How to Watch the Warriors: A Journey into Fandom and Across the Bay
A search of the one true Warriors experience during the NBA Finals included a public park with a Jumbotron, variously loathsome sports bars, semi-fancy restaurants, and Oracle Arena itself.
Photo by Tarin Towers
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
I will start with an admission: I am the worst kind of bandwagon fan. I got into the Golden State Warriors by watching Vines of Steph Curry that were retweeted into my timeline and, for most of the team's historic, dazzling, and ultimately thwarted season, that was about the extent of it. Last season didn't register at all; I spent the year getting evicted. It was only when I was invited to write about how the Warriors' #disruption was sitting with the Bay Area that I watched my first full basketball game since high school, back when daytime games were general assemblies that got us out of class.
Nevertheless, the grace and fluidity of the Warriors' style of play, and the wild delight it exuded among the friends and strangers I encountered online and in person, got me on board with the Dubs. If you had told me a year ago that I would watch 35 NBA games in my lifetime, much less that many in a row, I'd have told you that you'd time traveled to the wrong stretch of the multiverse, and would have done my best to get you back. But this season took us all far from home; I felt overwhelmed at having watched those 35 games, and I've met people who've barely missed a game in 35 years.
Being with those people was, for me, a big part of the fun, and so that's what I chased as the playoffs wore on. During the NBA Finals, I watched four games in Oakland and two in San Francisco, where I live; I went to two sports bars, one non-sports bar, a restaurant, and two enormous viewing parties. (I don't drink, so consider this a spoiler that what follows won't include any substance-related hijinks.)
I can without qualification say that the best way to watch a Warriors game is none of these. The most undiluted experience, purer even than Oracle, is at home, ideally with two screens going besides the TV. On one you keep your Twitter list full of sportswriters open, to find out what the hell just happened and watch replays and get nuggets of information about injuries and referees that TV won't show you. The other screen is for tweeting "Let's gooooooo!" whenever the spirit moves you.
Game 1 (Home), Thursday, June 2: Halftime Sports Bar, Oakland
By tipoff, there was one seat open at Halftime Sports Bar: a stool at a cocktail table in the back room that was otherwise occupied by a guy with slicked-back hair. I asked him if the seats were all taken and he said, "This one isn't, that one is," and pointed to the seat opposite. So that's where I sat.
He was precisely the only other white person in the room until his friend came back from the bar, sat down, and spoke over me without saying hello.
These dudes are icy, it turned out. I hadn't pegged Dude 1 as a bro when I sat down because he was wearing glasses and writing with a pen in a leather notebook, but that was bad profiling on my part. Within moments, they were bro-ing it up about tech stuff and drinking lime-involved beverages from alchemical vessels and generally pretending there wasn't a third wheel at their table. No introductions were offered.
Halftime resembles a nightclub, but for sports. The place charged $10 at the door, which was heavily staffed and papered in signs declaring that everyone was subject not only to showing ID but to pat-downs; there was, the signs made clear, no bag check. There were pounds and pounds of gold around the patrons' collective neck.
Halftime's main room is painted black and it was so full of amped-up people in jerseys that I almost turned and left. The back room, which had the lowest ceiling I've ever seen in a public place—head-scrapingly low for an NBA player, or even a taller than average NBA fan—was more sedate. My two non-friends were not super-watching the game, but every other pair of eyes in the joint was glued to an enormous TV. When Draymond Green charged through the defense for a layup and a woman yelled, "Go, Money!" I knew I was in the right place.
People were calling plays at this bar. There was a mosh pit going under the Cavs' basket, and a guy with long dreadlocks eating cheese fries with his wife was trying to choreograph it. "Help, little help! Help! Help!" Two months ago, I would not have known he was egging on the Warriors to try a specific defensive tactic. I still can't tell you exactly what "help" is, but I knew the man wasn't in more distress than anyone else in the bar at that point, and that was progress.
The TV was far enough away that my notes say Leandro Barbosa stole the ball and then something something sorcery, but I heard a lot of "there you go" and "that's how you do it" about him and Shaun Livingston. Research after the fact confirmed that Livingston's latent superpowers had indeed been activated; he put up 20 points in 27 minutes of play on a night when Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot eight-for-26.
At halftime, at Halftime, a conundrum: I came here to talk to fans, but I was feeling shy and I knew these dudes wouldn't save my seat. Also the people at the surrounding tables, as invested as they had looked, were all packing up to leave, including Help Defense Cheese Fries Guy. Maybe everyone lives nearby and had enough; it was ferociously loud, like Roaracle loud, in there.
The two dudes' friend called from outside the bar; he doesn't want to pay $10. The guys rolled their eyes at each other, but this reporter can tell you that she would not have paid ten bucks, either, if she wasn't expensing it. And so they paid their bill. I'm not sure if their leaving was related to their friend not coming in, but whether or not you can drop a casual ten-spot to hang out in a bar says kind of a lot to me.
More tables cleared out, and then the bar filled up again. People were leaning against the walls, and I was at a table with two empty barstools. It's from there that I witnessed the first junk-related incident of the Finals: the Delly-Iggy dick grab, which didn't look like much at first but appeared more deliberate and more painful from each successive angle. The room's howls got more intense, even from those of us without dicks of our own, as ABC showed the replay again and again. "Flagrant," someone yelled. "Flagrant as fuck."
Warriors win, 104-89.
Game 2 (Home), Sunday, June 5: Delirium, SF Mission District
I didn't have time to go to Oakland to watch this game. A friend who's a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle suggested I broaden my horizons by watching the game at a bro pub full of techlords. "It's terrible," he said. "You should go."
And I tried, really, to watch a game with rich people in an overrated sandwich shop that occupies the storefront that previously housed Ti Couz, a crepe shop with portraits of nuns on the walls. But I couldn't get there until right before tipoff. The door guy told the guy ahead of me to wait five minutes, and then he told me the bar was completely full. He told the five dudes who walked up after me to come in if they were OK with standing. I had specifically dressed nicer than I live so I could talk to money, but whatevs. I was not inclined, at that point, to give them my money.
I had an inkling this game was going to be a legendary ass-kicking, but I was staying in a place without a television. I mentally tallied bars nearby that would be likely to have a TV with the game on, and crossed the street to a mega-dive called Delirium. In the 1990s, the place was called the Albion, and it was often empty even on weekend nights except for the enormous dude who played pool and sold cocaine. He was always listening to Tupac on his headphones; I knew this because my friend Sunday had told me to try him for blow. I asked him what he was listening to, and he said, "A poet," and when pressed, he specified "Tupac." I never figured out what the magic words were after that, because "I heard you sell coke" didn't seem to be a suitable way to get what I wanted from there.
Anyway, Delirium had remodeled the ladies' room to remove the marble column in the middle where people used to lay out rails. But when I got up at halftime to use the head, I knocked and six tiny hipsters bubbled out. "We were watching the game!" one said, and I was like, sure. The only surface you could snort coke on, from my surveying of the scene, would have been the wooden lid on the back of the toilet, which: ew. But drugs make you do drug things.
The TVs were small, the sound was barely on, and the bar was loud. No one in the joint but the bar back was wearing a stitch of blue and gold, although there were some black and grey Dubs logos here and there. And yet everyone in the bar had come to watch the game, and after a while it filled up with probably the most diverse game-night crowd I'd seen in any bar over the past several months. I had made the assumption that this, like most other Mission bars, had been gentrified beyond recognition, but the fans skewed younger, poorer, and queerer than game nights other places, and the racial mix—it was mostly Latino and Asian—reflected the one that the Mission used to have.
A gay Latino man brought both his parents and a bed for his dog, which was delivered to him during the second quarter. The kid on the stool next to me was wearing a denim vest with the sleeves ripped off that he must have thrifted; it was covered in buttons and patches for bands like NOFX and AC/DC, which were refreshingly the only acronyms in the whole place.
People were into the game, though. They were super into it. People actually chanted "DEFENSE" along with the crowd at Oracle. The Cavs left Klay wide open for a three in the second quarter and people yelled, "Come on!" echoing a refrain I heard a lot, a sort of performative offense suggesting that not closely guarding a Splash Brother was a form of disrespect.
Toward the end of a game, a group of older people came in after sailing on the Bay and drinking in the sun all day. One of them kept shouting, "Let's go to the zoo and watch the monkeys do it!" and his friend kept moving his sub sandwich out of the way of spilled drinks; the party rinsed their table with what was probably about $30 worth of tequila. Monkey Guy saw me taking notes on the game and held forth for a while about his fascination with sports. He talked about the rules, and the way the owners change the rules every year.
A guy outside started playing the congas while Monkey Guy explained arcane details about hockey officiating and told me he mostly followed snooker, which he pronounced with a long o so it rhymed with lucre rather than booker. Draymond sank an extravagantly distant three, and Monkey Guy was oblivious. He's my dad's age, it turns out, and works in management at Google.
A woman from the sailing party introduced herself as Diana and told me she was born and raised in San Francisco, and still grieved the loss of both SF teams. I was a bit startled, but she explained that when Candlestick closed, we may as well have lost the Giants as well as the 49ers. She hates AT&T Park.
"Who needs sushi at a baseball game? Baseball is for beer and fucking hot dogs, and that's it!" At this point, Sandwich Guy was so miffed by people moving his sandwich around that he threw it against the doorway of the bar, spraying lettuce everywhere. The bartender kept threatening to cut everyone off, but she also kept refilling their tequila for free.
Warriors win, 110-77.
Game 3 (Away), Wednesday, June 8: Oracle Arena Watch Party
Whereas a game at Oracle has some distractions in the form of ads, a road-game viewing party at Oracle is nothing but. It is a closed container for advertisements with the occasional distraction of a basketball game playing on the dangling Jumbotron cube, which has neither closed captioning nor a readable score.
I was farther away from the action than I had been for the one game I attended this year; I didn't realize what a difference ten rows could make until I was ten rows back. The nosebleeds were scattershot with people, but the floor seats were packed in the sections that get taped for network live shots during timeouts.
At the end of the first quarter, the Dubs were already down 20 points and the arena was silent. Harrison Barnes made a buzzer-beater and the advertrons lit up "MAKE SOME NOISE," a few dozen blue and gold spotlights bedazzling the crowd. By this time, everyone in the nosebleeds had realized that they're never going to be on camera, and so the kids halfheartedly waved their inflatable gold noodles and watched the people in the floor seats go nuts.
Every timeout, Oracle brought out a floorshow. The interregnums lasted longer than the commercial breaks, which meant the Jumbotron was always cutting back to the action mid-play. Everyone was kind of sullen in the cheap seats.
Just before halftime, LeBron took a free-throw and 10,000 people booed, which was electrifying in a perverse and deeply abstracted way. During the break, there was a teen dunk expo with trampolines, which was hilarious and awesome; the teens did flips and bounced the ball to one another in pairs, then in trios. The game came back on somewhere in the middle of the third quarter, and the score hadn't changed. The Warriors, the home team in absentia, were getting their asses kicked. I got up in search of nachos and talked to fans.
Dominick Niboli and Miquela Davis were enjoying themselves enough. "When you get an opportunity to see a Warriors game, you go," Dominick said. I asked him if he actually considered this to be like watching a game. He looked around and out the windows; the sun was setting over the vast parking lot. "This is an experience," he said. "I mean this is maybe the last time some people get to be in the stadium until October." The Friday Watch Party for Game 4 was already sold out.
I was looking forward to some gourmet stadium food, maybe a bahn mi, but nachos and hot dogs—and copious amounts of beer—were the only thing on offer. Diana from Delirium would have been pleased.
Cavaliers win, 120-90.
Game 4 (Away), Friday, June 10: San Francisco Civic Center Watch Party
Maybe it's because I don't drink, or maybe it's because bars are either too hot or too cold and smell like bars, but my belief is that the best venue for watching the Finals—aside from, I gather, courtside—was the outdoor watch party at the Civic Center in San Francisco, where the game was projected on a big screen erected in front of City Hall.
An Oakland watch party had been announced for Jack London Square, put on by Save Oakland Sports, but the one tweet I found from the Keep the Warriors in Oakland rally was a picture of a nearly empty park. I was glad I didn't make that trek.
The sandy courtyard facing City Hall is called Carlton B. Goodlett Place, named for an African-American doctor, civil-rights leader, and newspaper magnate who died in 1997. That watch party was hosted by San Francisco Rec & Park. An off-the-record friend who works in City Hall told me that this was one of the department's more morally sound forays into the reservation programs and public-private partnerships it often gets criticized for. Another Planet Entertainment, a concert promoter, co-sponsored the event and put up some impressive equipment; in return, ads for their music venues played instead of the regular commercials during the game, which seemed like more than a fair trade for getting a Jumbotron to work in broad daylight.
A legion of cops—from four different agencies that I could count—flanked the park at the beginning of the event, but once it became clear people were sitting down and mostly abiding by the "no booze" rules, they dispersed, leaving Rec & Park employees to shoo people out for smoking weed next to kids.
At game time, the announcer called for people to stand for the "Star Spangled Banner" just as the camera focused on LeBron's face, which resulted in the unfortunate convergence of hundreds of San Franciscans—from babies to very senior citizens, from homeless to executive—booing the screen just as the American flag filled it. I imagine that large swaths of the country picture rallies like this occurring all over the Bay Area, people banding together to shout obscenities at Old Glory. This phenomenon repeated for Games 5 and 6, so by now booing the flag in the name of LeBron is in fact a local tradition. All your worst suspicions about the Bay Area are true: we didn't put our hands over our hearts. We didn't even eat hot dogs—the back end of the plaza was awash in Asian fusion food trucks. We'd all be driving foreign cars, too, but we're such communists here that we hardly drive at all.
Anyway. Klay sank his first first-quarter three in quite a while, and the crowd activated. Cheers for Klay's hands. Cheers for Steph's face. Cheers for James Michael McAdoo, who several people even recognized. Manic booing as LeBron basically tackled Steph, derisive applause every time a Cleveland player was actually whistled for a foul.
Improbably, in the San Francisco cold and the Civic Center dirt, this experience was the most like watching the game at home with a friend, what with everyone yelling shit at the TV as if every single person was home alone with no neighbors. In sports bars you get the occasional shout-out or chastisement directed at refs and players, but here people were just hurling out their thoughts and feelings willy-nilly; it was like an audible Twitter feed. Or nothing like that, because everyone here was on the same team, and basically no one was a jerk.
I encourage TNT to hire Sylvester, a native San Franciscan who lives in Potrero Hill and who declined to give me his last name, to do color commentary during its broadcasts. "Keep crying," he yelled at Kevin Love, but he spared neither team the exhortation to work. Announcer Mark Jackson said in passing that the Cavs were up by five. "They're still weak! Fight," Sylvester yelled. "Y'all harder than that, Cleeeeeeveland!"
Unlike at Oracle, where robotic lights and disembodied voices command people to clap and cheer, the crowd in front of City Hall just picked up chants with no leading or prompting. Maybe it's just that this ground has hosted so many protests and rallies over the years, but "Let's Go Warriors" with synchronized handclaps would rise up and sink back as if it were being conducted. The earth is saturated with generations of chants; they come and go as they please.
"Not today," Sylvester yelled at LeBron, more than once. When Iguodala sank a gorgeous three-pointer, not even a ripple in the net, Sylvester added, "Make 'em pay, Iggy!"
A woman behind me, lifelong fan Becca Steen, had been shouting, "Rebound!" at the Warriors with every missed chance, and I wished they could have heard her. She was in the process of telling me about changing favorite players from Steph to Draymond after her brother got her a Green jersey for her 23rd birthday when the foul of the season spilled out on screen—what was later called a flagrant on Green, but which looked in the moment like LeBron James tossing Green to the ground and stepping right over him.
The crowd would have thrown shit if we were in a bar, I'm pretty sure of it. When the din died down a little, I asked Becca what she thought of the viewing party, and she said she'd seen it so packed with people for World Series and Super Bowl games—this was the first Warriors game to be Jumbotronned in the park—that she was a little disappointed in the smaller turnout. Hundreds, not thousands. "It's nice to not be so packed in," she told me. "For the last World Series we were standing way back there." She pointed at the food trucks half a block away.
"But look," she continued, "this is awesome. I wish there were more people here."
Warriors win, 108-97.
Game 5 (Home), Monday, June 13: Era Art Bar & Lounge, Oakland
There's nothing more San Francisco than a cocktail lounge sports bar with an ambitious cocktail program, cozy nooks for bottle service, and standing room only for the proles. Era is that bar, and it's located in a gentrifying neighborhood of downtown Oakland called Uptown. A decade ago, Uptown was a windy, shuffling ghost town most nights, and while you still see a lot of ancient mom-and-pop restaurants that close early, there is a new proliferation of upscale joints where a whiskey costs as much as a bus pass.
I went to Era on a tip without realizing that reservations were required, even for the barstools. The fire department's occupancy sign said 227, to which I can only counter: LOL. I kept my perch at a drink rail not far inside the door, with a good view of the screen but far enough away from the speaker that I could really only hear the bass boost for Oracle's stomps and drums and chants. I kept Twitter running in my phone hand to figure out what was going on with calls and injuries—poor Andrew Bogut—but I lost signal for the entire last quarter and so was left to squint at the screen and guess.
Less than two minutes into the game, Steph hit his first three, and Era was, as the kids say, lit. Nearly every person was wearing Dubs gear; I can confirm that there was a Latrell Sprewell jersey in the crowd, and also that I passed on asking the dude wearing it if he understood its full semiotic content.
What will later be looked at as the Warriors' undoing—well, the aspects beyond LeBron's genius—were on display in this game. Their arrogance, which seems brash and cool when things are going well, now manifest through an apparent lack of interest in offensive rebounds. As beautiful as the Warriors are when they work, they look checked out and passive and weirdly over it when they don't. People shouted "flagrant" for fouls three or four times: Kyrie Irving took a stage dive right on to Klay; J.R. Smith grabbed Anderson Varejao around the neck; our own Festus Ezeli looked to slam his fists right into both of Tristan Thompson's kidneys. This was the Kyrie Irving Game, and so the officiating was mostly just something to yell at.
The game ended in a brutal 112-97 loss, but the crowd seemed neither disappointed nor resigned; these were the Draymond faithful, and they were pre-amped for Thursday, when they predicted Green would return from suspension wielding the nonlethal basketball equivalent of a machete.
My new pal on the drink rail, the Oakland born-and-raised King Burdett, told me he'd been a fan since the Dubs were the San Francisco Warriors. He's only 50, but that's 50 years of watching basketball, and he rattled off names of players he thinks Steph and Klay should learn from: Davis, Mullin, Hardaway, Purvis Short, even Sprewell.
"This is a young team," Burdett told me. "I want them to learn. I want them to work for it." His friends were accusing him of being a secret Cavs fan. He came to hang with them; he's not a fan of Era, which he described as feeling like a haunted castle. It's an extremely good call: the upstairs, with its low ceilings, fireplaces, and exposed wooden beams, resembles a house Scooby and Shaggy would run through chasing fake ghosts.
The night of the Warriors' big Game 6 win in Cleveland last year—this series' Game 6 would fall on the anniversary of that title win—the streets were nothing like a Giants riot, but in the course of the week's celebrations three people got shot and one fell into Lake Merritt. Some of the people who came out to watch this Game 6 were clearly hoping it would be the night things "popped off." They would have to wait.
Cavaliers win, 112-97.
Game 6 (Away), Thursday, June 16: Camber, Oakland Uptown
I watched the saddest game of the Finals at a restaurant that serves both Crab Rangoon and chocolate mousse. I'm going to stump again for a moment about the superiority of watching games in your living room: you can control the volume, and watching a game on a TV with a shitty sound system is torture if, like me, you have gotten extremely into the game and still aren't 100 percent sure what to call the things you see unspooling on the court, let alone figure out which is the more wronged party in one of the low-key shoving matches that blow up periodically.
The upstairs at Camber has a nice TV and loud people who focused on the TV just in time to boo the flag again. I don't know what kind of speakers were in use, but it sounded like the game was being broadcast from inside a metal trashcan.
The game started faster than fast again, with Klay Thompson visibly vibrating as if he was about to be beamed up somewhere. Once again, though, whatever magic the team works with its fluid, physics-defying transport of the ball did not apply to rebounds. A more expert basketball mind than mine can maybe explain why the Warriors are capable of passing the ball directly through the bodies of the other team but not grabbing a dang offensive rebound. That failure feels, more and more, like the result not of laziness or inability but hubris. This is the fan-brain talking, but whatever the diagnosis for this incapacity the Cavaliers once again briskly brutalize the Warriors with it.
It takes the Warriors five minutes to score, five minutes during which Cleveland is frankly rather cavalier with the sovereign body of Steph Curry, just picking him up and tossing him around. Steve Kerr, as he did the whole Finals, is rotating through every Warrior on his bench. It works as often as not, but there is the sense that he knows he has to try something. Shaun Livingston retrieves a missed shot and the entire restaurant erupts in cheers.
By this time in my basketball-watching career, all three months of it, I finally have opinions other than "wow!" and I'm heartsick with them. The restaurant sings with joy when Green takes off his concrete shoes for a few minutes, but then LeBron sinks a corner three right over Thompson and the entire communal table I'm sitting at lets out a disappointed, keening, sigh crossed with a groan. The whole room reacts as if it had been punched.
After some legitimately seriously bad calls, some people in the restaurant are calling out for Green to just punch LeBron in the face. Curry fouls out and whips his mouthpiece into the crowd, the Cleveland crowd is chanting "MVP" at LeBron, and the patrons at what's actually a very nice restaurant are all shouting "NO, NO MVP!" as if they could get LeBron to knock it off by yelling loud enough from their banquettes.
I exit the restaurant after the loss and walk the stretch of Broadway between one BART station and the next, taking in the night air and the shouts from Oaklander to Oaklander that the whole damn thing is rigged. Every corner bears a pair of cops, waiting for that whole "popping off" thing, which isn't going to happen tonight, either. One yells back and forth with a bus driver about how they're stretching out this series to make money, but I couldn't get the cop to repeat his words. "Call Public Information," he told me. I bet they have opinions.
Near Oakland City Hall, a tactical golf cart with roof-mounted stun cannons sits in the open. It would be incongruous, but Oakland is cycling through police chiefs like Kerr cycles through bench players. This probably won't work, either, but everyone is trying.
Cavaliers win, 115-101.
After all my travels through the NBA Playoffs and the Bay Area, I can tell you that the worst place in the world to be for Game 7 of the NBA Finals is sitting around a campfire, surrounded by children dressed as bears and fairies, somewhere way off the grid. But this is where I was when it all ended: on a camping trip I had planned a year ago, back when it seemed ridiculous that I would ever willingly watch a Warriors game, in a posh sports bar or a public park or an arena or anywhere.
Of all the things I could have imagined when I planned it, one that certainly never came to mind was this: that I would be wearing my good-luck Warriors hat around the campfire, or calling a friend from the payphone behind the main lodge at halftime, right before the opening ritual for a camp full of pint-sized witches. Or doing it again, sometime later, to learn whether we'd won or lost. After following the Warriors all this way, this is where I've ended up: someplace else, and someplace very far from where I started.
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