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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.
The Englander Sports Bar and Restaurant, located in San Leandro just four miles from Oracle Arena, serves as an inexpensive alternative for ticketless Warriors fans. Just up the freeway, Golden State is about to tip off against the Dallas Mavericks, and David Kehn, 43, a database administrator in Oakland, has reserved the big wooden table in the center of the room for maximum flat-screen vantage. Kehn is the founder of the online forum WarriorsRoundtable.com, and he is here tonight to meet a handful of the site’s moderators. When he was a teenager in Orinda, Kehn attended dozens of games each year with his father—floor seats, no less—for the princely 1984 sum of $25 apiece. He has spent the ensuing decades commingling his own identity with that of the team, and he is not happy with the potential move west. “I have no love for San Francisco sports teams at all,” he says. “The Warriors would be as cut off from me by moving across the bay as they would be if they moved out of state. San Francisco teams are the enemy.”
The moderators filter in slowly. Mike Moresi, 43, is the only one whom Kehn has met in person (they went to high school together in Orinda). The rest arrive separately, despite all having come from San Jose. Rob Vallez, 31, is a customer service rep. Joshua Affonso, 25, studies music composition. At age 20, Ray Arcayena Jr. is the baby of the bunch, but he has been contributing to the board since he was 14 and has been a moderator since age 17. Each of the men attends only a handful of games each season, but watches religiously on TV. As they get to know each other, a comfortable pattern develops: that of the lovable loser.
Arcayena: “We don’t know why we’re Warriors fans.”
Affonso: “I just started admitting it to strangers recently.”
Moresi: “Ever since Don Nelson got rid of Webber, then got fired the next year, it’s been a tough proposition.”
Ah, yes, Chris Webber—a perennial sore spot for Warriors fans, even those of perpetual optimism. In 1993, the team mortgaged its future by packaging soon-to-be superstar Anfernee Hardaway and three first-round draft picks for the rights to the University of Michigan standout, then signed him to a contract that inexplicably included an escape clause after the first year. Webber exercised it, and the franchise is only now fully recovering.
The discussion inevitably slides toward documentation of other Warriors failures: busted first-round draft picks like Patrick O’Bryant and Ike Diogu, and the granddaddy of them all, Todd Fuller—an oversize lumberer whom the Warriors selected in 1996, two spots ahead of a teenage Kobe Bryant. Soon, we turn to the team’s unknown future. “With my head, I think they’ll make more money and have a better chance at winning championships if they move to San Francisco,” says Moresi, who owns a construction business in Alameda. “With my heart, I think it sucks. I’ll keep rooting for the Warriors, but I will never, never wear any gear that says ‘San Francisco’ on it. Never.”
For now, however, Moresi is rooting with gusto. His team picks him up: Even with Curry nursing a sprained ankle on the bench, Golden State breaks open a 92–92 tie, utilizing five free throws and a Jarrett Jack 3-pointer down the stretch to ice a 100–97 victory. Second-year guard Klay Thompson leads all scorers with 27 points. The win feels good, but, nonetheless—for these men, anyway—slightly tainted. “When they move into that new arena, the edge that makes us so unique as a fan base will be gone,” says Kehn as he rises to leave the bar. “It will be all corporate. They had better put some solid product out there, because if you have another 17 years of crap, that building won’t have nearly the vibe that Oakland has right now, no matter how nice they make it.”
The Warriors are positioning their new stadium as a basketball mecca, but really, it has nothing on the Bladium gym. Set in an old navy hangar in Alameda, the Bladium is an indoor sports wonderland with an abundance of playing fields, a climbing wall, and a full workout facility. Its high school–size basketball court, wedged between two soccer fields, is where Miles Tarver is setting up a shot-return device under the north stanchion. Tarver, the 6-foot-8 program director of Triple Threat Academy, a kid oriented basketball-skills program that operates here, is expecting a class of 10- to 13-year-old girls to arrive in a half hour.
The 36-year-old was born in San Francisco but grew up in Oakland, where his fandom was sufficiently robust that he still has an autographed photo given to him at the Bayfair Mall in the early 1990s by once-promising Warriors forward Billy Owens. (The focus of another awful personnel move, Owens was acquired from Sacramento in 1991 in exchange for fan favorite Mitch Richmond.) Tarver played some himself, winning a state basketball championship at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School—about 3.5 miles southeast of where he is preparing the court—alongside future NBA legend (and current New York Knick) Jason Kidd. He then starred for the University of Minnesota (leading the Golden Gophers to the Final Four in 1997), and played pro ball in Finland and in the International Basketball League. But while he may have worn a multitude of jerseys, he has remained loyal to just one. “I’m a lifelong Warriors fan, suffering and proud,” he says. Tarver is a regular at Oracle, largely because he gets tickets from the parents of his students. His home, just off Seminary Avenue, allows him to accept a last-minute offer and be inside the arena parking lot within 10 minutes. Proximity, however, is way down on the list of reasons he would hate to see the team leave.
“Oakland has soul,” Tarver says. “It’s a blue-collar city, and there’s a reflection of that when you go to the games. There are a lot of working-class families there, just like mine was when my stepfather took me, back when I was a kid.” He doesn’t go so far as to belittle the perceived wine-and-cheese culture of San Francisco, but he clarifies that Oakland is more of a “Hennessy–and–hot dog crowd.” “When the team moves to San Francisco,” he adds, “there’s going to be a huge loss.” Tarver returns frequently to the idea of Oakland pride and what role the Warriors play in it. The fact that the city’s other two sports franchises—the A’s and the Raiders—have also actively, publicly, humiliatingly been exploring the possibility of leaving town makes a potential Warriors move weigh even more heavily.
“There’s always been a sense in Oakland of being the underdog,” Tarver says. “San Francisco usually gets the pub for being the city in the Bay Area. Whenever they show a nationally televised game in Oakland, they show clips of San Francisco’s skyline. We’ve come to accept that because we know what we are and because we have the team. If they take that away, though, who knows how much will change?”
Pappy’s Grill & Sports Bar, just a couple of blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus, is a barbecue joint geared toward the college crowd, but the Warriors hold significant purchase. Tonight is not a good night for them, though, as they fall behind Houston by some 30 points before the fourth quarter. Watching the big screen from a table in the corner is LaeCharles Lawrence Jr., a 44-year-old web developer from Oakland who is best known for his YouTube videos espousing East Bay pride. (In his most-viewed appearance, on a video called “Berkeley Enough,” he excoriates his pal, Los Angeles musician–rapper David “D.J. Dave” Wittman of “Whole Foods Parking Lot” fame, for losing touch with his Berkeley roots.)
The extra-large Lawrence is wearing an extra-large Warriors jacket, his full head of dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail as he tucks into a decidedly un-barbecued meal of salad and iced tea. He remembers going to games as a child in the 1970s with his father, LaeCharles Lawrence Sr., a naval gunner’s mate based in Alameda. His fandom is as resolute as his hometown pride, but the man is relentlessly objective. “Nobody here is stupid—if we were the owners of the Warriors, we’d want to make a buck, too,” he says. “That said, the prices will be going up if they build that arena. San Francisco corporations are going to latch on quickly, and the seats they buy will be the ones currently held by fans. It’s almost like gentrification, where they just push out the people who are already there.”