As the glasses clinked and the aroma of sizzling beef wafted over the dimly lit restaurant, it was easy to forget that not two hours earlier on a mid-March evening, the Golden State Warriors had lost the game of the season. At least it was the game of the season until today, when the Warriors return to San Antonio, this time in search of their 72nd win and a share of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' NBA record.
If they were like most NBA teams, they would have trudged out of the AT&T Center and headed straight for San Antonio International Airport to board a midnight charter. But the Warriors, of course, are not like most teams. And that includes their travel routine.
When the Warriors have a road game followed by a day off, they spend the night in the city where they just played, then fly the following morning. That shift from NBA norms began last season on the advice of sleep specialists who determined that traveling the next day would leave the players better rested. But that change also spurred an unforeseen development, one that guard Shaun Livingston calls "our secret weapon": the team dinner.
Following a game, ownership rents out a room in a local restaurant for the team's traveling party. There, players, coaches, staff and family members decompress together over a late meal. Typically, the mood is celebratory; the team wins roughly 90 percent of its games, after all.
But after falling to the Spurs, the meal at Ruth's Chris Steak House feels almost therapeutic. Stephen Curry sips wine alongside his mother and sister. Klay Thompson trades stories with friends as he cuts into a lobster. If a bad baseball clubhouse is known as "25 players, 25 cabs," the Warriors are more like 15 players, three courses.
"Instead of everyone going their separate ways, we have one spot we can go and just enjoy each other's company," Curry says. "It just continues to build the camaraderie that you need to be successful from year to year."
It's a highly unusual practice in today's NBA. Livingston says he has never been with an organization that operates this way, and he should know; the Warriors are his 10th team. Center Anderson Varejao, the newest member of the Warriors, says his old Cleveland Cavaliers squad would occasionally dine together on the road, "But not as often as here."
"This is amazing," Varejao adds. "It's great to keep the team together, and it's been especially good for me now, getting to know the guys."
Between bites of filet and sweet potato casserole, Livingston adds, "I've been on teams where it was the staff versus the players. And it's not every day that your owner will pay for this. Look at where we are -- Ruth's Chris. It's not like it's McDonald's. But if it was McDonald's, we'd all go there together too."
If you don't think that sort of chemistry matters, try picturing DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl breaking bread on a regular basis.
"Instead of everyone going their separate ways, we have one spot we can go and just enjoy each other's company. It just continues to build the camaraderie that you need to be successful from year to year."
As the clock ticks past midnight, Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton strolls over to where the trainers are sitting and cracks jokes, while Livingston approaches the largest group of players and tries to convince them to pose for a picture. Thompson notices the activity from his seat and leans over. "Team pic?" he asks. "Here, tag my hand," he adds, before reaching his arm between Harrison Barnes and Ian Clark and into the frame. Draymond Green, who had been quietly eating with a pair of friends in the corner, sidles over to scroll through the photos, and suddenly the evening resembles any other gathering of 20-somethings at a steakhouse.
By the time the final plate is collected, Curry's 4-for-18 shooting performance seems like a distant memory. For a team in need of a respite, dinner hits just the right spot.