Hope Flickers


July 18, 2010

Hope is the lifeblood of a sports fan. It’s why the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a struggling team. The backup is unproven but he represents hope, the possibility of better days ahead, if only the starting quarterback was replaced all would be well. Usually there’s a reason he’s the backup, but once in a while you unearth Tom Brady or Kurt Warner. It’s also the reason drafts are so popular. The NFL draft is now a 3 day made for TV event – it gets more airtime than the President of the United States. Who will we get? Will he help us win next year? Will he be a stud in 3 years?


Hope is especially important for fans of bad teams. A good team doesn’t have to work to package hope, the hope is in the existing stars and the current winning. But for a bad team hope sometimes needs to be manufactured or the team risks losing its fans. The manufactured hope could be from any of a number of sources such as an upcoming high draft pick, a current young player, or the impending firing of an unpopular coach. Two years ago, the putrid Knicks waived the white flag and all but publicly announced that they weren’t going to try to compete for two years. Their goal was to spend two years becoming a glorified expansion team with the carrot for their fans being the hope of luring LeBron James. Most hope schemes don’t translate to winning - Knicks fans bought in and spent two years supporting a shell of a team; all they got was an overpaid Amare Stoudemire – but fans need a reason to hope, a reason to believe that even if today is bad that tomorrow will be a glorious day.


Over the last two decades, no sports franchise has lived more off the whoring of hope than the Golden State Warriors.


When Chris Cohan took over controlling ownership 16 years ago, the Warriors were coming off of a 50-32 season despite missing Dream Teamer Chris Mullin missing a quarter of the season and All NBA point guard Tim Hardaway missing the entire season. The team was led by young All Star guard Latrell Sprewell and Rookie of the Year power forward Chris Webber. With Hardaway’s return and the maturation of Sprewell and Webber, the Warriors were set up for a decade of championship contention. Hope was an easy sell.


Within a few years, all four stars were gone, traded away for little to nothing in return. Yet the fans kept coming back, lured by false hope. Every few years the Warriors would assemble a group of fairly talented young players and pawn them off as a young core that would be bringing the Warriors back to glory. Foyle and Jamison! Jamison and Hughes! Jamison, Hughes, and Richardson! Richardson and Arenas! Richardson, Murphy, and Dunleavy! Pietrus and Biedrins! Biedrins and Ellis! O’Bryant and Diogu! Wright and Belinelli! Wright and Randolph! Randolph and Curry! Most were traded for pennies on the dollar, with the balance leaving as free agents. Every young core ultimately disappointed, with a number of members receiving contract extensions and becoming scapegoats turned on by the organization and a chunk of the fan base. Yet every new core was readily bought into (with the exception of Dunleavy, the fan base buy-in with him was short lived). Hope lived.


When they weren’t shilling hope through a new overmatched young player, the Warriors were promising better things to come through coaching changes. Nelson was fired and replaced by Lanier. Lanier fired and replaced by Adelman; Adelman by Carlesimo; Carlesimo by St Jean; St Jean by Cowens; Cowens by Winters; Winters by Musselman; Musselman by Montgomery; and finally Montgomery gave way to bringing back Nelson. In his first 13 years as owner, Cohan plowed through 10 coaches. Each coach was hailed as the bringer of hope, the general who would lead the wayward Warriors to swift victory. The last bum failed, but the new bum will succeed!


Being a Warriors fan leads to a backward sports schedule. Most fans look forward to opening night, maybe seeing their favorite player in the All Star game, seeing their team compete for a playoff berth and then compete for a championship. As a Warriors fan, one dilutes themselves into thinking that a playoff berth may happen but beyond that, hope is usually for the nebulous future. The top 3 days on the Warriors fan’s calendar are the draft (where hope for the new member of the young core starts, and in reality a mediocre career begins), the draft lottery day (with the exception of the moment the Warriors are called as they inevitably stay where they were slotted or fall, never rising, but after the momentary gut punch hope then focuses on who they might take), and the trade deadline (almost always an overpromise and underdelivery of trades that will change the course of the franchise).


Hope, often irrational and almost always ill-fated, is what kept Warriors fans going. The players aren’t very good and are injured all the time, the coach is inept, and the management is the worst in major American pro sports, but there was always reason to believe that tomorrow would be a better day.


The Cohan regime has been a punishing one on the fans, one that few fan bases could have endured. During Cohan’s reign of error, the Warriors had the fewest playoff appearances of any franchise with a meager total of one, had the second worst winning percentage in the NBA, and set a new NBA record for most consecutive 60+ loss seasons. The Warriors went thirteen years between playoff appearances, yet the last few years of the playoff drought actually saw the fans set new franchise attendance records. Gluttons for punishment, basketball masochists, junkies of hope.


Personally, most hope was extinguished about a year ago. Through all the losing and all the incompetence, I always held out hope that if by some fortunate confluence of fluke events the Warriors put together a competitive team, management would keep it together. Sure, they had no clue as to how to put together a winner and were perpetually focused on being the last team to make the playoffs rather than the last team standing during the playoffs, but surely they’d keep a winner together if they somehow were graced with one. Sure, Cohan had ruthlessly blown apart a winner when he started but after a decade and a half of relentless losing surely he’d at least try to keep a winning group together.


Nope. The Warriors were able to obtain Baron Davis, Al Harrington, and Stephen Jackson at negative cost and suddenly found themselves with lighting in a bottle. The team gelled and caught fire, making the playoffs several weeks after the head coach had pronounced the season over and then became the first 8 seed to win a best of 7 series from a 1 seed, dismantling a Dallas Mavericks team that had finished 25 games ahead of the Warriors. Not only were key players handed to the Warriors but so was the We Believe slogan, provided by a fan who spent thousands of his own dollars to make signs and hand them out to fellow fans at games. Winning basketball, albeit not championship basketball, was finally back by the Bay!


And then Cohan and his minion Rob Rowell struck yet again. The We Believe team had an 8 man rotation of Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Monta Ellis, Al Harrington, Andris Biedrins, Matt Barnes, and Mickael Pietrus. Two years later, all but two were gone. Richardson was dumped in a cost cutting move weeks after the We Believe run ended. Harrington and Jackson would also be salary dumped. Davis became a free agent and agreed to a contract extension with Mullin, who had become the team’s President in charge of basketball operations. Cohan and Rowell stepped in and reneged on the deal, stripped Mullin of authority, and told Davis to seek employment elsewhere. Barnes and Pietrus also left as free agents, unwanted by Warriors management. The two remaining Believers, Ellis and Biedrins, are the subjects of perpetual trade rumors. The Warriors’ winning percentage has dropped to half of the We Believe team’s.


It was that ruthless dismantling that broke my hope that the Warriors under Cohan could ever win. He has no interest in winning. His interest is in turning a profit (and he is able to make $10-15 million a year off the Warriors even in a severely down economy when most sports franchises are losing money). He runs a basketball version of The Producers – if a loser is profitable, then just lose, baby!


The last vestige of hope laid in knowing Cohan would have to sell one day, and that with him owing the IRS at least $160 million that he doesn’t have without selling the team, he’d have no choice but to sell relatively soon. The new ownership, whoever they were, would surely be better than Cohan. Barring an uprooting of the franchise, they could hardly be worse.


News came that Larry Ellison wanted to buy the team. Ellison, founder and CEO of Oracle, is listed by Forbes as the 6th richest person in the world. He would be the richest owner in American sports. He is also a highly competitive man, having spent more than $200 million to win the America’s Cup, a yacht race that brings a small fraction of the renown and prestige amongst the general public and the sports fan populace of winning an NBA championship. Ellison was asked about the Warriors at a stock holder meeting and said he was trying to buy the team but “unfortunately, you can't have a hostile takeover of a basketball team.” Hope continued to flicker on.


Earlier this summer came the best news the Warriors had received since Cohan had taken over – Cohan was finally selling the team! Our long national nightmare would soon be over. A new beginning was nigh, surely with Ellison at the helm. The Warriors could go from bumbling to winning, from cheap to free spending. Ellison would be the ultimate BSD owner, unwilling to accept losing and using his wallet to buy up assets to help ensure winning. With the economy still in flux and many teams still very cost sensitive, having unlimited financial resources could be more of a boon than ever before in the salary cap era. Ellison was the ultimate Warriors offseason hope.


Early last week much of the Bay Area media was reporting it as a done deal – Ellison was signing the paperwork and would be taking over. The sun was finally rising to fight off 16 years of endless night.


I should have known better. We all should have. For his entire tenure Cohan had screwed up everything except ensuring that he turned a profit, so why should the sale of the team be any different? The news broke early Thursday. The team was sold, but not to Ellison. Joe Lacob, a partner in a highly successful venture capital firm and minority owner of the Celtics, and Peter Guber, an entertainment industry CEO, had bought the team for a new NBA record $450 million (presumably they only got Cohan’s 80%, meaning they valued the Warriors at $562.5 million). Few had heard of the new owners. Ellison issued a release stating that he had been the highest bidder. The man running the auction confirmed this but said Ellison’s higher bid came in late. Cohan’s investment in the Warriors had paid of four fold and yet again, just like every lottery and draft, the fans were let down and looking for new sources of hope.


Within a few months the sale should be finalized and the new ownership will take the reigns. Lacob, who will be in charge, talked a good game in his first public statements after being announced as the future owner. Lacob even used the word “championship” which has been an anathema during the Cohan administration. Little is known about the new owners except that they’re not Ellison yet, mercifully, also not Cohan. Lacob is said to be a big fan of basketball; maybe he will cherish winning more than profiteering or at least realize that losing isn’t the only path to profit. Surely they’ll fire Rowell and replace the rest of the vestiges of the Cohan era. The old bums will be gone! Long live the new bums! Long live hope.



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