Klay Thompson looked up, giant gold ring on his hand, as fireworks went off inside Oracle Arena. Kevin Durant giggled like a child who just got his hands on his favorite toy at Christmas. Draymond Green mugged for the cameras, before rapping along to the lyrics “I got a really big team, they need some really big rings.”
But only one player spoke to the crowd.
Stephen Curry, more than Durant, more than Thompson and more than Green, is the link between the Golden State Warriors’ fans and the best team in the world. He’s not that much bigger — he’s 6 feet 3, short by NBA standards. He doesn’t look stronger — he’s 190 pounds, puny by NBA standards.
His unmatched skill, his ability to shoot from every spot on the floor, his ability to manipulate a basketball like it’s tied to his fingers, have captivated the Bay Area crowds since he was drafted in 2009. Against the backdrop of the nearly 20 years of bad basketball that proceeded his arrival, Curry looks like a wizard.
He’s their Magic Johnson, their Michael Jordan, their LeBron James.
It was only right that he spoke to the fans Tuesday night — their first game of the new NBA season — thanking the crowd for its role in another NBA title.
And, it was fitting that Curry, minutes later, floated to the right wing for his first shot of the season, swishing home a jumper on the first day of the end of pro basketball in Oakland.
Curry nearly finished with a triple-double, leading the Warriors with 32 points to go with eight rebounds and nine assists in a 108-100 season-opening win over Oklahoma City.
The Warriors will leave Oracle Arena and Oakland after this season, moving to a new arena, Chase Center, overlooking San Francisco Bay. The new arena, which is projected to cost approximately $2 billion, already has 80 percent of the team’s current season-ticket base committed to coming with.
But what the Warriors can’t bring — and they know it — is the connection the team has forged with Oakland during the Curry era.
The corner stores, like the one on Adeline and 14th in Oakland, have the outside walls covered in a mural from Curry’s first championship in 2015. Tuesday night, Leandro Barbosa, Matt Barnes and David West, bench pieces on the three championship teams, were greeted like they were hall of famers.
Replicating that in a shiny new arena seems difficult.
“We know that the new arena is going to be amazing. We’re looking forward to it,” coach Steve Kerr said before the opener. “But we’re also going to miss Oracle. We’re going to miss Oakland. There’s not an easy way to slice it. It’s a great move for the organization. We know that. But, this place is special. So, we want to make sure that this is a special season.”
And Curry seems to understand that more than most. He thrives in Oakland, it seems, the crowd knowing when the team needs him to do something incredible. And even when things get basic, you can almost see the fans move to the edge of their seats.
If a defender loses him, like the Thunder did late in the first quarter, and Curry squares up a jumper, they’ll start to rumble in an excitement, like a drumroll that starts quietly. And when the ball goes in — and more than 40 percent of the time, it does — they explode.
It’s a relationship that’s almost completely unique in the NBA — a player so tied to one building, one crowd, one set of fans.
In Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki is beloved — the team simply has to animate his face into famous movie scenes to get the crowd howling. And Dwyane Wade’s career in Miami — forget the stops in Chicago and Cleveland — have earned him a special place in that town. But it’s not the same as it is in Oakland — it just feels like it matters more here.
Before the Warriors opened their season, the player with the best chance to replicate the Curry-Oakland magic, Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, opened his season in Boston, losing to the Celtics 105-87.
Embiid has the skills — Tuesday he had 23 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks — and the charisma to capture a city. And in just his second full season, assuming he stays healthy, he already sort of has.
He’s taken on the battle cry of “The Process,” the name given to the 76ers tanking that allowed the team to draft Embiid and let him sit for two-plus seasons while he got healthy. The long-term thinking has the 76ers stocked with talent — there may be no better young duo than Embiid and Ben Simmons — and ready to challenge in the East.
But Tuesday confirmed what we already knew — Boston is in a better position to win right now than its rivals. Even with Gordon Hayward looking rusty in his first game back after breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle in his opening night with the team last year, Boston has more than enough talent.
Jayson Tatum led the team in scoring and shots in the opener, and he doesn’t seem interested in taking a step back even with Hayward and Kyrie Irving healthier than they were a season ago.
The path for those teams or for any contender in the West, though, will come through the Warriors, which means it’ll come through Oakland — one last time.
With the game against the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder tight in the second half (thanks to a terrific Paul George), it was Curry slicing through the defense to make a spinning, scoop layup. And it was Curry, calling for the crowd to make more noise after the Warriors forced a shot-clock violation.
And in the final two minutes of a one-possession game, it was Curry crossing over Steven Adams, shooting a 15-foot jumper and sticking his rear out to draw a foul for a three-point play that helped seal the deal.