Bay Area artist Tony Robles has designed dozens of Golden State Warriors pieces from his home office, which houses his many collections. (Ben Golliver/Washington Post)
National NBA Writer

OAKLAND, Calif. — Tony Robles and his wife, Gemmalyn, didn’t just attend Golden State Warriors games at Oracle Arena. They descended upon the stadium with a tactical plan they spent years refining.

Robles, a 41-year-old content review analyst at a marketing agency, has been a collector his entire life, filling crates with old-school hip-hop vinyl albums and stuffing bookshelves with vintage comic books. But the San Jose native’s chief obsession is Warriors basketball.

While Golden State was mired in a string of losing seasons in the early 2000s, the graphic artist began drawing elaborate, witty signs in hopes of catching the players’ attention and meeting them. Robles and his wife would arrive at the arena an hour before the doors opened, race down the concourse to set up near the locker room tunnel and position Gemmalyn to maximize their visibility.

The real magic came from the signs, which honored stars and role players alike and were printed in ultra-high quality. Robles drew Monta Ellis on a $100 bill with the tagline, “In Monta we trust.” He portrayed veteran big man Austin Croshere as Austin Powers under the words: “Oh Behave.” And he honored Andris Biedrins with a whimsical photo of the Latvian cult hero serving burgers.

All three players stopped for photos, and soon Robles was bringing his drawings to autograph signings and sneaker events, surprising everyone from Adonal Foyle to DeMarcus Cousins with tribute art.

But Robles, like many fans around the East Bay, felt his personal connection to the Warriors slip as ticket prices skyrocketed in recent years and the franchise planned a move to San Francisco’s Chase Center next season.

“We’ve seen it all in almost 20 years at Oracle,” Robles said. “I used to get nosebleed tickets for $18, and now they want $100,000 for a personal seat license [at Chase Center]. We had to give up our season tickets. They’re losing some East Bay fans with the move.”

With Golden State’s 47-year run at Oracle Arena coming to an end with Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, Robles and other die-hard fan artists are paying tribute to a building they love — while agonizing over a painful departure.

The Warriors have their reasons for relocating: Oracle Arena is outdated by NBA standards and lacks many modern amenities, while the state-of-the-art Chase Center will be far more profitable and is more convenient for those who live and work in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Yet Oracle’s charm and history have made it a beloved fixture for Warriors fan artists.

Jonathan Chan, a 43-year-old Martinez native who works as a senior production designer for Sales Force, recalled paying $8 to see a game when the franchise missed the playoffs for 12 straight seasons from 1995 to 2006.

“It used to be more expensive to go to the movies than to go to a Warriors game, but the loud fans always made it feel full,” Chan said. “Oracle is the happiest place on Earth. Better than Disneyland.”

The Warriors’ five-year NBA Finals run has been a boon for fan artists such as Robles and Chan, who began connecting at the “Dubz against the World” show in 2017. Their audience expanded as cult heroes such as Biedrins were replaced by superheroes in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. At the “Golden Visions” show on Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue last week, larger-than-life portrayals were common.

Oakland's Sole Space sneaker boutique hosted the "Golden Visions" art show, featuring Golden State Warriors tribute pieces by Bay Area artists. (Ben Golliver/Washington Post)

Robles’s works include a cartoon drawing of Draymond Green as the Incredible Hulk and Curry as the Human Torch. Chan’s background in comics has led him to embrace the Warriors’ “Supervillians” moniker. He has dubbed Klay Thompson “Dr. Range” in a homage to Dr. Strange and cast Curry as Thanos in an Avengers-inspired animation for Bleacher Report.

“Steph covers every style,” Chan said. “He’s fun so you can put him in cartoons, but he’s a killer so you can have sharp-edged, hard-lined work where he’s demolishing an opponent too.”

Tara Funk, a 26-year-old graphic designer for NBC Sports Bay Area’s social media team, went to her first game at Oracle in middle school. The fourth-generation artist has tapped her love of science fiction to draw a foreboding Curry in a “Game of Thrones” motif and to equip Durant with “rehab wraps, assist goggles and an oxygen mask” in a basketball-meets-Blade Runner hybrid.

The city of Oakland was an ever-present character at “Golden Visions,” which drew hundreds of attendees. Joe Wallace, a 28-year-old freelance graphic artist from Concord, grounds his work in The Town’s “inner-city vibe.”

Leaning on graffiti-inspired lettering, Wallace regularly turns back the clock to the Warriors’ “We Believe” era. His favorite muse is Thunder, the now-defunct mascot known for enlivening blowout losses with zany antics and break-dancing competitions.

“Thunder represents the dark years,” said Wallace, who attended his first game in 1997. “You have to recognize the dark days to appreciate how far we’ve come.”

That the Warriors would move at the height of their powers clearly has struck a nerve in the East Bay art scene. With years to brace themselves for Oracle’s end, the “Golden Visions” artists sounded more wistful than angry. They also were intent on paying their respects.

Chan has planned an elaborate panoramic collage that will cycle through the various Warriors eras on his Instagram account. Funk said she is working on a “Thank You, Oakland” package that will depict franchise luminaries such as Chris Mullin and Don Nelson. And Wallace has designed a custom T-shirt and throwback jersey to honor Oracle.

“I’ll definitely miss Oracle’s rowdy and authentic fans,” Wallace said. “I couldn’t believe how grand the building was when I went to my first game at 6 or 7. My love for the Warriors has always been there since then.”

It remains to be seen whether Chase Center will be able to inspire that same lasting devotion. The billion-dollar palace is loaded with luxury amenities and enjoys a prime spot just steps from the San Francisco Bay.

Among the Warriors’ die-hard artists, there was deep concern that Silicon Valley’s wealth and tech culture run counter to a hostile basketball atmosphere. Many longtime fans were quick to note that Oracle emptied before Game 4’s final buzzer, something they insisted would have never happened a decade ago.

Bay Area artist Jonathan Chan has planned a panoramic tribute to Oracle Arena, a place he calls "better than Disneyland." (Ben Golliver/Washington Post)

Wallace worried that the building will have a “San Francisco transplant element” and that it might take a while to establish its own identity. Chan is bracing for a “corporate” feel but said he still plans to attend games because he “loves the Warriors too much.”

After years of jockeying for photos with his signs, though, Robles has changed course.

“The atmosphere will be so different,” Robles said. “With the prices now, we have to decide if we want to go on a vacation or go to a game. We’re always going to love our Warriors, but actually being there in person has taken a back seat for us.”

He is largely resigned to watching from home next season — that is, unless his artwork helps him score free tickets.

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