proposition.
Which, it seems to me, suggests that they were always in the wrong place, or at least that they fundamentally misunderstood something about sports. If there’s no chance of losing, why play? What is winning without that? It’s a question that San Francisco’s ultra-wealthy haven’t had to answer or even ask for many years. But it was clear, at Oracle, that the over-moneyed, crush-it-kill-it Bay Area tech culture isn’t as fun without the distinct feeling of having loaded dice in hand. The Warriors are not done, maybe not in this series and probably not quite yet in the Western Conference more broadly. But it already seems safe to say that the highest-flying, latest-arriving fans—the ones that took the place of those who were there before—have gotten the team they deserved.
* This has been updated to reflect that the Warriors have played all their home games in Oakland for 48 years; they split their games between San Francisco and Oakland during the two years before that.