CLEVELAND — They formed a rowdy, merry conga line of hugs and shrieks and can-you-friggin’-believe-this madness, a procession that spilled into a locker room that sounded like 40 years of angst erased by one perfect storm. “It was chaos in there, pure joy,” said Steve Kerr, who resembled a mop-headed kid with his champagne-mussed hair. Given the numbers of fans this team has accrued, across the land and throughout the world, the line could have stretched from a near-empty building in LeBron James’ kingdom to a trembling Bay Area.
Because In a memorable, fascinating, inconceivable season, the Golden State Warriors did more than bury a dismal and often silly past. They’ve created, in stunningly quick order, a 21st-century model for entertaining basketball, one-mission selflessness, fun and perspective as a group, high-tech advancements as an organization, effective health care in a league of MRIs and injured superstars and, in the end, a blueprint for how to win 83 games and an NBA championship out of nowhere.
There was Joe Lacob, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who was booed out of Oracle Arena three years ago, bouncing through the line as the once-mouthy owner who matured into a difference-maker. There was Stephen Curry, with daughter Riley, showing the mesmerized masses how a relative 6-3 waif can rise up and rule the hoops world. There was Steve Kerr, a man who gained early perspective in life when his father was gunned down by terrorists, shaking every hand after becoming the first coach since Pat Riley in 1982 to win a title in his rookie NBA season. There was Draymond Green, screaming, “They told me I couldn’t be in the NBA!” There was Klay Thompson, hugging his father, Mychal, who also won NBA titles, and there was Curry, hugging his father, Dell, who never won a title.
“WAR-RIORS! WAR-RIORS!” the fans chanted in Quicken Loans Arena, maybe 700 of them.
But if you listened closely, you could hear the same chant from Oakland and San Francisco, the Peninsula and Marin and all other precincts of a region that, in five years, now has won four major sports championships and come within five yards of another. “I remember coming into Oracle as a player, year after year, playing against lousy teams, and the fans were there every single year — loud, supportive, passionate,” Kerr said. “So I could not be happier for our fans because they’ve supported us through everything.”
“Greatest fans in the world,” said Lacob, the man they once hated.
Though it may take a jolt to the forehead to believe it, the Warriors — the team that once drafted Purvis Short over Larry Bird, the team with 12 straight losing seasons and 17 without a postseason berth, the team that once got bumped from its home arena in the Finals by the Ice Follies, the team that turned Robert Parish and the Kevin McHale draft pick into Joe Barry Carroll (aka Joe Barely Cares), the team that gave us Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo, the team of bad owners and awful trades and stupid draft choices — have just produced one of most successful single seasons in NBA history. They finished it off Tuesday night with a 105-97 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Finals, winning their first league title in four decades and ending this nonsense that James would singlehandedly beat them.
“I think we definitely are a great team, and a team that should go down in history as one of the best teams, top to bottom,” said Curry, whose signature moment didn’t have to be the Finals MVP award after winning the regular-season trophy and combining it with a title. “We found a recipe for success. Now that we have this under our belt, I think we can actually appreciate what we were able to do this year from start to finish. It’s hard in the moment to really understand what this means in the grand scheme of the history of the NBA, how hard that is, and to cap it with a championship run. But we did it.
“I’m just so happy, man. God is great.”
Beside him with his Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, who struggled with his game after a concussion in the Western Conference finals but watched his teammates pick him up, as is part of the formula. “It just feels good to say we’re the best team in the world with the best player in the world,” he said.
Curry bowed his head. “Appreciate it, man,” he said, knowing that the world had called James the world’s best player — or best cyborg — in the last two weeks.
In the end, James ran out of gas in a 13-of-33 night, fittingly ceding the Finals MVP award to the player who ultimately wore him down. Andre Iguodala was demoted from the starting lineup in October, but instead of brooding, he formed an example of professionalism for his younger teammates. How perfect that he and his young son, who may have out-cuted Riley Curry, were hopping through that same conga line, a son slapping skin with his proud father.
“I’m not surprised because I’m confident in my game. I’m the one who’s too hard on himself most of the time,” said Iguodala, who again made the biggest plays — and three-pointers when urgently needed — and added 25 points in a show that locked down the award. “I would have bet on Steph. I would have bet on Draymond Green. But I’m just happy for winning the ring. I don’t care about anything else. The [MVP] is just a plus.”
This was the quintessential team, with a culture established by Lacob and co-owner Peter Guber. It started by hiring the best executive in league history, Jerry West, who has had a potent role in the franchise turnaround despite his claims to the contrary. With West’s backing, Lacob pushed aside general manager Larry Riley, merely the man who drafted Curry, and advised the hiring of a player agent, Bob Myers. Next came shrewd drafts, the unearthing of Green, the melding of Curry and Thompson, the defensive emphasis of coach Mark Jackson. But when Jackson grated on management and certain players, he was fired in what many — myself included — thought was a panic move. In came Kerr, who blew off his mentor, Phil Jackson, because, well, the New York Knicks had nothing going on and the Warriors had Curry, Thompson and a proximity to Berkeley, where Kerr’s daughter, Maddie, plays volleyball at Cal.
How bizarre to hear Mark Jackson, in the final minutes of the clincher, saying on ABC, “Got to give [Kerr] credit. He took over a tough job in a tough situation. He won over the locker room, a championship coach.” Kerr won over Jackson’s locker room, the one that was split after his firing. But he did so with his trademark diplomacy and good nature: taking Curry on a golf trip, traveling to Australia to meet with Andrew Bogut, speaking to each player.
From there, the system thrived with a rapid symmetry rarely seen in sports. It usually takes time for new coaches to acclimate to their players. It took Kerr days to win them over, and only months to celebrate with them as the Larry O’Brien trophy rested on a table. “Coach Kerr came in and was very humble about how he was going to approach his job,” Curry said. “He had a lot of talent to work with, a great coaching staff, but he had some new ideas as well. Ball movement, player movement, managing all the different personalities and situations. He handled it all so well. Every decision he made, I think everyone bought in. Because he’s a champion, with five of those rings [as a player]. You’ve got to trust a guy like that.”
Kerr saw talent. He saw a defensive foundation. He just wondered, like the rest of us, why the Warriors weren’t running more. So he cranked the gas from the speed limit to 90 mph, sometimes faster. “I just felt a faster pace could go a long way,” he said. “The key was that the defense was in place. It’s all about balancing offense and defense. We felt like it would work.
“But I’d be lying to you if I felt like we were going to win the NBA title.”
It took Iguodala and David Lee buying in when they were sent to the bench, replaced by Green and Harrison Barnes. It took a remarkable streak of good health, thanks to a progressive staff of doctors and shrinks and fatigue specialists, when other contenders were devastated by injuries — including a Cavaliers team that lost Kevin Love and then Kyrie Irving. Would the Warriors have beaten a full-strength Cleveland team? I don’t think so. But it doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that Charles Barkley and all the other critics have been quieted.
“I don’t worry about that stuff,” Kerr said. “The only thing I felt like occasionally pointing out, which I never did, was our defense. Everyone wanted to talk about how many three-pointers we were taking. We’re the No. 1 defensive team in the league. The combination of both is why we won, and people didn’t point that out enough.”
Why didn’t he call out Barkley? “I love Charles,” said Kerr, smiling. “I mean, the guy picked up every bar tab I was part of when I was at TNT. He can say what he wants.”
The mea culpas are streaming in. “The odds were high of this happening,” Green said. “But we’re a very confident group. We feel like we were a great basketball team all along. Now that has been proven.”
Green, in particular, could not stop yapping. The world will have to listen to him for awhile. “A lot of people said I never could play in this league,” he said. “Too slow, too small, can’t shoot, can’t defend nobody. He doesn’t have a skill. Well, I’ve got heart, and that’s what stands out now.”
There was a whole lot of heart on the podium when Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, handed the trophy to Lacob. That is when the moment kicked in: How the hell did this happen. Curry kept walking around the court, saying, “What? What?” The question is how.
“It’s about the culture, from the top to the bottom,” Guber said. “They wanted to win. They wanted to play great. They did just that. We won the championship.”
And now the question is, how many more are coming? In a new arena in San Francisco? The start-up company, you might say, has made it big.
“That team across the way,” said James, “you tip your hat to them.”
And tip your glass, in a toast, come Friday at the parade.