In Oakland, a Team and a City on the Verge of Gentrification
The Golden State Warriors meant a lot to Bay Area sports fans even before they were the future of basketball, but it's hard to know where the team or the game or the city will be by the time they move to San Francisco.
Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Sean Kelly, a database engineer who moved to San Francisco from Miami in 1995, during the early years of the first dot-com era, did not know the Golden State Warriors were a Bay Area team for the first decade he lived here. He isn't alone. While traveling among Warriors fans during the team's dramatic but ultimately unstoppable rise to the NBA Finals this year, I've met several people who made similar admissions. To their credit, the Warriors were easy to forget back then; they cycled through coaches and garish uniform redesigns while bumping along the bottom of the Pacific Division every year. In 2001, they lost 63 games.
This all seems like a long time ago. With the exception of some grumps and cranks, the San Francisco Bay Area could not be happier to see the Golden State Warriors pursuing their second NBA championship in two years. The brilliance of the Dubs and the shock of ticket prices for home games at Oracle Arena might be the only thing the multiply riven, stressed-out, disruption-fatigued Bay Area can agree on at the moment, and that counts for a lot.
"I started going to games in 2006," Sean told me, "but [things changed] after the Warriors beat Mark Cuban's Mavericks in 2007." For the better: Golden State was an eight seed in '07, but a headlong and heedless one led by Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson. After the Warriors upset the Mavericks, Oracle Arena—which had gone 12 years without a playoff game—started filling close to capacity basically every game. Between the upset and Davis's departure for the Los Angeles Clippers, tickets were still available in the $25 range, but they were harder to get. The days of the $10 nosebleed impulse-buy were over; resale ticket prices shot up too high for many longtime fans.
For Sean, who bought a home in North Oakland a year ago (in a neighborhood "with not enough density to support any local businesses"), the way the Warriors play is enough to justify the occasional $60 or $70 splash-out on seats in the furthest reaches of Oracle.
"One of the things that's frustrating for cock-grabbing jocks is that the fundamentals of the game, sharing the ball, passing, limiting errors, accuracy, and teamwork—that's what the Warriors have," he said. "There's no one superstar on the team taking 50 shots in a row."
Because of the way the Warriors play, and because they play that singular game with such singular brilliance, they are winning in ways no team ever has. The supply of tickets is finite, the demand for them is infinite, and the market has taken care of the rest. This is how it usually goes. The challenge, for Warriors fans who want to get close to this team, lies mostly in the fact that it has just kept going.
"Wasn't too long ago it was hard to get people to go with me. They'd wrinkle their noses," Bucky Sinister, a writer who has lived in the Bay Area—and been a dedicated Warriors fan—since 1989, told me. "I was a big part of the punk/art/writing scenes here, subcultural San Francisco, and sports were very uncool! I couldn't talk about it, no one went to games." Bucky bought a small condo in Oakland at the bottom of the housing market in 2010, and saw his last game in person shortly after that.
"I was working for the comedy clubs at the time, and one of the managers scored executive suite tickets," he said. "It was amazing."
I asked Bucky what, in particular, made the boxes so cushy.
"The seats I used to get were small and uncomfortable, behind one of the goals up at the top. To see it relatively close, from the side, and have comfy leather seats? Wow. And we had our own bathroom, and a waiter came around to take orders."
It was not really all that long ago that the idea of a Warriors game as a luxury experience just didn't compute.
The Warriors have been packing Oracle for a lot longer than they've been good, and for a long time no one outside the Bay Area quite seemed to understand why. There are plenty of other things to do in San Francisco and Oakland, and tickets haven't been whatever-grade cheap in some time. But something about Roaracle—the indoor fireworks, the flamethrowers on the baskets, the signature taunting chant lifted from a cult movie about street gangs who dressed like clowns and baseball players—along with the Warriors' persistence put butts in seats, game after heartbreaking game.
Thomas Apley is a San Franciscan born and raised, a student and actor who now spends a lot of time wondering how long he'll get to keep living in his hometown; at the moment, he's renting a series of sublets and hoping he gets to stay. Thomas and I watched Golden State's Game 4 self-immolation against the Oklahoma City Thunder on May 24, a dazed 24-point loss low-lit by 16 turnovers, shockingly shitty rebounding, and eight missed three-pointers from Stephen Curry. When it was over, the Warriors were just one game away from elimination.
At one point, with the Warriors down 30, the TNT cameras panned out into a crowd of Thunder fans and found three lone dudes in gold "Strength in Numbers" Dubs shirts, their arms crossed tight against their chests. "I feel that right now," Thomas sighed. "I know just how they feel."
Thomas plays pick-up basketball at a court in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park every Saturday, just as he's done since he was a kid. Sometimes neighborhood kids, elementary-school age, walk up and tag him into a game. "They make some juke move, shoot, and when they land one, they yell, 'CURRY,'" he said. He demonstrated the voices and the moves. "Curry is their god."
These kids are growing up in a very different city than the one Thomas came of age in, but they also have an experience Thomas did not—their god lives close to home. Thomas, who got into basketball because of Space Jam ("Jordan was the god back then," he said. "He helped Bugs Bunny!"), did not have this experience. Thomas was seven years old during the 1996-97 season, when Space Jam colonized his imagination for Michael Jordan. The Dubs finished the year at 30-52, seventh out of seven in the Pacific Division.
When the venture capitalist Joe Lacob and his partners agreed to buy the Warriors in July of 2010, the median price of a home in Oakland was $349,000. By December, when the NBA approved the deal, the price had gone down to $338,000. Last June, when the Warriors won their first NBA Championship in 40 years, the median home price had risen to $544,000. Today, it's $606,000.
In 2010, people were still calling Oakland a place where people could move if they lost their apartments in San Francisco. Now this city of 400,000 people, half of whom make under $30,000 a year, is the fourth most expensive housing market in the country. "Affordable" has been redefined as $800 for a room in a shared apartment—at least, that's the maximum rent allowed on an affordable housing board on Facebook, which also cautions members not to use words like "'cool' (recently black) or 'sketchy' (currently black)" when describing Oakland neighborhoods. The Warriors' hometown, a city that once offered an easy step across the Bay for artists and young families, is no one's idea of a bargain anymore. This is doubly true for people who find themselves pushed out of the neighborhoods they grew up in.
In some ways, the rise of the Warriors has paralleled the rise of Oakland—although that framing doesn't quite suit the people who are hardest hit by gentrification. For every person who talks about moving to an "up-and-coming" Oakland neighborhood, there's a person who grew up in that neighborhood whose rent is coming up, and up, and up. Oakland is currently under a City Council–imposed rental market moratorium, during which time landlords can't raise rents beyond a small annual adjustment pegged to the consumer price index. (The ordinance does not provide further protection against evictions.)
Louis Segal is a retired teacher and lifelong Warriors fan born and raised in Oakland. I talked to him in the ticketholders line for a regular season game in April, and he told me the last time he'd seen the team in person was in 1974. "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for him," he said, gesturing at his son-in-law, Michael Hackett. Michael is a property manager in Oakland who said he got out of the money end of real estate when he saw what he was doing to his own neighborhoods. The tickets were his.
On a Saturday in the middle of the Western Conference Finals, I rode with a Yellow Cab driver named Tony who grew up in Novato. He was glad that Game 3 against the Thunder wasn't on the day I rode with him, because his daughter was headed to prom that night and he needed to see her off. Tony and his family live in a tiny apartment in the Marina District, a neighborhood more commonly populated by the kinds of people who show up late to Warriors games because they got stuck in traffic. (Oracle is about a hundred yards from a BART station.)
Tony was sure, as everyone else in the Bay was at that point, that the Warriors would make the Finals—our conversation took place when the Western Conference series was 1-1. He was also sure that the Cavaliers would not just beat but brutalize the Warriors when they got there. "Last year, it was LeBron just moved back there a year ago, and the team hadn't gelled yet," he said. "And the Warriors, they played magnificently, but without Steph—Cavaliers are going to take him out."
Wait—hurt him on purpose? "Yes," Tony answered. "Cavs are playing some nasty basketball. They haven't lost a playoff game," although they would that night, with their first postseason loss, to the Raptors at Toronto, 84-99.
"And listen, they have nothing else to live for in Cleveland. Cleveland has nothing else going for it. Cleveland is a real armpit to live in. If San Francisco was a part of the body"—Tony thought for a moment before continuing—"it would probably be some part of the brain. Cleveland would be the asshole. When you meet someone and you say, 'Oh, you're from Cleveland?' they come back with, 'Oh, it's not that bad.' You know there are black men sitting in barbershops all over Cleveland right now, nodding their heads, saying, 'Yep, they're going to win tonight.'"
Tony, in his late 50s, is also African-American. "They haven't won a championship game since 1963," he said. The Cavaliers weren't actually founded until 1970, but point taken. They have yet to win the Finals. When I pointed out that, until last year, the Warriors hadn't won a chip in 40 years themselves, Tony's rejoinder was that the Bay Area has two football teams and two baseball teams: "People have something else to root for here."
Categorizing the 49ers and the Raiders as easy to root for might be a stretch, but Tony's right on the merits. The Cleveland Indians last won a World Series in 1948; the Browns' last championship was in 1964, and their next one is one of the most difficult things to imagine in all of sports.
Tony grew up in Marin, and he has lived in Oakland and Palo Alto. He thinks that Oakland letting the Warriors go—in 2012, the team announced plans to build a new arena in San Francisco; it is currently scheduled to open in 2019—is a terrible idea.
"It's not workable over here," he said, as we got stuck in a persistent pocket of traffic crossing from the Mission into Hayes Valley. "San Francisco doesn't have the infrastructure to support all the cars. And the Warriors have always had an Oakland character to them. Oakland really can't have anything, can it? Everyone's trying to take everything Oakland roots for." Tony shook his head as he drove. The looming threat is that this list includes the Raiders and the A's, too.
Melvin Baker, who owns a window cleaning service in San Bruno, doesn't see it that way. "Everybody all upset the Warriors are moving to San Francisco, but they're coming home," he told me. "I used to watch the Warriors at the Cow Palace. They've always been the San Francisco Warriors; they're still the San Francisco Warriors. What's 'Golden State' supposed to be, anyway?" The Cow Palace is in Daly City, if you want to be technical about it, but after two years there the Warriors played at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium—which is called Bill Graham Auditorium today—right next door to San Francisco's City Hall.
Melvin grew up in the Mission, and on a sunny May Day afternoon he was at the Lucky Horseshoe, a bar on Cortland in Bernal Heights, where he picks up a lot of window cleaning clients. The Lucky Horseshoe has something like nine TVs—I am not experienced sports-bar-goer, and so kept discovering new ones—and the bartender was trying to let the Giants finish a Mets game on one of them, but everyone in the bar hollered when the bartender put baseball on "their" TV. And so the national pastime was jettisoned to the back corner by the pool table, basically behind another TV. The Giants won, and so did the Warriors, without Curry, in a beautiful 118-108 finish over the Portland Trail Blazers in the first game of the Western Conference Semis.
Over Buddy Roark's 28 years on earth, the Warriors' winning percentage is .460. He grew up in San Leandro, a couple miles from Oracle, and he's been a Warriors fan his whole life, but he had never made it out to a Warriors playoff game until May 3. Buddy; his Oakland housemate, Cody Dorrell; and their friend Brook Yciano were getting in because a ticket-holder friend of theirs had to leave on a business trip.
Growing up a Warriors fan was "a lot of torture for a long time," Buddy said. "I'm so jealous of children growing up now, getting to live a childhood dream of growing up with a winning team." As for the Warriors leaving Oracle, and his old neighborhood, behind, Buddy wasn't too concerned yet; they've likely got three seasons left in Oakland. "Their best years are going to be here," he said. "They've got a while yet." And when they cross the Bay, he added, "they're going to be the tech team. They'll have a nice stadium, but they're gonna suck."
"Like the 49ers are now," said Cody, who grew up ten minutes away, on Alameda.
"I'll still be a fan," Buddy said. "Most games I watch are on TV anyway."
"Now they're going to leave to go back to the city where they have tons of bandwagon people."
"At least they won't be over here."
Cody and Buddy talked about how Raiders and 49ers fans aren't necessarily relegated to whichever side of the Bay their team plays—or used to play—on.
"At the end of the day, pro sports here are all about the money," said Brook, who's from Sacramento.
That's true not just in the Bay Area, although there are few places in the United States where the churn of all this feels quite so turbulent; things seem to be happening more quickly here, and with a violence that only intermittently bothers to be polite. There is just so much upheaval, which to well-salaried transplants feels like the success they were born to, and to those fighting to stay in their homes feels like certain doom. It's easy to understand how the Bay Area could see its ideal self in the Warriors. The Dubs' simultaneous scrappiness and gold-plated grit, and the way their unstoppable superstars still manage to read as underdogs, reflect a flattering vision of the Bay Area's own future.
The Warriors are moving the game forward, but basketball is moving, too, as it always does. By the time the Warriors get to San Francisco, it's hard to know where they or the game will be. It's hard to know what Oakland or San Francisco will look like, and who will still manage to live there. What's safe to say is that we probably won't recognize any of it. That's the way these things work.
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