When Stephen Curry ran off a DeMarcus Cousins screen in the closing seconds of Game 6 of the NBA Finals last Thursday night, caught a Draymond Green pass, and launched a shot that could have won the game for Golden State — and extend the series to a deciding Game 7 on Sunday in Toronto — Warriors coach Steve Kerr felt certain he’d be working on Father’s Day. “I always think every shot Steph takes is going in,” says Kerr. But Curry’s shot, which was expertly contested by Toronto power forward Serge Ibaka, bounced off the back of the rim, effectively ending Golden State’s hopes for a three-peat. Kerr, Curry and Green, the three men who, minus Klay Thompson (who left the game early with a freakish and unfortunate ACL injury) were most responsible for Golden State’s run of near unprecedented excellence over the past five years, converged near the sideline, and reacted to this stunning turn of events in the most Golden State Warriors way possible.
For years, the Warriors have had more fun winning big games and world championships than any other sports team on the planet. Since he took over as coach of the team in 2014, Kerr has touted the benefits of taking a joyous approach to basketball. The effervescent Curry, who revels in the success of both his own impossible shooting streaks and those of his teammates, has served as the embodiment of this happy-go-lucky approach. Those smiles, sheepish and secure, speak to the team’s continued adherence to the Warrior way, even in the face of defeat.
We lost two Hall of Famers — Durant and Thompson — to injuries in back-to-back games in these finals. Still, the best shooter in NBA history had a chance to keep us alive. He missed, but it’s just a basketball game. What the hell are you going to do?
If the Raptors brought Golden State’s era of excellence to a close on June 13 — the Warriors were the first team since the 1960s Boston Celtics to reach five straight Finals — it sure didn’t feel like it. The atmosphere at Oracle Arena, the 53-year-old spherical structure that sits in an Oakland parking lot off the interstate, next to a drab baseball/football stadium that hosts the A’s and Raiders (for now), was far from funereal. Kerr and Co. grinned. The Warriors coaches kicked back one last time, over Modelos, at Oracle; Kerr told his staff there wasn’t one person in that room he doesn’t love seeing everyday. As the Raptors chugged champagne, Curry joined his family and friends in the stands to take some final pictures in the old barn. Next season, the Warriors are departing for their new digs in San Francisco: the $1.4 billion Chase Center. Curry had a drink in hand.
If the Warriors were just putting off fretting about their uncertain future, could anyone blame them? Sure, Golden State still has plenty going for it. A flashy new building can help attract free agents, and Curry is still Curry. An impossible string of bad luck descended upon the franchise in the these Finals, and the undermanned team was still just one shot away from forcing a game seven.
Still, nervous days await. Durant, who fortified the Warriors dynasty when he signed with the team in the summer of 2016 (after the Warriors had already set the all-time record for regular season wins), may leave in free agency. But his torn Achilles clouds his future, and it’s unclear whether he’ll stay in San Francisco or bolt to, say, New York, out of Curry’s shadow. Golden State will likely re-sign Thompson, but the shooting guard’s knee injury will cost him at least a chunk of next season. Meanwhile, LeBron James just found a new running mate: the Los Angeles Lakers finally traded for Anthony Davis, a top echelon NBA talent, potentially mowing the path to another Western Conference championship squarely though Southern California.
Even if this incarnation of the Warriors is done lifting championship trophies, however, the franchise’s legacy should never be forgotten. Golden State is arguably the most consequential sports team of this decade. The Warriors have revolutionized pro basketball, as teams around the league have tried to emulate Golden State’s reliance on aesthetically pleasing ball-sharing and home run shots from the three-point range. It’s no coincidence that, in these Finals, the selfless Raptors seemed to be beating Golden State at their own game.
Beyond basketball, the Warriors found a singular voice willing to take on social issues outside of sports. Curry and Kerr have been outspoken critics of President Trump, and the Warriors were one of the first teams to contemplate skipping the customary White House visit to celebrate a championship (Trump later rescinded the invitation). Green has argued that the word “owner” be culled from the sports vernacular, given its connotations to slavery. Kerr has spoken out on several issues, like gun control (Kerr’s father, the former president of the American University in Beruit, was assassinated outside of his school office in 1984). After a mass shooter killed 12 people in Virginia Beach on May 31, Kerr wore a “Vote For Our Lives” t-shirt to a press conference before Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
“To me, [the Warriors] speak not just to the modern NBA, but to the unique place that sports can have in society,” says NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “And it’s not just the spirit they bring to the game on the floor. But I think the spirit they bring as citizens, and to their participation in their community. They are to a man involved in basketball programs and other educational programs in the Bay Area. They speak out on important societal and political issues, when they have a point of view. That goes obviously for their coach as well … They are multi-dimensional people who are redefining what an athlete is in society.”
During the 2013-2014 season, then-Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson invited his childhood friend from New York City, ex-NBA point guard and current TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith, to address his team. Jackson told Smith that his starting backcourt, of Curry and Thompson, was the best in the world. When Smith got in front of the players, Jackson announced that they’d be visiting the White House on a regular basis. The Warriors were coming off a season in which they won a single playoff series: an opening round defeat of the Denver Nuggets, the franchise’s second series win in the prior 19 years. “And I looked around the room and I’m like, no way,” says Smith. “No way! I said it in my mind. No way, man. Come on, Mark. They were so unproven.”
Jackson was on to something, though he wouldn’t see his vision through: after clashing with others in the organization, Jackson — a former ESPN analyst who had never been a head coach before getting the Warriors job — was let go after that season, which ended in a first round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. To replace Jackson, the Warriors reached out to Kerr, a TNT broadcaster with no previous head coaching experience.
“Imagine the conversations we were having,” says Warriors President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts, who worked with Kerr in Phoenix, where Welts was president when Kerr was general manager from 2007-2010. “Ok, so, let’s play this out from the public’s perspective, if we make this change. So in Mark Jackson, you hire a coach who got you to the playoffs, who was a former player and broadcaster who had never coached a game before. So you’re going to part ways with Mark, and then you’re going to go out and hire a former player who’s a broadcaster who’s never coached a game before. People may see that as a little illogical. Seems like if you didn’t think that was working, why are you doing this back over again, right?”
“But those of us who knew Steve, had no idea, I guess, what kind of a coach he would be,” Welts continues. “But we had an idea of exactly who he was as a human being, and how he approached life. And how this genuine, what you see is what you get, self-deprecating way dealing with other human beings was just his DNA. I think everyone believed that could translate tremendously into what an NBA coach has to be. It’s not about him. It’s never about him. He only has one way of accepting praise, and that’s to deflect it to others. I defy you to find a moment in his life when that hasn’t been the way that he’s operated. And he always looks to build everyone he works with up. And build their confidence and have their backs. I experienced it, being in an organization with him. Just imagining how that would translate into an NBA locker room seemed like a pretty cool formula. It’s real. It’s not like something he learned in business school. It’s who he is.”
After getting the Warriors job, Kerr visited Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll — fresh off a 43-8 obliteration of Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII — at his team’s training camp. “He didn’t really know how he wanted to run his program,” says Carroll. “So he was just listening. He hung for a few days. He was so humble about it. Here he is coaching in the NBA, and he’s sitting here watching our walkthroughs and our practices. He was just wide open and receptive and taking notes and grabbing things and talking to people.” After the visit, Kerr came up with four principles to define the Golden State culture: joy, mindfulness, compassion, and competition. He waited a few months to unveil them to the team, however: he wanted to win their trust before hitting them with stuff that can be construed as motivational mumbo-jumbo.
When he finally did talk about joy, Curry skipped around the court afterwards, saying something along the lines of “look, coach, I have joy! I have joy!” The mocking counted as a breakthrough.
Ribbing, in fact, became an essential part of the Golden State program. In his upcoming memoir, The Sixth Man, Warriors forward Andre Iguodala recalls a team-building exercise in which players were asked to recall the moments in a game during which they felt the highest. “When Klay’s turn came, we all assumed he was going to say that his highest moment was the the day he scored 37 points in a quarter against Sacramento,” Iguodala writes. “I mean, that was an NBA record! But he didn’t. Instead he said, ‘My best moment was one night I caught a pass and I was like fifty feet from the basket and I was about to shoot it. And all of a sudden, I hear Andre being like, ‘What the fuck, Klay? You’re fifty feet out.’ And I thought about it for a second and shot it anyway. It went in, and I was like, ‘Yeah, Andre, fuck you.’ We all had a good laugh about that. I was like, ‘Wow, really dog? That was your best moment?’”
The loose environment persisted even after the Warriors blew a 3-1 NBA Finals lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. That summer, former Cavs and LA Lakers head coach Mike Brown joined Kerr’s staff as an assistant. He recalls attending a summer league practice in Las Vegas soon after he took the Warriors job. “The next thing I know, the freaking music comes on,” says Brown. “And it’s like blasting. Ok, ok, maybe they’re going to play some music I guess while they’re getting dressed. So they get dressed, they start warming up and the music’s still on. Dead serious, in my mind I’m like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’” He turned to his son Cameron, who was in college at the time. “I’m like, ‘do you believe this shit? They’re starting practice and they’ve got this music playing?’” The tunes blasted for most of the session. “I think I listened to more music that practice than I did the whole month before I got to summer league,” says Brown. “I was floored. I didn’t know who to talk to.”
The Warriors have brought in a sleep researcher and a Navy SEAL psychologist to work with the team. They’ve incorporated machine learning into scouting reports. “We’re not afraid to try anything,” says assistant general manager Kirk Lacob. Experts like psychologist Dachter Keltner, co-founder of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center — which “studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well being and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society” — have become informal advisers to the franchise. “Andre Iguodala read my book on power, and he had a critique that I didn’t take on race enough,” says Keltner, author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. “He was right.”
In an April 2016 New York Times Magazine profile, Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob received his fair share of ridicule around the NBA for saying “we’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things.” Some saw Golden State’s 2016 Finals loss, after the Warriors finished the regular season with a 73-9 record, the best of all time, as a proper comeuppance. During an interview in an Oracle Arena back room before Game 6 of the Finals, I asked Lacob if he regretted that comment. He said he wishes he didn’t say it.
But does he believe it?
Lacob smiles. “I’ll let others be the judge,” he responds.
Well, the results — three titles in four years at the time, three titles in five years now, but still — speak for themselves.
“You said just that,” Lacob responds. “I didn’t say it.”
“I mean, look, I’m a confident guy,” Lacob says. “I do believe in a lot of the things that we practice and do. I believe in the strategy that we have. I believe in our management team, which I think is the best in the business. I believe in the culture of our players which is built around Steph Curry — he’s a unique individual person, never mind basketball player. And so you know I meant it in a bit of hyperbole. I didn’t mean it to put down other teams. So if you ask me the question do I believe it? Yes. But I say that not to put down other teams. I didn’t mean it to come out that way.”
“By the way, all my friends in the business world, they were like, ‘great article!’” says Lacob. “‘Great story!’ And all the sports guys were like, ‘what an egomaniac.’ So you learn from that.”
Kerr will sometimes start his practices talking about current events rather than the day’s game plan. Welts keeps a “Steve Kerr For President” sticker on his corner office door. “I think our country is in a really unstable place right now,” Kerr says in an interview in his Oracle Arena office the day before Game 6 of the Finals. “I think it’s important for citizens to speak out.” A 2003 letter from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden hangs on Kerr’s wall. “It has always pleased me to see the game played without excessive showmanship and with exemplary conduct both on and off the court,” Wooden wrote in neat cursive. “And you are in that same category along with David Robinson, Tim Duncan, John Stockton, Jerry West and, of course, many others.”
So what’s his message these days? According to Kerr, nothing less than the fate of the republic is at risk. “I think there are so many issues that are just being washed over right now,” says Kerr. “Our administration and the erosion of our checks and balances, and having so many people being complicit — it’s literally the beginning stages of our democracy crumbling if our checks and balances don’t stand up. What that leads to, you look at President Trump’s policies, we’re going backwards on energy stuff. We face this global warming disaster in the next few decades where stuff is already happening climate-wise. In California we deal with wildfires, used to be pretty much September and October, now it can be year-round. Hurricanes, flooding, you look at the flooding in the Midwest. We have this President and a Republican Senate who are complicit and going backwards in terms of the benefit of our welfare and our children’s welfare. Deficit climbing higher then ever that our kids will inherit. The insanity of it all … These patterns are forming that historically have been corrosive towards democracy and towards human advancement. And everything that Trump is doing right now, we need to be doing the exact opposite. And that’s really scary.”
Kerr’s response to fans who feel he needs to just stick to sports: “I don’t have one. I don’t care.”
Not even 48 hours earlier, Kerr watched in disbelief from the sideline in Toronto as Durant, who rehabbed for five weeks in order to make his return to the playoffs from a calf injury, went down in Game 5, this time with a torn Achilles. Durant had scored 11 points, on 3-3 shooting from long range, during his 12 minutes on the floor. “My initial thought was he re-injured the calf,” says Kerr. “That was our concern going in. I thought, oh God, poor guy, he re-injured the calf, he’s done for the series. He’s playing so well, we look like ourselves. So now he’s gotta do another six weeks of rehab. So there goes the rest of the series. But he’ll be fine.”
At halftime, Kerr heard that Durant may have actually torn his Achilles. His mood immediately darkened. “It’s like ‘oh, holy shit,’” says Kerr. “This is a totally different deal. Something we hadn’t anticipated at all. Had we thought there was any chance his Achilles would be injured, we wouldn’t have thrown him out there. So a combination of devastation for him, and for our team, and dread for the way it all unfolded. It’s just one of those things. You gather all the information you can, you check all the boxes, and you try to make the best decision. And then you do, then this happens, like, my God. Ugh. So I feel partly responsible, even though our process was sound. And it’s a reminder that there are no guarantees in the medical world. You can never be sure of anything.” Kerr, who’s had to miss games over the years due to unexpected complications from back surgery, would know.
Kerr admits to feeling some guilt about Durant’s injury. “Absolutely, even though I felt good about the process,” Kerr says. “Because it was a collaborative process. It included our team doctors, even outside doctors, second opinions. Everybody cleared him to play. And nobody thought that the Achilles was vulnerable. Obviously, we don’t make any decisions medically on our own. We’re not doctors. So we gathered all the information we could and collaboratively made that decision. But after the fact, it’s like, I should have just told him he’s not playing.”
“It’s too late,” says Kerr. “But I wish I could go back. I’d do that.”
Halftime at Game 5 was a somber scene. “Every guy was going up and shaking his hand,” says Kerr. “Just I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” The Warriors, on the strength of three three-pointers by Curry and Thompson down the stretch, managed to eke out a 106-105 win to keep the series alive, but Thompson’s freakish injury in Game 6 was too much to overcome. Thompson had 30 points in Game 6, but landed awkwardly on a dunk attempt near the end of the third quarter. The Warriors hung tight in the final quarter, but Curry’s last-ditch attempt to send the series to a deciding seventh game ended with those bemused grins.
“What I’ve witnessed as their coach over the last five years is just an incredible combination of talent and character and commitment to each other,” Kerr says. “This just doesn’t happen. A group of guys like this doesn’t come around together and do what they did over the last five years.”
Now the scene shifts from Oakland to San Francisco. The team’s move has rankled many people in the East Bay. Mildred Taylor, an Oakland resident who’s been an usher at Oracle Arena for the past 22 years, said the finality of the move finally struck her the day before Game 6, the last Warriors game at Oracle. “I felt a feeling of rejection,” says Taylor. Bill Benson, a BART train operator who lives in San Leandro, just south of Oakland, believes San Francisco will price out fans such as himself. “This is where the Warriors belong,” Benson says at halftime of Game 4 at Oracle. “Oakland needs these guys. The new arena is going to have a lot of techies. The blue collar guy is not going to be going to the Chase Center.”
“People, they are angry,” Oakland City Council President Larry Reid tells TIME. “But the anger is overshadowed by the joy that the Warriors have brought to the city.” In a TV interview the morning of Game 6, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf shared her mixed emotions. “As an Oakland native, even during the times when I could never have afforded a ticket to one of those games, just driving by the 880 and knowing that our Golden State Warriors played in Oakland, were our team, just gave me such a sense of pride,” Schaaf told KTVU. “And it is, it’s sad. It’s sad that they’re leaving Oakland. I feel like this team in particular has that Oakland ethos, that grit, that grind, that hustle and that humility, that teamwork. And I just hope when the team moves to San Francisco, they keep a little bit of that Oakland in them.”
Welts emphasizes that the Warriors aren’t abandoning Oakland. The team’s foundation will be headquartered in the city, and the team’s current office space will also house Oakland non-profits that provide services like college and career counseling and health and wellness programs for underprivileged kids. The practice court will host camps and clinics. “We’re leaving a building,” says Welts. “We’re not leaving a city.”
What’s the owner’s message to the people of Oakland? “I’m not nostalgic like a lot of people,” says Joe Lacob, who bought the team in 2010. “I understand why they are. This team’s been here for a long, long time and they consider it something that makes them proud to be in the community. But I also know that a lot of fans, actually the reality is live all over the Bay Area. Half of them are on the West Bay. Half of them are on the East Bay. And in fact, they come from Monterey, and from Marin, and all over the Bay Area. We have fans everywhere. I have been coming here since the 80s, and I live on the peninsula. Along with many other of my friends.
“For nine years I’ve been commuting,” adds Lacob, who lives in Atherton, a Silicon Valley enclave. “It’s been a brutal commute. It took me two hours today. I guess my point to you is, I do feel for those that feel it’s a sense of loss for the community, they have a sense of pride certainly for having this team. I understand that. I feel compassion for it. But life has to move on. And you know we built a new arena, which the great news is, BART really does generally go through the East Bay and connect into the city. And you can go right to the front door of this arena.”
“It seems to me the advantages that we already had are magnified,” says Welts. “Right? The advantage of being in the Bay Area. If you’re a twenty-something person in touch with where the world is going, this is a really good place to be. Because the companies that you care most about, and who are charting the future of the world, are located right here. And because you’re a basketball player in the NBA, you have unlimited access to those people and those companies. We already have that. We already have three banners hanging over five years. And now you have facilities that I think are the best available anywhere. The main underlying business reason for this is to set the financial foundation for the team for decades to come. Here we have the environmental advantage. And I think we now have the economic wherewithal to know we’re going to be able to compete for free agents, and the best player talent, to try to win some more championships.”
The Bay Area pitches begin this summer. The future of a now-storied franchise, and all of basketball, is at stake.
— with reporting by Katy Steinmetz/Oakland