Death of a sports town

YOU BEGIN TO see the future ruins of Oakland's sports empire as you round the bend and head south on Interstate 880, past the estuary and the warehouses and the seven-days-a-week swap meet that sits in the lot of the old drive-in. The future ruins rise abruptly from the vast asphalt lots, their concrete majesty architectural testaments to the solidity of stark gray concrete and the power of the Cement Masons Local 300.

It was at one time a perfectly serviceable setup. Arena on one side for the basketball team, stadium on the other for baseball and football, plenty of parking, a BART station one long concrete pedestrian overpass from the leftfield foul pole.

Championships were won. Legends were created. It makes perfect sense that an iconoclastic community that produced the Black Panther Party and the public face of the Hells Angels would launch the careers of Ken Stabler and Jack Tatum, Rickey Henderson (Oakland Tech, '76) and Jason Giambi, Jason Kidd and Steph Curry.

The parking lots alone were a 500-page novel. North and South, spread out in that endless peninsula of asphalt, they felt lawless and detached. Standing out there, you felt like you could get away with anything.

Oh, if this asphalt could talk. Before Raiders games, they were dystopian expanses of debauchery. Smoke rose in discrete columns from a thousand separate fires. It was Philip K. Dick as directed by Quentin Tarantino, people everywhere wearing their ornate ceremonial garb, so piss-drunk they might have forgotten to assault the last guy who passed wearing a Broncos jersey. There was a seriousness of purpose that betrayed the recreational intent of the endeavor.

But then something happened to American sports: Stadiums replaced churches as monuments to the gods. New and more elaborate structures were built by worshippers hoping to please the objects of their worship. Those structures begat even newer and more elaborate structures. Inevitably, the new gods proved to be fickle, allowing their eyes to wander to neighboring temples, those built with glass and steel and only the most exotic woods.

The soul of a place meant nothing. Decades of loyalty meant nothing. Every paying customer became a walking bar code, and the worth of a city became the Nasdaq valuation of the companies leasing the luxury suites. The experience of going to a game changed from a communal celebration -- the only common ground for gangbangers and cops, truants and teachers -- to something completely different. Even the purpose of attending the game changed, morphing into something resembling a vast networking event. The goal became the act of proving, through social media, that you were, indeed, at the game. It all got very meta.

Amid this new paradigm, a utilitarian mountain of concrete was deemed insufficient for the new breed of gods. The struggling city could not keep up.

THERE'S A GOOD chance Oakland will lose all three of its professional sports franchises in the next few years. The Warriors, with their new Hollywood owners, are already picking out the Brazilian ipe wood flooring for their $1 billion-plus houseboat across the water in San Francisco. The Athletics are waiting for MLB owners to rule on the Giants vs. A's territorial-rights issue in San Jose, or for a federal judge to rule on a lawsuit challenging baseball's antitrust exemption. All it will take is a puff of white smoke from Bud's office or a gavel slam in San Jose's favor and every A's locker will include a shovel and directions to Cisco Field. (How perfect for the age: a nonexistent stadium with locked-in naming rights.) And Raiders owner Mark Davis, son of Al, has made just enough noise about his displeasure with the O.co Coliseum to convince everyone he'd pack up and follow the come-hither whisperings emanating from the shiny gridiron Eden yet to be built (or, shockingly, named) in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Oakland sits there with the last remaining multi-use outdoor facility in major American sports. Every fall the hash marks and yard markers run across the baseball field like etchings on a cave wall. You can almost hear the mirthless brays coming from the owners suites throughout the land. Shared facility? Oh, the humanity!

It makes perfect sense for every last team to leave Oakland. If you read the papers, it's nothing more than a crime-ridden city with bad public schools, a limited corporate base and a subpar stadium -- basically, Detroit with worse facilities, wealthier suburbs and a slightly better accountant. The 1995 renovation of the Coliseum to woo the Raiders back from LA (history, repeat thyself!) created a monstrous wall beyond centerfield and destroyed a decent baseball park. A grassroots organization called Save Oakland Sports started a petition to let owners and politicians know the city wants to keep its teams; through mid-September a grand total of 832 people had signed it. The president of SOS -- a group formed to raise public awareness and, presumably, hell -- didn't respond to an interview request. From the owner's suite, this is not complicated math. If you are Mark Davis, or Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, or A's owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher, you pull up stakes, head for San Francisco, San Jose or Los Angeles, lease Google or Facebook or Sony a few luxury suites and hire an army to count your money. There is a feeling of inevitability and resignation -- a when, not if -- reminiscent of the long, painful departure of the Expos from Montreal.

But let's interrupt this unrelenting march toward extravagance to ask a question: What do professional sports add to a community, in this case a community that laid off more than a quarter of its police force but is still on the hook for millions in subsidies because of bad deals it made with its teams? Even further: How much texture will be lost when those teams are no longer woven into the fabric of the community?

IN AUGUST, the San Francisco Chronicle published a series on African-American boys in Oakland, and its research uncovered several stomach-turning revelations. The worst: Over the past decade, nearly as many high-school-age African-American boys in Oakland have been murdered as have graduated with the qualifications to attend a state university. The chilling title of the series? "Even Odds."

The grim report tells a story but not the entire story. Oakland, once a predominantly African-American city, is now nearly equal parts white, black and Latino. It is also a city split between the flatlands and the hills. For the most part, those living in the flats concern themselves with keeping themselves out of -- and away from -- trouble. The concerns in the moneyed hills center on other matters, like whether their kids' test scores are good enough for the Ivies.

"After a 26-year corporate career, I could live anywhere I wanted," says Michael LeBlanc, owner of Picán, an acclaimed restaurant in trendy Uptown. "Oakland is the place I wanted to be in terms of diversity and culture and intellectualism. Oakland is a hotbed of fierce independence."

In Oakland, independence and lawlessness have often merged, and sometimes the lines between them have blurred. This is the city that lined the sidewalks of East 14th Street for eight miles in 1986 during the funeral procession of notorious drug lord Felix Mitchell, whose casket was carried by horse and buggy with a driver wearing top hat and tails. Crazy stuff goes down, but pro sports are the city's plumb line, cutting across class and race and elevation.

"Some of the greatest times we've had in our restaurant came last year when the Warriors and A's were in the playoffs," LeBlanc says. "Did it translate into revenue? I don't know, but I do know everybody there had a great time."

The team owners can be forgiven for their skepticism. There are occasional rumblings of action from businesspeople, especially Clorox CEO Don Knauss, about a baseball stadium on the waterfront, but it's mostly been talk and pledges and hope. If you've got millions, even billions, riding on it, you're likely to take your chances and build your stadium somewhere else.

But you might begin to understand the place you're trying to leave if you make a wrong turn off the main drag out by the Coliseum and end up in Brookfield Village, where Portland Trail Blazers guard and NBA rookie of the year Damian Lillard grew up. There's bass blaring from every car, stucco crumbling off the walls of the neighborhood liquor stores, A's and Raiders and Warriors jerseys and caps everywhere. On the first Saturday in September, Lillard is standing on a big patch of lawn in Brookfield Park, where a sign atop a bandstand indicates today is Damian Lillard Community Picnic Day. Big-eyed kids walk alongside Lillard like puppies. Damian's parents talk about raising two strong sons and a daughter amid a culture of drugs and violence. This place -- damn near close enough to the Coliseum to hear a big crowd -- is what you see when you watch Lillard play with fearlessness and defiance. "If you're not confident out here, you're gonna get punked," Lillard says. "I just take that mentality onto the court with me."

Lillard had season tickets to the Warriors for a few years as a kid. "I don't think people realize how big of a deal it would be if those teams weren't there," he says. "Those stadiums are our getaway. If we went to a football game, it was the Raiders. A baseball game, the A's. A basketball game, the Warriors. If they're gone, it takes away more than just teams."

FOUR YEARS AGO in San Leandro, a suburb that borders Oakland to the south, a police officer responded to a domestic violence call from one of the World War II–era homes that line the town's streets. A teenage boy was in the front yard, agitated and upset after a dispute with his mother.

The officer walked the boy into the house and sat him down in his bedroom. As the boy continued to talk, the officer's attention was drawn to an 8-by-10 black-and-white photograph on the wall. The officer can be forgiven for the distraction: The photo was of an Oakland Raiders wide receiver, No. 84, Kenny Shedd, now San Leandro police officer Kenny Shedd, who stood in the room silently pondering the odds of this boy having a photograph of this wide receiver -- a man with 16 career receptions and one single, solitary touchdown -- on his wall.

Shedd swears this story is true, and he swears because he knows how much it sounds like a creaking plot twist in a young-adult novel. The officer kept his identity to himself, and after the boy left the room, Shedd showed his partner the photograph and said, "Tell me I'm not going crazy. Do you see what I'm seeing?"

His partner pulled the kid aside and explained the coincidence. From that point forward, the kid sought out Shedd to let him know he was staying out of trouble. Other cops would come up to Shedd and say, "That kid said to say hello again. He wanted me to tell you he's doing well."

How do you quantify that? And if the connection is no longer there, if the ligaments are detached from the bone, what takes its place?

"The Raiders were his team, not necessarily me, but I became the face of it," says Shedd, now active in Save Oakland Sports. "Remove that, and we have a kid with very few positive role models. It's something I see every day."

Would that influence simply transfer to the next city, solve the next domestic dispute, alter the life of the next troubled teen?

"These kids don't see success that looks like them often enough," says John Beam, a former Skyline High School football coach now at Laney Community College. "It's not even about sports; I want to see more of these kids go to college."

HERE'S THE PART that seems to get lost: Despite everything, despite the urban woes and way too much foul territory at the Coliseum, Oakland is getting somewhere, and influential people are noticing. The online real estate company Movoto named Oakland the most exciting city in America. The New York Times called Oakland the nation's fifth-best travel destination. The National Venture Capital Association ranked the city 11th nationwide for tech startups. Forbes listed the Uptown district as the ninth-best hipster neighborhood in the nation. Realtor.com named the city the country's best market in which to sell a home. The city is airing radio advertisements to recruit applicants to fill 10 openings in its understaffed police department.

That's right: Oakland, the city with the derelict stadium and the intransigent politic climate, is on the upswing.

Yet Oakland, for all its rejuvenation and counterculture street cred, still has issues. He is the recovering addict who's been clean for two years but still can't convince family members he's worthy of their trust. He's trying to work things out, one day at a time. Oakland has a Jesus'-brother relationship with the city -- oh, sorry, The City -- across the bay. Visiting baseball teams don't even stay in Oakland. The Rays stayed in San Francisco for a late-August weekend series even though they knew the Bay Bridge would be closed. It took the team bus nearly two hours to get to the Coliseum on Friday afternoon. David Price, that night's starting pitcher, paid $202 for a cab ride. A perfectly fine full-service Marriott stands in Oakland City Center, 10 minutes from the O.co Coliseum.

There's the fifth-in-the-nation crime rate and the hills-flatlands dichotomy and the public schools that were taken over by the state. The stipend that comes with a head-coaching position in one of the six Oakland Athletic League high schools is $2,400, unchanged since 1986. Each OAL school receives $400 per season -- per season -- to cover football equipment. Without the generosity of the Raiders, who donate hundreds of pairs of cleats every year to the schools, many kids wouldn't be able to play. Without the renovation of Skyline's baseball diamond by the A's, there might never have been another true hop. Beam bought Skyline an ice machine before he left. Think about that: The school didn't have an ice machine. Now at least a player at Skyline who sprains his ankle can stem the swelling with a bag of ice.

"The schools are horrible, crime is horrible," Beam says. "And yet we're still turning out these phenomenal athletes. What would the number be like if we did anything at all to take care of them?"

Keep the teams? Believe in Oakland? This is not an exercise in reason. It's not a sober, balanced, see-every-side look at ballpark sites or tarped-off upper decks or the Oakland City Council's Oz-like fantasy of Coliseum City (preliminary study cost: $500,000). It might even qualify as a plea -- a plea preserved in amber -- or an impassioned, principle-for-the-sake-of-principle argument that sounds similar to the old baseball scout who says the hell with OPS and all those new metrics, give me a kid with a good face and a strong handshake.

Take a look at those future ruins. They rose from the ground before crowds inside stadiums mimicked the stratification of the society outside, with the moneyed elite walling themselves off from the commoners in gloriously appointed privacy -- a logical extension of the gated, country-club community.

Are we destined to forever live in a sports world where amenities go from desirous to compulsory? Are fans and taxpayers just resigned to either building new shrines or losing their teams?

In the relentlessly monarchical world of professional sports, someone has to be able to forsake a digit or two in the bank account to create a legacy more meaningful than a trust fund that'll cover a lifetime of BMWs and Botox treatments for the grandchildren of his grandchildren. Someone has to consider the void left behind. And someone has to make a clear-eyed assessment of whether 4–12 will look any better through the window of a luxury suite with a view of LA Live than it does through the bottom of a smuggled-in fifth of Albertsons scotch in the depths of the Black Hole.

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