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Will the Last Warriors Fan in Oakland Please Turn Off the Lights?
Jason Turbow | Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice | April 18, 2013
They're the Bay Area's longest-suffering sports fans—and every victory moves them one day closer to getting dumped.
We are in the backseat of a well-worn minivan, heading south from Berkeley along Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It is a rainy Tuesday night in January, and the vehicle is pungent with taqueria, its passengers gingerly dismantling burritos as flurries of tinfoil shards and tortilla chips drift down to the floor mats. Dinner, pregame-style.
We are headed to Oakland to see the Golden State Warriors host the Oklahoma City Thunder. Our driver is John Fike, a 51-year-old high school teacher in Berkeley and, like the two friends he is ferrying, a season ticket holder for some 15 years. Fike is an unrepentant basketball junkie, a former middle and high school coach and referee and, until hurting a hip last year, an active member of two regular pickup games. When he’s not at Warriors games, the married father of three is posting on Warriors message boards and watching the team play on TV. His basketball identity is defined not only by a love of the sport, but also by a wry acceptance of the sustained awfulness of the team he adores. The Warriors have embodied mediocrity for most of the last 20 years, making the playoffs only once since the 1993–94 season, while finishing below .300 twice as often (four times) as above .500 (two).
“One year, they passed out shirts at the arena with a picture of [marginal prospect] Larry Hughes on them and the phrase ‘We’re on to something,’” says Paul Lecky, 52, an Emeryville attorney who is sitting shotgun. “Then John crossed out the word ‘to,’ so that it read, ‘We’re on something.’ That just seemed more appropriate.”
In spite of its losing tradition, Golden State has somehow managed to fill an average of more than 95 percent of its seats over the last seven seasons—a testament to the loyalty (and patience!) of its East Bay fan base. These days, however, fans are actually coming to see the Warriors win. The team is in the midst of its best season since it went 48–34 in 2007–08 (while nonetheless missing the playoffs). These Warriors even boast two bona fide stars, Stephen Curry and David Lee, who in February became the team’s first All-Star since Latrell Sprewell in 1997. After nearly 16 years under the derelict ownership of cable TV magnate Chris Cohan—whom Yahoo labeled “the worst owner in the NBA” in 2009—the Warriors were purchased in 2010 for a record $450 million by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. The duo set about upgrading the organization, from facility to personnel, with inspired front-office selections and the first semblance of institutional competence in decades.
Now, Warriors merchandise sales are up, network TV exposure has increased, and wildly lucrative receipts from playoff games are within reach (at press time, the team was 44–33, two games away from clinching a playoff spot). Indeed, as Fike’s minivan spins onto 880 after adding one more member to its retinue in downtown Oakland, there’s no dismissing the atmosphere of excitement inside the car. The mighty Thunder is among the NBA’s best teams, but for once the Warriors’ faithful believe that their team actually has a shot at winning. These are, without a doubt, the best of times for the team’s long-suffering East Bay fans—except for one not-so-small problem: The Warriors want nothing more than to leave them behind.
If the Warriors’ owners have their way, the Oakland-based fans who have stuck by their hometown squad through four decades of disappointment will, within a few years, no longer have a team—at least not like they do now. At this point, it’s old news: Lacob and Guber’s ownership group is actively pursuing a privately financed 17,500-seat arena in downtown San Francisco, set to open in time for the 2017–2018 season. They’ve already hired the star Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta to design their dream home—which could cost upwards of $1 billion to build—in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. Such an edifice would bring a new type of venue to San Francisco, a palace dedicated not just to basketball, but also to attracting large indoor concerts and events for which the city currently has no adequate facility.
From a financial standpoint, the move is an easy call. From an emotional standpoint, though—at least for many fans in the 510 area code, particularly in the embattled neighborhoods surrounding the Coliseum—it’s nothing short of a betrayal. Oakland, long beset by municipal struggles, is in a particularly dark place at the moment. Crime is climbing; the police force is effectively being run by expensive East Coast consultants; the political leadership is at best feckless, at worst corrupt; and even the thriving art community is reeling from a fatal shooting at its beloved First Friday event. It seems that the only good news out of the city lately has come courtesy of the guys in the funky yellow pinstriped shorts. For the Warriors, an arena in San Francisco could mean great things—a massive infusion of capital, a facility to attract top NBA talent, and a location tailor-made for national TV glamour shots. What it would mean for fans on the wrong side of the Bay Bridge, however, is, above all, a heartbreaking loss of self.
Tonight, though, as we sit inside Oracle Arena—section 110, row 6, not far from Lacob’s courtside seat—that future betrayal seems very far away. Most of Fike’s group have owned season tickets for decades, long enough to transition the endeavor from a guys’-night-out activity to something that fathers do with their children. And right now, they are proud papas indeed: Their Warriors are taking it to the Thunder. Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant is unstoppable with 33 points, but Curry nearly matches him with 31, and the Warriors pour in 11 of the game’s final 16 points to snatch a 104–99 victory. The arena roars as the team shimmies off the court, Fike and friends high-fiving strangers as they filter toward the parking lot. It may be shocking to consider such a thing, but this kind of victory is becoming almost routine. Fike calls his nights watching the Warriors from his premium seat location “my little taste of the 1 percent.”