On Jan. 17, 2017, the Golden State Warriors held a rather elaborate ceremony at what was then just a big pile of dirt in San Francisco. The ownership group, which had invested approximately $1.5 billion to turn this pile of dirt into a game-changing stadium when Chase Center opens later this year, sat in the front row.
Head coach Steve Kerr and newly acquired superstar Kevin Durant were the headliners. They’d only known each other for a few months, but their timing was already on point.
“Night after night, the feel we get from the crowd — can you talk about what it feels like to be a Warrior?” Kerr asked Durant.
“It’s different when you’re on the team and when you’re an opposing player. I can tell you that,” Durant said. “When you step out there and put on that jersey, just that support — no matter if we’re playing Cleveland or we’re playing the worst team in the league — they’re still going to support and be there to cheer for us. To go out there and play in front of them is amazing. It makes us want to play harder as well. We love the support and every time we go out there we try to play as hard as we can.”
Kerr paused, then asked, “How’s the coaching been so far this year?”
Without missing a beat, Durant said, “It’s been all right.”
“We’ll try to step it up a little bit,” Kerr deadpanned. “Maybe get you the ball more.”
Durant smiled as the crowd of San Francisco politicians, Warriors season-ticket holders and curious onlookers yucked it up.
“Yeah, please do,” Durant said.
Then the guests of honor put on hard hats, grabbed shovels and posed for photos.
It was a beautiful, uncomplicated January day. The Warriors’ future seemed so bright back then. And it was. Durant would go on to lead Golden State to back-to-back titles, and players would speak openly about taking less money to keep this group together once everyone hit free agency. The runway seemed clear for this group to win and keep winning once they moved from Oracle Arena in Oakland into this new state-of-the art building across San Francisco Bay.
But all of that breezy optimism has faded now that the team has arrived at its final game in Oakland on Thursday in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors.
Durant has been lost for the remainder of the series — and probably most of next season — with a ruptured Achilles tendon. His impending free agency had been hanging over the franchise like soupy San Francisco fog all season. And this injury has essentially shut down the airport completely, as it’s impossible to pilot through this cloud cover of uncertainty.
Will Durant still decide to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent? Several league sources told ESPN that they expect Durant to follow through and hit free agency, despite the long recovery time ahead of him. And if he does, will the Warriors follow through and offer him the five-year maximum contract extension worth $221 million? Will other teams offer their maximum four-year, $164 million contract? Several league sources told ESPN that they expect the Warriors and Durant’s other suitors to offer the maximum allowable contract, despite the serious injury.
Which means Durant’s free agency will have the same leaguewide impact it did when he chose the Warriors in 2016 and elevated a great team to a dynastic team.
The Warriors’ dynasty will either roll over into the new building, or its window could start closing, just as Oracle Arena’s doors are shutting for good on NBA games.
All season, there has been a nostalgia about the team packing up and moving from its East Bay home of the past 47 years. The franchise has honored great players from its past and each of its eras, including when the franchise didn’t win much of significance, but always had passionate, gritty fans who connected deeply with the team.
After the Warriors dropped Games 3 and 4 of the Finals at home to fall behind 3-1 last week, stunned fans lingered and took selfies with ushers and security guards as everyone tried to come to grips with the realization that this all might be over a lot sooner than anyone expected.
This golden era for the franchise, which began when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson grew into the Splash Brothers eight years ago, might be dimming a lot sooner than anyone anticipated. The joyful team culture had been fading for some time now — a casualty of the inexorable media cycle, clashing of egos and generalized organizational fatigue.
But while things haven’t felt fresh or new in a while, Oakland had a way of keeping everyone grounded. The team still practices and has its offices at a Marriott hotel in the Oakland Convention Center. The elevator buttons leading to the facility have been out for years. Just last week, when Durant was coming in to get extra work against some of the team’s G Leaguers, you’d see some of those players lingering outside the hotel’s business center and restaurant on the second floor, mixing in with guests and convention-goers. Players and coaches often walk across the street to restaurants in the area like Café Gabriela or Ratto’s, eating lunch or taking coffee alongside fans and regular folks.
Next season, there will be no such mixing. Everything will be state of the art. Even the art out front of the arena will be world-class, something tourists will visit in the same breath as the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Warriors have taken great care to translate the elements of their old home to their new one, from the design of the stadium, which will have the same low roof and steep concrete stands that help Oracle Arena roar so loudly, to maintaining their presence in Oakland by keeping offices of the team’s foundation there.
But it won’t be the same. Because the whole point of moving was to evolve and grow. To do what Silicon Valley companies have always done: Start small in a funky garage, build a killer product and scale up to bigger offices.
The challenge is to hold on to the right things as you grow. To know what is essential, and what is simply nostalgia.