The Golden State Warriors may be the best team the NBA has ever seen, which is why tickets to their sold-out games can blast into the four-figure range on the secondary market. Buying them is an investment for anyone, but it was something more for two fans who traveled to see the Warriors play the Spurs in a regular-season game that most foresee as a preview of the Western Conference Finals.
The duo caught everyone's eye in line before the April 7 game: Ernestine Andrew, 42, in Dubs blue and gold, and her husband, Shannon, 37, more subdued in Spurs gray but clearly one of the few dressed to root for the enemy team. Each held a hand-painted sign, Ernestine's proclaiming "GSW: Eskimo Love!" They wanted to attract some attention, because they wanted people to hear their story: the two traveled 2,648 air miles (one way), spread between five airports and over nearly 24 hours, from a tiny Yukon town called Emmonak on the west coast of Alaska to Oracle Arena in Oakland. It was quite the expedition to watch a game of basketball.
Shannon told VICE Sports that he had been a Spurs fan for about a dozen years, but that Ernestine jumped on the Warriors bandwagon when the Dubs started winning last season. "I like to root for a winning team," she said. Last year, Ernestine started out as a Clippers fan, but the Warriors won her over. Growing up, she'd cheered for the Lakers, the Bulls, the Celtics—whoever played exciting basketball. Alaska, which is 2,400 miles or so northwest of the nearest NBA franchise, doesn't have a home team.
This trip marked both Ernestine's first NBA game and her third time leaving Alaska—and she had opinions about the Warriors' defense (bad) and rebounding (also bad). "The worst thing that happened all year is when they lost to the Lakers," she said. "We both just hate Kobe Bryant."
Back in Emmonak, the Andrews both work in local government: Shannon is a city clerk, and Ernestine a city councilor. The day before the Warriors-Spurs game, the Oakland City Council's agenda addressed gun violence and the rental-housing crisis. Emmonak's business is a little more staid, as Ernestine described it over the phone while trudging through melting snow on her way to a City Council meeting. "We're trying to expand our port," she said. "We've been dealing with water/sewer and [trying] to get our little village updated and upgraded. We're so small. I had a problem convincing someone from California that we don't have numbers on our houses."
Emmonak's population hovers around 800 most of the year, but in summer that jumps to 2,000, when people come for seasonal work at fisheries and processing plants, an event that exhausted the town's water supply in 2014. Aside from people finishing up summer-long Yukon River kayak trips, which terminate in Emmonak, "I don't think I've ever seen anyone come here on vacation," Ernestine said. "People from all over the world take that trip … and I think when they get here they have culture shock." None of them stay, she added.
Ernestine and Shannon live with their two children in a 20x20 one-bedroom house that Shannon converted from its former life as a grocery store, owned by Ernestine's parents. Sean, 13, sleeps on a couch in the living room; Hadley, 11, shares the bedroom with her parents. Shannon did all the construction himself, including the electricity. When asked whether working for the city gave them approval priority, Shannon clarified that Emmonak has neither permits nor building inspectors. "You flip the switch," he said, "and if it works, that's your inspection." (By contrast, Oakland's building department is still recovering from a 2011 scandal in which some inspectors indulged in such deeply corrupt practices that some residents became reluctant to report blight conditions.)
Emmonak currently has two grocery stores, but groceries are expensive, and most locals—all of whom are Yupik, according to Ernestine—hunt and fish. "We collect our fish during the summer and process that," she said. "In the fall, our family will go hunting and give us some moose meat we put away." Shannon said they rarely spend money going out to Family Restaurant, Emmonak's local eatery. The family is frugal, but they were also saving up for this trip.
All told, the Andrews spent about $3200 on their journey to Oracle Arena. "We used Alaska Airlines' vacation package and put a down payment, and every two weeks we'd put some money down," Ernestine said. It also helped that in 2015 every Alaskan received $2,072 from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a state corporation that banks at least 25 percent of annual oil and mineral revenues—the largest dividend yet.
At one point during the game, in an arena nicknamed "Roaracle" for its deafening combination of cheers and special effects, the patrons seated behind the Andrews called security over "to tell us to sit down and be quiet," Ernestine said, speaking in a voice still strained from cheering a week later. "It was our first game, so we were really loud and kept holding up our signs." When the security guard left, she said, "my husband just turned around and said, 'We didn't spend all this money to come here for you to tell us to sit down and be quiet.'" Everyone let them scream in peace after that.
Someone else asked them if they were "real Eskimos," but for the most part, Shannon said, "we had respect towards them, and they respected us back." Shannon said he wasn't really aware of any negative stereotypes toward Yupiks or Eskimos in general. "I'm more a friendly guy that likes to get along with everybody, and I never hear of anybody putting down on the natives here."
Ernestine, however, said that people in Anchorage, where she'd gone to college, could be pretty cruel. "They think we're nothing but drunks and we live off the state. They're very judgmental about the rural Alaska natives"—and it's not just white people who say such things. (Emmonak, as it happens, has been a dry city since 1991.)
The pair say they're planning on seeing the Warriors through to the finals, and Ernestine thinks her loyalty to the Warriors will last a little longer than it has for other teams. When asked whether they watched the Warriors final regular-season, record-breaking game, or Kobe Bryant's last performance with the Lakers, Ernestine laughed. "We're both Kobe haters," she said.
The "Eskimo Love" message on Ernestine's signs wasn't necessarily a motto. "It was just something that we thought would make us stand out so we would get noticed!" she laughed. "We were trying to get on TV but we couldn't. We didn't realize how big it was."
In a Warriors season that's still searching for its outer limits, that fits perfectly.