by Irv Soonachan
It’s opening night for the Warriors, who have missed the Playoffs 14 times in the past 15 seasons. By way of comparison, the Clippers have been to the Playoffs twice in that span. Yet every year, the Warriors pack an arena full of people who, as the popular team t-shirt indicates, “Believe.” And not just on opening night – these fans stick it out the whole season.
Strolling around the stands an hour before the game, I meet 29-year-old die-hard Homer Shamoeil and his 20-year-old brother, Henry. They’re about halfway up the lower level in some pretty pricey seats they found on StubHub, and they’re already wearing foam fingers, ready for tipoff.
“Henry made me buy them as soon as we got here,” Homer says a little sheepishly.
Homer has been going to Warriors games faithfully since 1989, when the entire Bay Area fell hard for the Run TMC team.
“You just wait for that season, that breakthrough season,” he says. “They have a lot of good players, young players, and a lot of chemistry on the team. This might be the year.”
“If this team stays healthy, they could get into the seventh or eighth spot in the Playoffs,” he says, nodding with a cheery certainty that reminds me of the Mormon missionaries who sometimes knock on my door.
Being something of a heathen, I can’t help asking Homer if he says that to himself every year. He laughs self-deprecatingly. “Yeah, I do,” he admits. But he won’t back down on his prediction one iota. (And he’s just as sober as the guys who come knocking at my door.)
In the locker room, the team is trying to build the same faith. The entire franchise was rattled this summer when Stephen Jackson, then the team captain, publicly asked for a trade so he could “go somewhere where he could win a championship.” He’s since been stripped of his captaincy, but remains in the lineup.
Before the game I seek out veteran Devean George, one of the few Warriors with championship experience, for a barometer. I want to know what makes a team Believe, and if the Warriors are anywhere close.
“You need confidence in yourself and your teammates, and you need a mentality that it’s you against the world,” he says. “It starts with us (the players). We’re the ones out there playing. The coach can only yell at you and pump you up so much.”
And how close are the Warriors to that?
“This team is very close to having that edge,” he says, without blinking and without sounding forced. “We have some younger guys, but they’re getting experience every day. And it helps to have older guys too, to help them grow through some things. “
Unfortunately the older guys – Devean and former Spurs point guard Speedy Claxton – aren’t even on the active roster. Stephen Jackson, however, is.
The season-opening ceremony a short while later is a gladiatorial orgy. The court is literally filled with dancers – some cheerleaders, others from the Warriors children’s dance troupe – for a musical number, before the lights go down again. Fire shoots up from behind the 24-second clocks, tribal rhythms blast through the arena, and cheerleaders in two-piece spandex outfits form an extended hallway from the tunnel where the players emerge one at a time as they’re announced, as though each one is fighting a heavyweight title match all on his own.
But the intros get out of sync when Stephen Jackson’s name is called, because instead of jogging through the tunnel onto the court, he walks, and is subsequently booed. He remains petulant after the game starts. At one point he seems to cup a hand to his ear while his own fans boo him, as if to say, “bring it on.”
The Warriors play relatively well in the first half. With Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady out, the Rockets are undersized and undermanned, and the Warriors exit the second quarter with a 10-point lead.
After being called “selfish” and “impatient” by coach Rick Adelman at halftime, the Rockets make the extra pass the entire second half. Over the next 24 minutes they rack up 20 assists, hit open threes, and also outrebound the Warriors. The Rockets win by a point, but it doesn’t feel that close.
An hour or so later I catch up with Rockets assistant Jack Sikma and ask how a team comes to believe it can compete every night, even when their best players are hurt. Sikma was an NBA champion and seven-time All-Star as a player.
“It’s the atmosphere that has formed around here,” he says. “It gives young people the ability to learn and thrive. The older guys talk the talk and walk the walk. They may not be the most skilled guys but they’re team guys.
“Organizationally it’s reinforced. Rick values it, understands it, and coaches in a way that says ‘you’re going to make mistakes, but I have confidence in you.’ He also appreciates those who lead.”
I ask Sikma if it’s possible to draft “team” guys. Surprisingly, he says it’s usually hard to tell until a player’s second or third year, and emphasizes having the right structure in place.
Exiting the empty arena, I find the Shamoeil brothers still in the parking lot, each holding a Rockstar Energy Drink and a stogie. Somehow it seems like a completely appropriate thing to be doing. We chat about the game for a while. They’re aware how badly their team has been outclassed, yet they still plan on finding a way to attend next week’s game against Memphis. Henry asks me to relay a question to Stephen Jackson: “Ask him why he has to act that way.” I promise I will, and turn to leave.
As I’m walking away, Homer shouts after me. “Hey!”
I turn around and he says, “I still think the Warriors are going to make the Playoffs. You can print that. If they don’t, I’ll buy you a beer.”
I accept his offer, knowing full well that after the season, I’ll want to buy him one.
— Warriors draft pick Stephen Curry is the real deal. He has a great midrange jumper and uses his quickness to create open looks for himself. He is also adept at spotting the open man. There will be rookie mistakes, but if his underdeveloped frame survives the season, he’ll be the Rookie of the Year.
— Chase Budinger will help the Rockets this year. Drafted by Detroit in the second round and traded to Houston, he’s a strong spot-up shooter who will stretch defenses. He’s also an adept passer and a pretty good athlete. Budinger is a terrible defender, though.
— A Rockets staffer confirmed for me that the Ron Artest “underwear” stories from last year were true.