Inside Oakland's painful goodbye to the Raiders and Warriors

OAKLAND – The Golden State Warriors hadn’t won a game in 12 days or made the playoffs for 12 years when, in the first week of March 2007, they strode onto the Detroit Pistons’ home court with a glint in their eyes that Paul Wong thought he could discern from 2,400 miles away. Yet another losing season was square in the players’ sights, but something about the way they looked on TV ran counter to the acquiescence that might be expected of a team that was 26-35. They seemed confident that they could engineer a turnaround together. Perhaps it was time for other people to start believing, too.

For decades before the Splash Brothers delivered a dynasty to the Bay Area, doubt in the Warriors was their fans’ default state. Wong joined their ranks in 1979 as a 6-year-old new immigrant from Burma who didn’t yet speak English. On the final day of the 1981-82 season, with the Warriors needing to beat Seattle to reach the playoffs, he stayed awake past midnight to watch on tape delay as they lost by one point. In 1994, at the first postseason game Wong got to watch in person, Charles Barkley dropped 56 points for the Phoenix Suns to sweep the Warriors from the first round.

During a big defeat in the down years that followed, Warriors play-by-play announcer Bob Fitzgerald turned to his broadcast partner, retired NBA guard Jim Barnett, and posed a question of perpetual significance: Where, exactly, does a player look for motivation when they’re getting blown out?

Barnett’s reply stuck with Wong. Back in his day, the broadcaster said, he would fix his gaze on someone in the stands – a personal guest, a child in a jersey – and commit that night to playing for them.

On March 5, 2007, Golden State beat Detroit, the best team in the Eastern Conference, 111-93 and flew home for a matchup two nights later with Denver. Wong attended that game with a sign on which he’d printed two words: “We Believe.”

Paul Wong in 2008. MediaNews Group / Getty Images

The premise was absurd – right up until it wasn’t. When Wong distributed duplicates of his placards on Oakland street corners and inside Oracle Arena, some people accepted, then promptly dropped the offering on the ground. Only drugs, a few onlookers said, could have emboldened his delusion that the Warriors could win their way into the playoffs.

Printing the signs had cost Wong several thousand dollars, so he dusted off any that were discarded and returned them to his stack. Soon, he started to find willing takers in a comparatively optimistic segment of the market: kids. And within a month, after 12 wins in 17 games vaulted the Warriors from 12th place to eighth in the Western Conference, team staffers arranged to meet with Wong at the Hawaiian barbecue restaurant he owned in nearby Alameda. They asked if they could repurpose “We Believe” as an official slogan if the Warriors held on to their playoff spot.

Wong gave his blessing on one condition: The team could use his mantra on T-shirts if they were handed out for free.

The highlights of the Warriors’ subsequent playoff run were timeless. Baron Davis’ posterization of Andrei Kirilenko in the second round. The stunning six-game upset of the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks that got Golden State that far. And a memory from before each of those milestones that Wong won’t soon forget: the realization, as he entered Oracle ahead of Game 3 against Dallas, that every seat was adorned with his cri de coeur.

“I choked up,” Wong said. “For me to walk into a stadium where every single attendee went home with that shirt, how incredible is that?”

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In October, 12 years on from the fulfillment of Wong’s show of faith, a new Warriors season tipped off not in Oakland but in San Francisco, kickstarting the team’s passage from one NBA era to the next. Kevin Durant is rehabbing his torn Achilles in Brooklyn. Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are confronting long injury layoffs of their own. And Golden State is no longer the league’s singular franchise, reduced instead this season to dreaming of a future return to glory.

In a way, it’s fitting that the Warriors are assuming this novel identity – temporarily hapless contender – in a new home. They now play at the glitzy, $1.4-billion Chase Center, a traffic-snarled drive across the Bay Bridge from the building formerly known as “Roaracle.”

What did Oakland retain in the move? A legacy of supporting the Warriors through lean decades and a long-awaited heyday. Stories that bring this fidelity to life, like the genesis of “We Believe.” Pride, off the court, in the city’s ethnic diversity and the historical propensity of its underdog residents to work hard. And the awareness of what it’s like to lose the symbiosis between a place and its team – the relationship that forms when many people watch sports and see in the players a reflection of themselves.

“Their character as a team represents a lot of the East Bay: the never-die (mentality), the fight in us,” Wong said. “When you look at a player like Draymond Green, that’s Oakland. It’s a personality that they’re taking away.”

Welcome to Oakland in fall 2019, where the nightmarish sensation of a pro team relocating – the departure of the rare business around which thousands of locals orient a significant portion of their lives – is doubly raw. Just as the Warriors have packed up and left, the NFL’s Raiders are getting set to depart. Once this season ends they are bound for Las Vegas as soon as 2020, the conclusion of owner Mark Davis’s maneuvering to escape Oakland’s aged Coliseum.

Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images

Relocation is a recurring fact of life in more than a few Big Four cities. St. Louis lost baseball’s Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles), basketball’s Hawks, and football’s Cardinals and Rams. Two NBA franchises (the Rockets and Clippers) and the NFL Chargers left San Diego. The NBA and MLB have each, at different times, jilted Milwaukee and Philadelphia; the same goes for Kansas City, which also lost an NHL franchise.

But not since 1995, when the Raiders and Rams uprooted simultaneously from Los Angeles, has any city lost multiple teams in such close succession. After several years of fruitless stadium negotiations and grassroots campaigns to keep the Warriors and Raiders, Oakland’s sports fans are learning how much those losses hurt.

“We’re in the throes right now of trying to figure that out,” Oakland sports historian Paul Brekke-Miesner said. “It’s going to be such an incredible hole.”

When dyed-in-the-wool fans across Oakland think about life without the Warriors and Raiders, a constellation of common concerns and convictions starts to emerge. They fear that basketball crowds at Chase Center won’t be nearly as diverse or exuberant as at Oracle. They detest that their dynastic team was handed on a platter to an archrival city. They believe that since the Raiders’ black-and-silver mystique originated in Oakland, Davis should find another name to use in Vegas. They understand the economic and aesthetic allure of moving to a lavish facility, but they know as well as anyone that these moves have an emotional toll.

The pain is theirs to share, but it’s also atomized. When teams leave, there are many faces of grief.

These ones include Lloyd Canamore, 57, whose diehard Warriors fandom was born from a teenage gig selling peanuts and hot dogs at home games in the late ’70s. He lives eight miles from the arena, in a house that a friend painted blue and gold as a goodwill gesture after two of Canamore’s brothers died not long apart. Visitors duck under a replica championship banner to get to the door. When the rapper Bizzle wrote a paean to the team called “Warriors,” he recorded his music video – complete with a cameo from Curry – on Canamore’s front steps. The Warriors mean everything to him, Canamore said, and it has been awful to see them go.