When the boos started filling Oracle Arena during a tribute to Chris Mullin, Rick Barry snapped back.
The crowd was boisterous before the game even started. The Golden State Warriors would retire Chris Mullin’s jersey at halftime. With the present rarely any good and the future perpetually two or three years away, Warriors fans are conditioned to look to the past. In most places, jersey retirement ceremonies are remarkably staid affairs.
Oakland is not most places.
Al Attles, Rick Barry, Don Nelson, Tim Hardaway. All the legends were there to pay tribute to Mullin on the night his jersey was raised to the rafters. The crowd was perfectly Oakland -- standing ovations for anybody who had ever worn a Warriors jersey, wisecracks from the stands and “I love you, Mully!” shouted from all over.
I first noticed the change in tenor when Bay Area broadcaster and the night’s emcee, Greg Papa, introduced Warriors owner Joe Lacob with the promise, “We saved the best for last!”
The boos started slowly, as the mic was handed to Lacob. Scattered at first, from places above and behind me. Dozens became hundreds, then hundreds became thousands until a baritone familiar to all sports fans echoed throughout Oracle Arena: "Boooooooooooooo."
The booing stretched on indefinitely, the tension so thick that the seconds may as well have been hours, recalling Einstein’s famous quote about relativity. There was no obvious end point: Lacob was just standing there, a bemused expression on his face.
Mercifully, it finally subsided -- but only temporarily, because Lacob had the audacity to address the booing this way:
“Now that we got that over with.”
Lacob would pay heavily by suffering a new chorus of boos every time he tried to hem and haw his way through the prepared speech.
Lacob’s baptism by fire was jarring to the senses, but it shouldn't have been all that surprising. Twelve years earlier, Warriors fans booed then-owner Chris Cohan while he was standing next to his own son and Michael Jordan, an act for which Cohan never forgave them.
That isn't to say that Lacob’s booing was undeserved. When he strode to center court, the 18-24 Warriors were down 14 to an anemic Timberwolves team and well on their way to a 16th losing season out of the last 18. Only a week earlier, the Warriors had traded quasi-star and fan favorite Monta Ellis for an injured-for-the-season Andrew Bogut. It didn't help matters that Lacob had the temerity to speak after Chris Mullin, the guest of honor. Really, we all probably should've seen this coming.
The truly shocking moment of the night -- the most incredulous moment I have ever experienced as a basketball fan and something that left my mouth agape -- came when the notoriously unlikable, NBA Hall of Famer and all-around cantankerous old man Rick Barry seized the mic to berate the crowd. Acting like a grumpy senior citizen chasing teenagers off his lawn, Barry barked at me and the thousands I was surrounded by:
“C’mon people. You fans are the greatest fans in the world, as everybody said that. Show a little bit of class. This is a man I have spent some time talking to. He is going to change this franchise. This is crazy! Seriously. C’mon. You are doing yourself a disservice. All of the wonderful accolades being sent to you, for you to treat this man who is spending his money to do the best that he can to turn this franchise around -- and I know he is going to do it. So give him the respect that he deserves.”
The fan-team relationship is a curious one. Fans love to use the first person plural when discussing sports -- we traded Monta Ellis last week, we are down to the Timberwolves by 14, wesuck -- implying that they are a part of the organization. They’re not employees or team members, of course, but it’s more complicated than that.
Sports teams are money-making corporations at their core. On the face of it, Barry’s statement, “... for you to treat this man who is spending his money to do the best that he can to turn this franchise around,” is absurd. In no other realm of the consumer market do producers so quickly take their customers for granted. Barry said Warriors fans should be grateful for the money Lacob is spending, but much of that money they gave to Lacob in the first place when they bought tickets, merchandise and concessions.
But sports teams aren't just corporations; they also occupy a weird space in our culture. They’re a throwback to a much more violent time, an era when Greek city-states frequently marched against one another. Today, with no other socially acceptable outlets for such tribal behavior, sports teams foster rivalries between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, New York and Boston. Often, a pro team is the most recognizable reflection of our community’s identity.
He didn't mean to make such a cogent, philosophical statement, but Barry hit the Stockholm Syndrome nail on the head. Warriors fans are supposed to feel grateful that they are allowed to spend money to support such a terrible team.
Team marketing efforts do everything possible to obscure the reality that, like any other corporate entity, they’re simply selling a product -- two and a half hours of entertainment. They want fans to feel something greater, to feel that their money supports a special relationship that exists between them, their favorite team and the region it represents. Sales efforts are often akin to selling war bonds. Teams build marketing campaigns around the idea that attending a basketball game supports your community. If you don’t buy a ticket, the Warriors can’t offer a contract to that superstar, and then those rotten scoundrels in Los Angeles will win.
If a movie theater has uncomfortable seats and shows bad films, or if a restaurant is unclean with gross food, you simply stop frequenting them. Some cities have treated their teams that way, but not Oakland. The Warriors haven’t had consecutive playoff appearances since 1992, yet they consistently post average to better-than-average attendance numbers. Regardless of how the team performs, Bay Area fans continue to show up to games and part with their money. Selling a crappy product to Warriors fans is easier than stealing candy from a baby.
Being an owner of an NBA team means being a vassal with a large fiefdom -- and the fans are your serfs. After 30 years of being treated as ATM machines, happily forking over their hard-earned cash despite the take-for-grantedness of it all, on one night last year, Warriors serfs revolted. Knowing no other way to properly display their unhappiness, they reluctantly interrupted the coronation of Chris Mullin and turned to the last arrow left in their quiver, seizing upon a public appearance by Joe Lacob to boo like no other fanbase has booed before.
Warriors fans unleashed a lifetime’s worth of pent up disappointment in a single moment. Booing opposing players, referees or the Los Angeles Lakers has always felt artificial; most people are just going along because it is expected of them. But this was jolting, visceral and authentic. More than anything, the booing was a genuine expression of the indignity of fanhood, the closest thing to a fan revolt that we’re ever likely to witness.
But like a modern day George Washington riding out to Western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, Barry snarled and disarmed Warriors fans, reminding them that they are simply cogs in the money-printing machine that is the NBA.
If I remember only one thing from the night of March 19, 2012, it will be that Rick Barry told me to my face that my only role was to give Joe Lacob money, and Rick Barry was right.