The Warriors Chased Big Money to San Francisco and Left Their Soul in Oakland

What it feels like to have your team, your city’s heart, torn out and dragged across the Bay

Illustration: Jenna Andersen

TThis summer, I drove by the Oracle Arena on Interstate 880 and found myself faced with ghosts. As the arena grew larger on the horizon, so too did the massive headshots of various Golden State Warriors players. Stretched across the stadium windows, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant looked as big as gods. Which, of course, in Oakland, they are.

Those posters lingered following the team’s unexpected and crushing loss to the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals. In some ways, the exit from Oakland is fitting for the Warriors, a team whose five-year run of mega-success has overshadowed the struggles they faced during most of their time in Oakland. Their rise seemed to match that of this city, a place long treated with disdain and which has, in many ways, recently transformed beyond recognition. But for all Oakland gained, it may have lost just as much. Now it’s losing the Warriors, too, and Oracle lingers as a grim reminder of the city and people left behind.

FFor a half-century, the Warriors have been a quintessentially Oakland team. Sportswriters love pointing out that the Dubs were once a San Francisco team (technically, they were a Philadelphia team first, leaving the City of Brotherly Love for Western pastures in 1962). However, that initial run in SF lasted just a short while: The Warriors moved to Oakland in 1971 to settle down in the spiffy new Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum Arena, known later as Oracle.

Once in Oakland, the team found some early successes. My longtime family friend and fellow Oakland resident, Paul Dresnick, recalls an April day in 1975 when he and my father took a radio on his outdoor deck to listen to the Warriors play the Washington Bullets in the finals. “I had two spinster neighbors I hadn’t met and they were yelling at me to turn it down,” he tells me. Underdogs even then, the Warriors, featuring superstars Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes, swept the series.

Oakland was an underdog, too. In the wake of World War II, suburban development had increased around Oakland, particularly in Contra Costa County, which began drawing many of the city’s wealthier residents. White flight hollowed out the city, leaving the working and lower classes — predominantly African Americans and other people of color — to bear the brunt of deindustrialization. By the ’70s, Oakland had become a home for social change, paralleling some of Berkeley’s own political movements. Yet there were unique racial tensions in this birthplace of the Black Panthers: Unease about both increasing gang activity and unjust policing policies targeting people of color, and of growing inequality between those who lived in the flats versus those in the more affluent neighborhoods, migrating toward the hills. For a city forging a new identity and undergoing change, even upheaval, sports teams like the Warriors became a unifying force. Their fans were as diverse as the city’s inhabitants.

After the 1975 Championships, the team went on a decades-long slump. It was degrading, sure. Yet they were always fun to watch, with interesting personalities circulating throughout the franchise. According to Dresnick, the team often “scored a lot of points, but just managed to lose.” Most of the time, fans still packed Oracle.

Their success was saying something about us, our tenacity, our hidden shine.

“Everybody who was anybody went to those games,” Dresnick says. “Schmoozing and stuff. Everybody was smoking dope at Oracle. If you sat at the top, it was like a layer of smoke.”

The city of Oakland remained an afterthought to San Francisco throughout those years, a place whose vibrant culture was often overshadowed by headlines about violence and poverty. Growing up in Oakland in the ’90s and early 2000s, I found myself being asked by ignorant outsiders if I’d ever seen someone get shot. I longed, in many ways, for the suburbs of the deeper East Bay: the clean sidewalks, the orderly houses, the perfectly manicured lawns. But Oakland was a city that had — and produced — character. As it happened for so many of us living here, the city became an inextricable part of me—growing up here turned into a point of pride.

When the Warriors began their rise in 2007, making the playoffs after a 12-season dry streak, it felt like their success was saying something about us, our tenacity, our hidden shine, and our town. I was 17 and my high school went nuts, the place practically painted blue and gold with signs that read “We Believe.” By then, the fervent fanbase, as diverse as Oakland itself and connected solely by geography and loyalty, had become a weapon in itself. The arena was unofficially christened “Roaracle,” in honor of the crowd’s unparalleled volume.

And then, by some miracle, in the first round of the playoffs, the Warriors beat the Mavericks, becoming the first-ever No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed. Even when they were defeated by the Jazz in the next round, it didn’t matter. The Warriors had already done the impossible.

For a while, it seemed like we might have to savor that sole victory for another dozen years. But, of course, things shifted in ways we couldn’t yet foresee. The team got better. And better. And then, they were the best.

In 2015, I watched them clinch their first championship win in 40 years on a teeny TV in the living room of my friend’s cluttered apartment. The place was packed full of fellow Bay Area natives, each of us navigating the new terrain of our homeland in our own way. Clinging onto rent-controlled apartments, working side hustles, even taking the dreaded leap into the tech world. In the years to come, some would move out of the Bay for places that could better support their dreams; for those of us who stayed, it felt a clock was ticking down to when this would all fold in on itself and when we’d be pushed to leave. We couldn’t know all this yet, but felt it bearing down on us all the same, ever-present in our psyches as we ate tortilla chips and peered at the television screen. For all that had changed, even the die-hard fans among us didn’t seem quite willing to believe that the Dubs could pull it off. Their losses had been ingrained in us our whole lives. But, as the Warriors beat the Cavs 105–97, our screams joined with a chorus erupting along the whole block. We shuffled onto the fire escape and took shots of tequila. I looked over at my friend and saw tears — of joy and of disbelief — roll down her face.

AA couple of years ago, I attended a Dubs game against the Sacramento Kings. A flurry of expertly edited rally videos flashed on the monitors, $15 beer sloshed from plastic cups, the crowd vibrated with energy. Enormous pillars of fire erupting from the basketball hoops punctuated the crescendo of the national anthem — my make-up grew slick, my heart leapt at the back of my throat. It felt outsized, surreal. I marveled at how all of this could possibly be contained inside this building, how it could possibly exist in my hometown. It reminded me of the time my best friend returned home from the East Coast and went to a hipster restaurant replete with fancy cocktails, succulents, quirky decor, and the kind of white, clean counters reminiscent of an Apple Store. She texted me, “I can’t believe this is in Oakland.”

It began to feel that Oakland could have nice things, but Oaklanders could not.

In a sense, the Dubs’ success felt like a reward for die-hard fans, broadcast against the story of an improving Oakland. An Oakland with a sudden influx of money, rising as the Brooklyn to San Francisco’s New York. This was an incomplete story, of course. One that largely discounted all of the longtime residents being pushed out of their homes, pockets of the city still plagued by crime and uncertainty, of the skyrocketing rents, and of all the beloved businesses we saw shutter and all of the twee pop-ups that rushed in to fill the void. Their success, like the tech boom, was a virtual infusion. While having a winning team in Oakland was exhilarating, local fans were soon displaced by tech billionaires filling up the lower bowl. It began to feel that Oakland could have nice things, but Oaklanders could not.

Despite Oakland’s boom, when Warriors games aired, networks constantly showed the Golden Gate Bridge and views of San Francisco — even during the most recent finals, when it was known that this would be the Dubs’ last season in Oakland. When the Raptors were mocked before their game against the Warriors for tweeting “Crossed the bridge, ready for battle” with a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, you almost couldn’t blame them for the mixup.

The name alone — the Golden State Warriors — disassociated them from Oakland. It only made sense, however upsetting, that the bigger, glitzier city across the Bay, the very place responsible for driving up prices and displacing locals, could snatch them up and appropriate them whenever they pleased.

But the team themselves? The people? Their roots were in Oakland. I heard stories of Dubs players spotted on the street or at local diners. I know folks who worked for the team. My dad’s friend Dresnick even briefly lived in the same cul-de-sac as a Warriors player. The team mentored young folks in the area, donated money to nonprofits, and randomly showed up to play pickup games against fans in local parks.

And now that they’re going, and taking all of that with them, it feels like a reminder of how, like all these markers of unsustainable economic inflation, it can all be withdrawn at any time. The tech bubble, the housing bubble, all of it pulled out from under us like a rug so that we’re left with far less than we had to begin with.

The 49ers abandoned the storied Candlestick Park in favor of Levi’s Stadium in the heart of Silicon Valley and all the money that offered. In 2017, the Raiders finalized their decision to head to Las Vegas, turning their back on Oakland and its rabid fanbase in favor of the nearly $1 billion Vegas was willing to pump into a glitzy new stadium. In recent days, the A’s have threatened to head to Vegas, too, unless the city meets their demands for a new stadium.

The Warriors talked about leaving Oakland for years. But, beyond reason, many of us hoped we’d never actually see it happen.

The Chase Center broke ground three years ago with a ceremony that was, as with most things in San Francisco these days, dripping with money. Dancers dressed as construction workers spun and sauntered and leapt onto trampolines, holding orange cones and safety flags aloft. There were choreographed tractors. A cool $1.4 billion later, the opening felt just as absurd, with fireworks, ribbon dancers, an ensemble musical act, and again — as if they were set on some kind of bizarre “YMCA” remake—more dancers dressed as construction workers.

Chase Center has the largest scoreboard in the NBA. It has no concessions but, rather, 36 “eateries” and 23 bars and 552 taps spewing overpriced beer. The cost of season tickets is astronomical — not including the tickets themselves, purchase requires a $15,000 to $35,000 per seat “membership” fee. In essence, it’s a loan to fund the construction of the new stadium. Don’t worry, the Warriors are good for it. They’ll pay you back. In 30 years. With no interest. Not that such fees will be of much consequence to their wealthiest fans, for whom it’ll cost $2 million annually to secure one of the stadium’s suites; it comes with a butler.

It’s… nice. Of course, it’s nice. It’s nice in the way that I’m sure it’s nice to eat free snacks and cash huge paychecks from Google or Facebook; the way it was nice to live in the glitzy $6 million condos in the city’s Millennium Tower before the building began infamously sinking. It’s nice in the way that anything is nice if you throw enough money behind it.

The Warriors traded their heart for a paycheck. Oakland built this team; now San Francisco can exploit it.

Warriors management claims they’re only leaving Oracle (which has technically been renamed Oakland Arena) in body, not spirit. Yet they’re surely losing a chunk of their fanbase in the fray. And, sure, they’re turning over the offices to local nonprofits, converting the training facility to an NBA basketball camp, but they’re also trying to leave the stadium with a big stinking turd in the form of massive debt. The team ran up a $140 million tab with the city of Oakland and county of Alameda to renovate the arena in the ’90s. Now, though they were ordered by a court to pay out the $40 million of debt that remains, they appealed the decision. If they win, taxpayers will be saddled with that cost.

The team has already blown up. Kevin Durant off for the Nets, Andre Iguodala traded to the Grizzlies, Klay Thompson recovering from a torn ACL. It’s still the Steph Curry era, but it also feels like the end of one. As I watch friend after friend leave the Bay, disenchanted with a place they no longer recognize, or eschew their dreams in order to make the techie-level money they need to survive here, it feels like the death of a certain kind of California dream, too.

I drove by Oracle again in September, just a couple weeks before their first preseason game against the Lakers at the Chase Center. The posters were gone.

I am a writer. Also, a human. | Bylines @nytimes, @WIRED, @TheAtlantic, @CNTraveler, @GQmagazine, @Playboy, @cnfonline | Will write for burritos | #binders

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