This has been a great season for the Golden State Warriors. I say this having watched exactly five minutes of the entire season, at the end of what was either Game 8 or Game 3 of the team's series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a basketball team comprising Kevin Durant and several others. The Golden State Warriors, also a basketball team, comprise players such as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Curry throws the ball very well into the hoop from a distance. There are several other players on the team, most quite tall, but I would be lying if I said that I could identify all or even most of them.
However, in the spirit of my enduring bad decision-making, I decided to buy two tickets to the Golden State Warriors' appearance in the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that I can say with some certainty has LeBron James—Larbon to authentic fans—on their roster. Going into this game, and also after this game, I knew very little about basketball other than the rules and the identities of your more important players, and that the NBA Finals, the "final" series of this NBA season, could include as many as seven games, some played in Oakland's glitzy Oracle Arena and the others in Cleveland, which I believe is a state here in these United States of America.
Because I have dedicated myself to the twin pursuits of financial ruin and high-performance stupidity, I wanted to sit in the club section for Game 1 of the Finals at Oracle. As it happens, I was unprepared for how utterly stupid said pricing was, and I say this as someone who paid roughly a car for two Super Bowl tickets.
Because of the structure of the NBA Finals, a game is not the be-all-end-all experience that the Super Bowl is. Each game is its own special battle, part of a greater war of very tall athletic man-gods bouncing a ball and then throwing it at, and often through, a hoop. Not being a basketball fan, and being a relatively new American sports fan—it's been at most a decade of my life, overlapping roughly with when I moved here, and starting with NCAA football—I feel like I'm missing something where the Finals are concerned. One game is simply not it; there is nothing final or even necessarily meaningful about it. Anyway, I can tell you that this opinion is not at all reflected in the market for tickets.
The Super Bowl's finest tickets—the dead-center, 50-yard-liners—ran $15,000 to $17,000 a piece. You could have a corner seat for $3,000 to $5,000, if you really wanted to bring binoculars and watch some weird ants run into each other at speed, but the "good" seats started at $10,000. Also you got free stuff. There was a certain excitement in the air, a real buzz—it was just one game, after all.
The setup at Oracle is different. There are two clubs: the sideline club, which in turn gets you access to the Crown Royal and Stella Artois clubs, and the mysterious courtside club, which has something called the BMW Club, about which I was categorically told, "I don't care who you are, you can't go in there." There are also the VIP sections, which are the seats that are on the actual court itself.
To get a dead-center seat, eight rows up, cost me $2,600 a ticket, of which you have to buy two. Most brokers and services will not sell you just one; in many cases you will find yourself having to buy four. For non-season-ticket holders, tickets were exclusively available via brokers or resellers at inflated prices—a season-ticket holder to my left told me he paid around $600 for his seat—that ranged from anywhere from $1,200 in the upper part of the middle sections all the way up to $6,500 for a front-row sideline seat.
The courtside section is where things get hairy. Courtside, in this case, is beside the court and not on the court, meaning it's the last four rows; they're slightly raised, have a silver floor, and could be yours for prices ranging from $6,000 to $25,000 a pop. Want to rest your feet on the hardwood, stare at John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and maybe have Mo Speights dive ass-first into your face? That'll be anywhere from $26,000 to $50,000. Per seat. All told, this prospect tested even my own sincere financial masochism.
Where there's this much money, there's fraud. According to the San Francisco Business Times, 50 people a game are turned away from Oracle Stadium with bogus tickets purchased from StubHub and other vendors. While every single one of the resellers I've seen 100 percent guarantees a refund, each reseller purchase is a potential steel-toe boot to the groin. Ticketmaster came up with a solution by becoming the only reseller to guarantee a ticket will get you in—people who sell their tickets have them verified, and your ticket is reissued with your actual name. It's what I did, which means that I paid hundreds of dollars in fees to Ticketmaster, because in this horrible industry they can do whatever the fuck they want.
The only joy I had from this was imagining a scenario in which a well-moneyed tech bro, desperate to impress his girlfriend, drops $60,000 on a pair of StubHub tickets. He's outside Oracle Stadium, believing wholeheartedly in the beautiful world of web startups. Let's call him Keith Squirt.
Let's imagine him walking to the VIP entrance.
"Sir, these tickets are—"
"Scan them again."
"Sir, they're fake. I'm sorry."
"They are NOT FUCKING FAKE, BRO. I'm the goddamn CEO of fucking Gu.nt. We just raised a $50 million seed round from The Poor Should Be Fuel Capital! I think I fucking know about my fucking tickets!"
His girlfriend has already left at this point. StubHub tells him they're very sorry, but the tickets have already been used. They'll process a refund, but because it's such a large amount, they'll have to do an investigation. Keith realizes he really shouldn't have financed that Lambo.
Anyway, it's nice to think about.
I arrived at Oracle way, way too early—4:30 for a 6 PM tip—and the crowd was still thin. We all filed in, and the pre-game experience began. The Stella Artois and Crown Royal lounges are borderline identical, I can report, with not a buffet in sight in either. Even after that four-figure outlay for your ticket, you're still in the land of $14 Bud Lites. There was coffee, to be fair, and there were seats, and also there was some sort of craft beer sampling station and robust air conditioning. As with any club section, all of this seems relatively normal thing to have at a sporting event until you walk around the concourse's circular hell of endless lines for just-as-expensive-but-not-as-good food and realize it's not. There is surely some confirmation bias at work here, too—once you've spent $6,000 of your own money, you're naturally going to want to think your fries are crispier than those being served to the people who paid less.
I should at this point reveal who my chosen guest was. A tech reporter for a major news outlet, he was uncomfortable with me naming him. It may be because I would specifically call out our conversations. It may be because to be seen with me, a PR person and someone who is an idiot in public, is to wear the Scarlet Letter. Or maybe it was something more logical, some contractual or ethical reason. Probably that. Either way, I will refer to him as Tronc.
And Tronc was late.
Of course Tronc was late. Tronc drove. Tronc actually gave me a lift home afterward, as I live about 20 minutes away from Oracle, so I can't necessarily hate his decision. But also Tronc, a friend, was extremely dumb to drive to this basketball game.
Here's some advice for visiting Oracle Arena: do not drive there. In fact, take the BART if you live near the BART or can access the BART. Unless you are so well-moneyed that you can book a car service there and back, you're going to be in Dante's Uber Inferno, trying to describe a desolate parking lot to a guy who drives his Prius for not enough money and fucking hates you so much for totally justifiable reasons. The BART is basically connected to the arena, and if you're too fancy a person to get on the damn BART and stand in a crowded train for 15 to 30 minutes rather than desperately hailing an Uber, I honestly don't know if you value your time enough.
While I awaited the Arrival of Tronc, I walked around the two clubs a bit and grabbed a $14 Bud Lite out of sheer self-loathing. I drank it fast once I realized I was drinking.
My main concern, as is generally the case at expensive Bay Area things, was that I'd be surrounded by a gaggle of dipshits who were desperate to tell me about the latest enterprise doodads that would make me do a business faster, or what have you, like SaaS solutions, which if I'm correct stands for "Sandals are a Solution" (if I'm incorrect, please be sure to not correct me). A (very pleasant) bartender assured me that the crowd was not exclusively a collection of tech assholes. "Almost everyone I've seen here is a season-ticket holder so far, but..." she trailed off. "They sell a lot of their tickets. It makes them money." I nodded. We stood silently as a guy behind me did his best to show that he was not in a hurry to be served by making increasingly louder "ah-em" sounds.
As I waited for Tronc to park, I figured out how to differentiate between "authentic fans" and "inauthentic fans." Authentic fans just seemed to be there to have a beer, chat shit with their buddies, and enjoy a basketball game; their tickets were either in their hands or their pockets. The Inauthentics, in contrast, walked around seemingly looking for something—their seats, food, a beer, deeper meaning in their existence, something—without knowing quite what it was. They were easily identified by a familiar sporting-event Mark of Cain, the lanyard. I saw more than a dozen be-lanyarded people, who all seemed in awe that not only could they buy a beer; they could also buy a shirt, all within a relatively uncrowded and air-conditioned environment.
You could identify the people who had really spent too much money and didn't know what was going on by their crumpled-up printed-out tickets. Reader, that was me, and that's what was in my hand. But I was not one of the dudes hooting "YEEEAAAAH!" while crumpling up a white barcoded piece of paper and slapping one another on the back. I'm sure I heard one such hooter say, "VC, baby!" Again: that was not me.
Sit Your Ass Down
As I'm sure some rich person has pointed out in anger, Oracle's club seats are identical to normal people's seats. They come with no special bag—it's the same yellow Warriors shirt everyone else gets, the same weird flashing LED wristband, and a regulation-sized drink-holder, which I nearly missed twice because my brain doesn't work. I sat down and struck up a conversation with the fellow in front of me, draped in a long jersey, his mouth resplendent with a shiny golden grill. I told him the truth, which was that I was trying to work out whether everyone in the crowd were asshole Silicon Valley people, of which I am one, technically.
He laughed. "Nah, I've been a fan for my whole life. I got a tattoo." He pulled up his right pant leg and showed me a tattoo of what looked like a hand holding a knife. "I ain't Silicon Valley. Those people, they look down on us 'cause we don't do tech. Nah, we're real fans. There are real fans out there." I was briefly warmed by his experience, before someone tapped me on the shoulder.
"Umm, those are our seats." I turned to see a large man and his wife, who was holding a rhinestone-encrusted Golden State Warriors tote bag. His eyes bore into mine with the anger of someone fresh off a StubHub customer service experience. "Get out of our seats." I should note this was a solid hour before the game, and the arena was empty. I asked which seat was theirs. "We're there," he pointed.
I realized I was in the wrong seat. I was actually a row too high, thanked the man and moved down. After a few sips of beer I turned around to watch him sidle into the seat, glaring at me, as if he was expecting my exile to be permanent and distant, perhaps to a middle-tier seat in an arena in a distant solar system. "Thanks for that, mate," I said. "I didn't realize I was too high up!" He grunted at me.
Ten minutes later, a group walked over to their seats and said they were in the wrong seat too. Much grunting occurred. They ended up moving, about as mad and red as one can be, up several more rows.
Beer 2 was when the pre-game really took off, and the bartender already knew my order, although there is a chance she just said, "Another Bud Lite?" to everyone she recognized at all and assumed the order will probably be just that. A guy walked up and yelled over my head—he, too, was tall—"TWO RUM AND COKES AND TWO STELLAS." He yelled it three times and the bartender clearly began taking her time. When he inhaled to say it again, I turned around and said, "Mate, we all fucking know you want your rum and cokes, Jesus Christ." He walked away and didn't want his beer. If you are reading this, Rum and Cokes Man, I'm sorry, but it's just that you were right in my ear.
Back at my seat, the pre-game shows had already kicked off. Steph Curry stood and threw the ball in the hoop, people filed into their seats, and DJ Not Without My Daughter (I think that's his name?) stared at the stadium camera mouthing along to Kanye West's "Power." A minute later, a kid and his dad arrived, and I heard a distinct "Ah, what the fuck?"
A die-hard season-ticket holder of thirty years and his son introduced themselves. Then the dad, I suppose realizing he'd taken his son to the NBA Finals and thus had a free pass, began a tirade of (fairly reasonable) swearing. "There're fucking T-shirts in every damn seat and these assholes take my goddamn wristband, seriously? It's a damn wristband." I offered mine and he declined, and his son gave me a thankful look; the dad, to his credit, began to chuckle knowingly at his impotent rage. He talked to me about the truth of the NBA Finals with the Warriors—that there were many, many season-ticket holders who raked in thousands of dollars from these games.
Though there's no easy way to call it, I like to believe that Warriors games function as a sort of strange economic redistributive mechanism. It's not quite the (wonderful) ideal of local Oaklanders screwing invading millionaires and billionaires—I doubt the people struggling with increasing rents have an extra $7,000 to $12,000, per seat, to pay up front to guarantee cheaper pricing on the chance of getting playoff tickets. But some people deserve to be gouged, even if it's mostly by other members of their class.
The Ticket Bastard
There's genuinely something to the groupthink of ticketing. Everyone assumes the closest, most central seat is the best place to watch the game—just ask Quora, the Yahoo! Answers for dickheads—but there doesn't seem to be any evidence supporting this beyond the fact that those seats are the most expensive.
Traffic-afflicted Tronc did eventually make it to his seat. We chatted, we both looked out of place in button-down shirts, and I began messing around with the team's ticketing app, desperate to find a tech angle for him. Bizarrely, the Warriors have an "upgrade your seat" option in their app. It's an amazingly poor fit for immensely flakey arena WiFi and the kind of cellular service you might expect from a stadium where tens of thousands of people are simultaneously trying to text grainy selfies. After the app crashed eight times, I got to the screen that laid out what must be the most bizarre sports ticketing genius in the world.
It works like this: you scan the barcodes on your tickets, and then specify where you want to go. You have until 7:30 PM to keep pinging this service, seeing what seats have either gone unsold or been discarded by someone who decided to splash out for the Courtside Club. You can't choose to upgrade to the VIP seats—because clearly you are very special if you sit on a folding chair for $50,000 and must not have that right challenged—but I could have upgraded, 26 minutes before the game began, from (the center of) the sideline club to right-by-the-hoop courtside seats for $860 apiece. Yes, yes, that's $860, but before the game, I would have paid $5,000 to $7,000 for these very same seats. I briefly wondered if it'd be possible to upgrade your ticket constantly throughout the game, min-maxing the system from a $300 resold ticket in the most distant corner of the upper tank all the way up to the courtside.
I'll never know. If they're smart, the Warriors probably don't allow multiple upgrades. But I hope not. I want to believe that there's one intrepid Extreme Couponing Champion who spent $15 on a ticket and ended up on Chamath Palihapitiya's lap.
This. Isn't. March.
Just before the game kicked (bounced?) off, the arena now fully packed, I remembered a game last season, when somehow I ended up in a luxury box. I wasn't paying for the experience, but it still felt like a waste of money. The boxes are about as far from the action as the parking lot is, so unless you really like watching what looks like a bunch of oddly tall ants beating the shit out of an orange flea, you are getting scammed, buddy.
I can say that, perspective-wise, it's only the seats from maybe Row 12 down on any of the sideline sections where you get something different from the television experience; the noise and the energy are their own things, and very real, but that stuff comes with every seat in the place. Up close, the familiar "OK, but this would be way better at home" sensation vanishes. The players' reactions, the dripping sweat, the rumbling noise around and above. Every sports thing reported from Oracle has some vague description of the atmosphere and the fans, but I'd never felt the atmosphere of the players and the game so intensely.
In the proximity of the sideline, you could see the nerves on everyone's faces, even the ones that scan as unflappable on television. You could see little twitches and frowns as the inconsequential practice free throws bounced off the rim. When Larbon Jams ran on the court during the introductions, the boos ricocheted and, for a moment, seemed to wrinkle his forehead with their sheer sonic force. At the risk of sounding like I have an acute brain sickness, this proximity added a bit of magic to an experience I initially wasn't sure about. I'm not a giant basketball fan, as you have probably gathered, but I was really into it by this point.
Tronc, tech journalist that he is, was staring hungrily at the VIP seats. "I want to see some tech people," he said, looking for the tech angle that all tech journalists dream of. "Is that Eddie Cue?" I briefly had a horrible realization—I have no idea what the lords of this realm look like. We gazed to our right and saw who we believed to be Chamath, but became distracted by one particular man in that corner of the VIP section, which was clearly the venture capital millionaires' circle: a confused looking older fellow in a fitted blazer, a hat (trilby? fedora?), a white T-shirt, and slacks. "That's how a rich person looks!" I yelled, the old woman to my right glaring at me. Tronc agreed. "He looks like he's from Hollywood."
Then the national anthem started. John Legend—a real star!—sang it, but turned his back to our section, possibly in a spiteful retort to me telling my college roommate I was a John Legend fan despite only knowing one song. It was a damn sight better than Lady Gaga's rendition at the Super Bowl, that's for sure.
And then there was basketball.
When the game started, these insanely expensive seats started to seem almost worth it. A game that I'd found very boring on TV became electrifying and urgent. These athletic monstrosities moved at insane speeds, sweat spinning off them like someone fucked a sprinkler, their enormous—as noted, they're very tall—bodies twisting and turning in ways that something that size absolutely shouldn't be able to. Perhaps this is elementary stuff to people who've been to many games, and something you'll see even in cheaper seats; I have no idea, as I imagine is fairly clear by now. But, up that close, it was easier to understand what makes LeBron (sic) James so different, and so significant. He'd spin through the Warriors' defense, and what was happening was less about watching a subpar team be beaten by a better team than watching that better team—the Warriors—try to contain someone who is capable of just throwing other professional athletes off of and away from him.
And then, at random points, things just stop. The stadium horn blares, and the players all wander around for three minutes while their coaches shout or look upset. The Warriors dancers would run on and perform complex routines with saccharine grins that say, "Please say it's good, they have my family." I assume these breaks were timeouts, but while they were going on, Tronc and I would stare blankly, repeating the following exchange multiple times in the course of the game:
ME: What's going on?
TRONC: I don't know.
ME: Are they deciding something?
TRONC: Maybe they're tired. I'm tired.
ME: Me, too.
TRONC: Oh, we're standing up.
The crowd likes to stand up a lot. Maybe "likes" is the wrong word—I heard the older lady to my right at one point say, "Oh come on, I just sat down, stop it"—but they do it a lot. Compared to any other sporting event I've been to (minus the Monster Trucks), the crowd at Oracle seemed uniquely good at achieving just the right level of excitement—they'd cheer loudly, they'd "make some noise," but they weren't cursing or throwing sharp things at the players. One guy with a belly that occasionally bounced on the seat in front of him dearly wanted the referee, who definitely could hear him, to know a few things:
- That wasn't a foul.
- That wasn't a FUCKING FOUL.
- That wasn't a FOUL you fucking ASSHOLE are you FUCKING BLIND.
The fans around him passive-aggressively glared at him but said nothing, which is basically what it is like to live in the Bay Area.
The halftime show was strange. G-Eazy, who I gathered is or aspires to be a rapper, kept yelling "OAKLAND STAND UP!" or "BAY AREA STAND UP!" between hack-written lyrics about something or other. Nobody stood up, because nobody cared. This was all doubly disappointing given that E-40 was sitting right there in a VIP seat and probably could have just stood up, rapped, and then sat back down. G-Eazy's faintly slimy bravado had people reaching for their phones, like moody teenagers at Thanksgiving, but he did his thing. I may not like his music, but I respect his dedication to sounding like Soulja Boy and looking like his literal inverse.
At some point—maybe at halftime, maybe during the game—a scene from Wolf of Wall Street popped up on the Jumbotron, the one in which Matthew McConaughey slaps his chest and sings, "MMHMMHMMMMHMMM, MMMHMMHMMMHMM." Scenes from various movies of people making noise played, and we were told to make some noise. I'm not sure what the purpose was. Hearing that bit from Anchorman where Steve Carell yells, "LOUD NOISES!" mostly just made me feel as if I'd been transported back to college. Maybe that was the point.
The J.R. Smith Show
It's hard to describe how exciting the game itself was without being either corny or extremely corny, but it was just all right there—you could hear and see the excitement of the players during moments in which momentum swung; a player grasped the ball out of the air and not just every player on the floor but everyone in the arena lit up.
You could also watch J.R. Smith's emotional state visibly disintegrate in the course of the game. He started with a certain bully mentality, a grit to his face, a look that said, "Go on, fuck with me." As the Cavaliers brought the game closer, you could see his teammates, but particularly him, fire up a little. When the Cavaliers took a brief lead, the Warriors all wore undisguised looks of anxiety. I don't know where you'd have to be in a football game to see a player's facial reactions, but I suspect it involves being on the field of play.
Strangely, I, and most of the people around me, apparently missed Steve Kerr smashing his whiteboard. Anyway, that wasn't the most powerful thing I saw in the game. J.R. Smith was. The man was an emotional tapestry, going from excitement, to frustration, to fiery anger along with his teammates; there was a certain spite to their play, a roughness in how they shoved players off their feet and tried to bully past the Warriors' defense. J.R. seemed to be feeling all of it more than anyone.
That was true, too, when exhaustion took over. On both sides you could see players' chests heaving, sweat dripping into their eyes, leaving them to wipe it with their jersey. Smith was the most dramatic. As Cleveland's lead slipped away, he comically threw his hands down in a huff, shaking his head. Though I'm sure the television broadcast shows this to an extent, it was striking to see the physical toll that just 20 minutes takes on a body, and the person in it.
I left Oracle Arena convinced that J.R. Smith was acting in his own private silent movie. He harumphed and frowned and shook his head, if not quite in a way I'd describe as angry. There was a genuine rolling sadness to it, like he opened a letter to find his electricity bill was too high and it was going to be a tough month, or got a text saying that his daughter had missed her curfew and he was just so disappointed. Other athletes are theatrical in anger, but this was worth the admission. I was able to watch this man, who is an athletic genius and is probably paid more than the combined wealth of the area surrounding the stadium, have the sort of slow tantrum a teenager would pull upon finding out his Oculus preorder was delayed. Smith started out looking ferocious and ended looking like a guy who, despite diligently using Turbotax, still had to pay the IRS $85.
The Short Way Home
You already know that the Warriors won Game 1, as much through physical endurance as skill. Their famous people tired out and were replaced by not as skilled but still super jazzed guys who blitzed the Cavs with their excitement. Larbon was carrying his team, whose tactical approach by this point had degenerated into Just Shoot from Wherever. Again, the proximity of my seats helped explain all this. When the Warriors fell behind, they seemed annoyed. When the Cavaliers fell behind again, they seemed to pout. I don't know the players, their personalities, their lives, their skills. I only know what I saw. It was like a weird, sweaty play. My editor informs me that this is how sportswriters already talk about it.
I haven't wanted season tickets for a team since I was a child supporting the consistent disappointment that is Queens Park Rangers. I felt bad supporting the Warriors in a way; I'd lived in London a lot of my life and found the rapid bandwagon-hopping between teams like Arsenal and Manchester United and Chelsea distasteful. I didn't want to say, "I'm a Warriors fan!" just because I have lived in the Bay Area for two years. But the idea of being able to see not just the basketball but the human theater of it was new, and fascinating, and honestly pretty magical.
Were the tickets a smart economic decision? Oh goodness no. I'm a huge moron who spends money in dumb ways and this absolutely fits with that. But I don't remember another time in my life when I walked into a sports game borderline blind and loved it. Maybe every NBA game isn't like this; I suspect they're not. But I'm grateful this one was.
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