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Will the Last Warriors Fan in Oakland Please Turn Off the Lights?
Jason Turbow | Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice | April 18, 2013
They're the Bay Area's longest-suffering sports fans—and every victory moves them one day closer to getting dumped.
This is the final piece of the puzzle of local anguish. Warriors games aren’t just convenient for Oakland fans—they’re also (relatively) affordable. The $35.70 average ticket price ranks 23rd out of 30 NBA teams, according to Statista.com, $6.43 more than the bottom-rung Charlotte Bobcats, but a whopping $87.52 less than the top-ranked New York Knicks. The latter discrepancy will almost certainly change when the team arrives at its new waterfront digs.
Lawrence’s friend Ethan Roberts, 41, a Berkeley High alum, wanders in mid-conversation and jumps right in. “The Haas family owned the A’s in the 1980s, when they were one of the best teams in baseball, and for most of the decade you could afford to go to a game,” he says. “We need a benevolent billionaire to step in and help this community like that when it comes to the basketball team.”
The sentiment isn’t quite Occupy the Hardwood, but it’s similar, speaking to the helplessness felt by the Warriors’ fan base—the blow to their pride being compounded by the anticipated blow to their pocketbooks. The truth is, many of them can barely afford to attend games as it is, and billionaire benevolence can go only so far. Lacob and Guber have spoken at length about keeping things affordable; about how nearly half of all Warriors fans are from non–East Bay places like the Peninsula and Marin and San Francisco; how BART will deposit fans just as close to the new arena as it does to the current one; how the westbound drive across the Bay Bridge will be against traffic; how there will be 14,000 parking spaces within a 20-minute walk; and how that particular slice of San Francisco waterfront is just about the most central location one could acquire when seeking convenience for the Bay Area at large. Emotionally, however, places like Hillsborough and Pacifica and Fairfax do not need the Warriors in the way that West Oakland and Fruitvale and Alameda need them. For many denizens of the area surrounding Oracle Arena, this basketball team isn’t just an entertaining diversion—it’s a member of the family.
As NBA owners go, Joe Lacob is a natural for the role of the loving, if paternalistic, Team Dad. His hands-on involvement with the Warriors—he sits courtside for virtually every home game and makes himself available to the fans around him—has had an undeniable impact on the team. (His business partner, Guber, based in Los Angeles, is less often in attendance.) It’s a testament to Lacob’s openness that he’s agreed to a discussion about everything I’ve been hearing from the team’s anxious followers. We meet privately inside Oracle Arena’s interview room, where head coach Mark Jackson will give his postgame press conference later.
Lacob is personable, earnest, and accessible—in sharp contrast to the evasive public figure cut by his predecessor, Cohan—and he is a bona fide basketball junkie. He has held Warriors season tickets since 1998, is a regular at Stanford games, owned a piece of the Boston Celtics before purchasing the Warriors, and was an investor in the women’s American Basketball League. (He is late to our meeting because he was watching a Lakers game on TV.) This fandom is what has him so wrapped up in the Oracle Arena experience, which he and the arena’s owners recently augmented with $4 million in scoreboard and audiovisual upgrades, despite the team’s plans to leave four seasons hence.
Lacob is certainly entitled to a new arena if he can get one—Oracle is the NBA’s oldest—and the fact that he has not publicly explored moving the team from the Bay Area is worth something. Why, though, can he not build an arena here in Oakland, on either the existing site or one closer to downtown? In 2011, Oakland mayor Jean Quan unveiled a vague plan for something called “Coliseum City,” which was to include venues for the Warriors, the A’s, and the Raiders, as well as a plethora of retail outlets, restaurants and hotels, and a convention center. Why does that project hold so little interest? Why can’t Lacob have his cake while continuing to feed the hungriest members of his fan base?
“It’s a good question,” he says. “We tried to talk to Oakland—had several meetings, actually—and just didn’t get very far with the administration. They may have been early in their thinking at that point, but we were also getting a very warm reception from San Francisco. We began to deal with a proactive mayor [Ed Lee] to come up with a spectacular site that happens to be fortuitously available.”
The meetings with Quan took place in late 2011 and early 2012, after she had floated the idea of Coliseum City but before the team had come to an agreement with San Francisco on the proposed waterfront location. The trouble, says Lacob, was that Quan was alarmingly short on details (a verifiable claim, inasmuch as the mayor is still short on details: Quan’s office would not respond to numerous requests for comment). “We kept talking to her about ideas, but they never gave us an answer and kept asking us to wait,” says Lacob. “Our lease here expires in 2017, and it’s going to take five years to build an arena, no matter where we do it. I guess we could have sat and waited another year until she got it pulled together, [but] they really didn’t have any idea of what to do.”
At this point, I bring up the story of Paul Nunn, a 40-year-old mental health rehabilitator who lives one exit away from the arena, in San Leandro, and who has been a Warriors season ticket holder for the last three years. In October 2010, Nunn’s 18-year-old son, Kwame, was killed by gunfire at a party. The Nunn family—Paul and his wife, Tricia, also have two daughters, Kayla, 12, and Kyra, 6—was devastated. Basketball had always been a refuge for them—game night was family night—and when they needed it most, the sport came through. Lacob made sure of that.
“Joe Lacob emailed me multiple times,” says Nunn, who hadn’t previously met the owner. “We’re still in contact—he talks about his kids with me and asks what I think about the team.” Lacob covered Nunn’s ticket costs for the remainder of that season. Around Christmas, guard Monta Ellis showed up at the Nunns’ house with autographed balls and memorabilia for the girls and smiles and hugs for the parents.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Nunn has a difficult time stomaching the proposed move. Why, when faced with spending up to $1 billion for a San Francisco arena, couldn’t the team’s owners simply drop similar (or less) money in Oakland? “I don’t know why you’d go to the unknown when you know that you’re selling out every game right here,” he says.
The mention of Nunn’s name sparks immediate emotion in Lacob. “For Paul’s family, what we did was a really big deal. We’re trying to provide entertainment and make money and win games, but it’s also about having a positive impact on people’s lives. I know that basketball isn’t as important as some things—but it is for some people.”
With that, Lacob hits on the notion that I’ve been trying with such difficulty to square: The man’s genuine sentiment toward an individual fan— every individual fan, even—simply does not translate when it comes to the masses. Wanting to move the Warriors from a depressed area hardly makes Lacob evil—every owner who has ever relocated a team has had to face similar circumstances, and few have done so as thoughtfully as the Warriors boss—but it puts him in some particularly tricky crosshairs.
Instead of stumbling for answers that aren’t there, Lacob does the only thing he can. Part businessman, part basketball fan, and all optimist, he turns his attention in the one direction that makes any sense: forward. “It’s very hard to make everybody happy,” he says. “I struggle with that because I always want to please people. Some people are going to be unhappy with us moving no matter what, and if we do end up moving, I’m sorry for them.”
He pauses and smiles. “But I’d also really like to convince them that they’ll enjoy going to San Francisco as well.”
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.