By: Sherwood Strauss
I traded some emails with Adam Lauridsen, in which he divulged that he and Tim Kawakami are really the same person (and that person is Chris Mullin). I’m posting the exchange without his consent, it’s better you know the dark truth. Just kidding, Adam was kind enough to wax intelligent about the world’s dumbest franchise. Here’s our chat—it starts before the sale news and ends right after. If nothing else, this should be a decent time capsule to reflect on when Larry Ellison installs platinum rims in the San Francisco Oracle Hover Arena (the practice court will have rims of gold).
Ethan Sherwood Strauss:
First off, really loved your “Why I’m Not Renewing,” piece. It’s certainly good enough to spend a few questions on. You touched on how sports teams are businesses, but they have a meaning beyond that (“Just because you pay to enjoy something doesn’t mean it can’t have some soul”). If there is such a rift between the guy who runs the Warriors business and Warriors fans themselves, what does that tell us about NBA basketball in the Bay Area? Why are so many of us still fighting this war of attrition that Cohan wages against our basketball fan hood?
Good question — leading to my far too long answer:
When fans and sports teams really connect, it’s usually because the team has some trait or character element that people want to see in themselves, either individually or as a region. For all the Warriors teams that fans remember fondly, I think that has been true. The championship team was an underdog, but was also the up-start West beating up the old-school East. The Run TMC team was innovative, thrilling and unselfish. Most recently, the We Believe team succeeded after everyone had written them off — providing the perfect foil for how Warriors fans viewed themselves. We had been beaten down and ignored for the prior decade and more, but we kept cheering for the team and believing that our perseverance would be rewarded. Suddenly, it all came together. We were the toast of the NBA, both as fans and as a team. We were David beating the hell out of Goliath and loving every minute of it. That team wasn’t just winning basketball games — it was vindicating our years of dedication.
But the June after the playoff run, a rift opened that has only grown bigger. Jason Richardson — the heart and soul of our team during the dark years, finally able to enjoy some success — was traded for Wright and what ended up being money in Cohan’s pocket. Wright may still end up being a player, but the move was a reminder that the team many of us had felt such a personal connection with a month earlier was still just a business, driven by bottom lines and returns on investments. It’s easy to see yourself in a team full of swaggering underdogs knocking off the NBA’s best. It was a lot harder to associate with a company that rides an employee during the tough times, then swaps him out for a cheaper replacement once the money starts rolling in.
If that trend started with Richardson, it has only gotten worse and more blatant in the years since. You can argue over the basketball merits of some of the moves — like letting Baron walk — but there has been no appealing value tying them together. People can get behind a young team that wants to grow together to improve (the Thunder, the Blazers). People can also get behind a juggernaut that just wants to win at all costs (the Kobe Lakers, the KG Celtics). These are values people want to be associated with — but no one wants to be associated with “salary protection.” No one gets excited about spending just enough to keep fans coming in the door, but not a dollar more. At people certainly don’t want to be at receiving end of those values, playing the fool.
The fact that passionate basketball fans in the Bay Area still pay attention to the Warriors suggests to me that we have a very value-driven fan base. We’ve hung with our local team because we think loyalty and pride in the Bay Area are important values. We stick by them because we don’t think you should abandon something because of struggles. But what we’ve seen in the “war of attrition” — as you nicely put it — is the gradual breakdown of the idea that we, as fans, should have any sort of emotional connection with our team. If Cohan treats the team just like an entertainment commodity, we’d be foolish to view it any differently — or at least be setting ourselves up for repeated disappointment. That’s why the boycott idea has gained some traction. My renewal post came partially from some lingering guilt I had over no longer sitting in the Arena for all the ugly nights. But this isn’t a family — we’re not staging an intervention. Its business and money talks.
Ultimately it’s sad, because at least for We Believe, Run TMC and (from what I’ve heard) the championship team, the emotional connection was real and electrifying. Everyone felt it — the fans, the players, the media. Like a grass-roots political campaign or a breaking music scene, it generated its own passionate momentum. But Cohan got the equation backwards. Rather than using his bank account to enlarge and protect that momentum, he used the momentum to enlarge and protect his bank account. I think it’s ultimately short-sighted on both the basketball and money-making fronts, but Cohan has likely made a nice profit with it since the 06-07 season until this year.
First off, feel free to fire away SJax-style with the emails—no answer is too long, especially one this well thought out (your answer, not mine). I wonder if we glom onto a winner and later come up with the attributions for a special bond. I wonder this, but I do think we loved the We Believe squad in a way that transcended simple rooting—and that this love meant more because that team was “the perfect foil for how Warriors fans viewed themselves.” Tangentially, I wonder if the City of Oakland had anything to do with the special connection. The team seemed like living, breathing, embodiment of Oakland’s misunderstood, eclectic/artistic nature (I doubt Matt Barnes was thinking about any of that at the time). I don’t mean to piss off fans in other Bay locales—the Oakland thought just crossed my mind.
Maybe this is a sad comment on who I am (and really this should be about you, Adam), but the “We Believe” run is my favorite college memory.
Thinking about it transports me to a different time, when this staggering phenomenon animated friends in a way I didn’t know basketball could. We loved the run, and enjoyed each other during it. As I write this, my mind is conjuring the celebration dances of people I care about immensely, and some I rarely see these days. I remember that experience as vividly as any other, and it meant more than just some strangers “winning” or “losing” on my TV. I think the Spurs got the chip that year, but who cares? The We Believe run felt almost like a powerful religious revival, all across the Bay. To have lived it was to share a powerful, joyous collective experience, one that we all knew to be special.
In a roundabout fashion, I’m totally agreeing with you. Sports are a trivial, cynical business, but to succeed, they should be more than a business. And our team is failing to be more than a business, which is likely hurting the actual profit margins.
I think this is Cohan’s Warriors epitaph, if he ever does us the incredible favor of getting the hell out: “Rather than using his bank account to enlarge and protect that momentum, he used the momentum to enlarge and protect his bank account.”
You mentioned that the Cohan strategy is short sighted on the basketball and money making fronts. What explains this self-destructive management? My theory: Organizations that have power vacuums are undone as people pull against each other, rather than pull toward a goal. Maybe Cohan just can’t communicate with people, and a “Lord of the Flies” situation snowballs?
Also, do you think these boycott movements are mostly motivated by a desperate yearning to save the Warriors, or by a cathartic desire to take revenge by stabbing Cohan in the wallet?
The We Believe team transcended simple fandom because the team had a personality — it had identifiable characteristics that allowed us to talk about it being a team connected to Oakland, the Bay Area or the West Coast in general. The teams we’ve seen since have lacked that extra spark of passion (and, in this year’s case, a lot more) that separate them from just a group of people who work together. The 09-10 Warriors have managed to make professional basketball look like a punch-in, punch-out day job. I blame Cohan, because he’s made it clear that profit is dictating his moves — not loyalty, not even winning basketball. He also canned Chris Mullin, who was the most credible go-between for management and the players. It was Mullin at practice day after day, joking with the players and giving them encouragement, in a way the coaching staff, Robert Rowell and Chris Cohan just can’t replicate. When Mullin was pushed aside, things got business-like in a hurry.
As for We Believe being a favorite memory and tying you — for better or worse — to the team, I think most die-hard fans have stories like that. Many of them don’t even involve moments as thrilling as the Mavs upset. Sports get wrapped up in certain experiences in our lives — college, our hometowns, family and friends, whatever — and teams benefit economically from being the backdrop for those life experiences. In a way, that’s what the whole “It’s a Great Timeout” slogan is trying to invoke. It’s not saying “It’s a Great Basketball Team,” it’s advertising the basketball as a backdrop for having a fun time with 19,000 other people. It’s a powerful strategy. My warm feelings towards the team for all the fun times I’ve had with friends and family (and no, I don’t mean free t-shirts and pizzas) probably kept me coming back longer than I should have. But as someone who also loves high-quality basketball, the degradation of the team on the court became too much for me to take. I can have fun with my friends and family in lots of way, particularly if I have the money I would have spent on season tickets at my disposal.
But now for your big question: why does Cohan have us in this mess? I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you, but I can speculate. A fundamental piece to keep in mind at all times is that Cohan doesn’t have the same massive net worth of most other NBA owners. He has more money 100 times over than I’ll see in a lifetime, but in the circles of the ultra-rich, he’s not really on the same level. That leads him to be far more sensitive to minor ups and downs in operating expenses and revenue that richer owners wouldn’t really care about. As a result, he’s unwilling to take one or two really bad years — with big drops in ticket revenue — to help the team rebuild properly and be a sustained winner. He and Rowell are constantly making panic moves to shore up what little support he has left — like the Arenas/Brand/Maggette free agent spending spree after Baron opted-out — because they’re afraid to have even one season of being really bad. They don’t land a superstar because they’re not bad enough to get a top three pick and they’re too capped out with average players to sign a max player in free agency. The great irony in this is that by always trying to be “just good enough” to keep bodies in seats, if anything goes wrong — like the injuries this season and last — things get really ugly in a hurry.
Cohan and Rowell play at the margin, so there’s not a lot of room for error. You trade Jamal Crawford for scraps, dump Belinelli for cash and only sign Mikki Moore in the off-season because of all this supposed depth we have. Then when people get injured, you’re left without any real NBA players. Meanwhile, the Portland Trailblazers have nearly the same quantity of injures we have and are still a playoff team because their owner paid to stockpile real NBA talent from 1-15 on his roster.
Additionally, I think the lack of a credible basketball mind running the organization also hurts the team’s credibility. Having Robert Rowell go around Mullin to re-sign Jackson is the type of big-risk management move that you stake your job on. If it works, great — you took a chance and it paid off. If it fails, better luck next time — but in your next job. The fact that Rowell is still employed after that episode means 90% of the league — agents, players, management — probably takes this team for suckers. And that 90% would be right.
Finally, on the boycott movements, I’m sure there are some that are sparked by a desire for revenge or to be a part of something anti-establishment, just like there are people who enjoy a protest, no matter what the cause. But for the most part, I hear people talking boycott who have loved this team for a long time and are simply out of options. I wasn’t happy giving up my season tickets for next year. I love going to basketball games in person and love the Warriors. But Cohan has made it perfectly clear that he’s running this team as a business. And as such, the only meaningful way for me to express my unhappiness with what he’s done was to withhold my money. My decision-making process was exactly as I put it in my post on not renewing — the thought of missing live Warriors games was less painful to me than the thought of giving Cohan money. Neither one was something I wanted to do, but I finally felt like I had to make a choice.
(After the Warriors Franchise gets put on the market)
I feel like we’re in a post-sale world possibly?
Sure, but I’m not convinced yet that this is going to get done anytime soon. Smells more like “renew now!” to me, but all these years of Cohan have probably made me paranoid.
Yes, but isn’t it more fun to pretend that the sale’s a done deal? And doesn’t the effusive outpouring of sale celebration say something in of itself? It’s like the Bay Area’s version of French Liberation (if French Liberation was celebrated exclusively on the internet).
Absolutely — fire away, writing more about how badly everyone wants Cohan gone can only help the cause.
Ha, I’m already locked and loaded. Actually, I’m not delving into what the crazy premature celebration of Cohan departure means because we sort of addressed the reasons. TK wonders if Cohan is out by August/September. Let’s entertain the ideal: Cohan’s out even earlier, Ellison has a shot at Lebron. Does our self-perception as fans dramatically change? With Ellison’s cash, I’m not sure luxury tax means a damned thing. Can we possibly even wrap our minds around fathoming becoming the Yankees of basketball (my fingers tremble as I type that)? I reduce these questions to one question: Would part of you miss the scrappy, Sisyphean futility of Warriors fandom?
Self-perception is a tricky issue to predict, since we all have massive blind spots. I lived in Boston when the Red Sox decided to follow the Yankees’ path and buy as much talent as possible. It seemed hypocritical to me, given all the whining about the Yankees’ tactics, but I saw no evidence that it detracted one bit from Boston’s joy in winning the World Series. I love scrappy underdogs every bit as much as the next guy, but our embrace of futility may just be a coping mechanism. After all the bad basketball we’re witnessed, we’re in a better position than anyone to appreciate a well-run, competitive franchise committed to winning. Will that bring some fair weather fans aboard? Sure — but it also will lead to all the die-hards going even crazier than we’ve seen before. As a fan-blogger, the Warriors’ endless futility gives me lots of material to write about, but I’m sure I’d have no trouble breaking down why the Warriors are a 60-plus win team or extolling the virtues of smart front office moves to acquire and retain talent, rather than alienate it and give it away.
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