Bay Area's Golden Boys
Friday, May 4, 2007
OAKLAND, Calif., May 3 -- In an expansive parking lot that on NFL Sundays is packed with silver-and-black clad Oakland Raiders fans dressed in Darth Vader costumes and other bizarre outfits, fans arrived early Thursday afternoon wearing Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond throwback jerseys and T-shirts emblazoned with a message that has become a rallying cry for the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors: "We Believe!"
Oakland will always be a Raiders town. The fact that the Warriors play their games in the shadow of the Raiders' stadium, in a building constructed 40 years ago, only reinforces this point. But an unmistakable and unexpected buzz surrounded the Bay Area on Thursday as the Warriors tried to shock the NBA world by eliminating the 67-win Dallas Mavericks, the top seed in the Western Conference. The game ended too late for this edition.
The Warriors carried a 3-2 lead into Game 6 of the best-of-seven series but regardless of the game's outcome, Coach Don Nelson's scrappy bunch had already picked up fans around the country while sparking a revival of pride in their long-suffering fans. The crowds at Oracle Arena have been rabid from tip-off to final buzzer in the series and sparked the Warriors to wins in Games 3 and 4.
Washington Wizards all-star Gilbert Arenas, for one, is not surprised. Arenas began his career with the Warriors as an unheralded second-round pick in 2001 and became something of a cult figure with the team's fans before signing with the Wizards in the summer of 2003.
"I remember going on the radio out there after I signed [with the Wizards] and saying that I hoped the Warriors would put a great team together some day because those fans deserve it," Arenas said by phone on Thursday. "Those are great fans. Even when we were bad, losing games, they were coming out, making noise and supporting us. It's great to see them get that reward because it's been so long. I'm happy for them."
The Warriors last made the playoffs in 1994, when they were swept by the Phoenix Suns in the first round. It was the longest playoff drought in the NBA, snapped only because Golden State went a league best 16-5 over its final 21 games. The Warriors grabbed the eighth seed on the final night of the regular season with a win at Portland.
After such a long dry spell, one would have thought the Warriors would have been happy merely to make the postseason. That changed with Game 1 in Dallas, when Nelson's small-ball tactics and the outstanding play of point guard Baron Davis sparked the Warriors to a 97-85 win.
From that point on, the Mavericks knew they had a series on their hands and the Warriors and their fans started thinking upset.
Nelson, who coached Golden State's popular playoff teams of the late '80s and early '90s, returned to Oakland last summer at the behest of Mullin, now Golden State's president of basketball operations. Nelson engineered the season-changing trade that brought Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington to the Warriors from the Indiana Pacers for Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy in January.
Nelson had taken a season off following an eight-year stint coaching and building the Mavericks, so he as much as anyone could appreciate the wave of excitement surrounding his team before Thursday's game.
"You know my saying, right?" Nelson said. "I don't really like living in the past but with this team -- we're such an emotional team, as we've proven -- I think the crowd helps our team more than any team I can remember coaching."
One of the fans who arrived early Thursday was Chris Ettell, a longtime season ticket holder from Lafayette, Calif., who was wearing a T-shirt honoring Nelson's 1991 Warriors, a team that featured Mullin, Richmond and Tim Hardaway. The three were dubbed "Run TMC" and played a fast-paced, high-scoring style that mirrors that of the current team, which has been carried by Davis, the versatile but volatile Jackson and Jason Richardson, who broke in as a rookie with Arenas in 2001.
"Watching this team has been as fun as anything that has happened around here in a long time," Ettell said. "I think back to the '82 when the 49ers beat the Cowboys in the [NFC] championship game, 'The Catch.' Or the Giants in '02. These guys came together and peaked at the right time, and having Nellie back coaching is great. It's an exciting time to be a Warriors fan."