A requiem for Oakland ball
The Warriors are leaving The Town and a history of hoops legends
Miles from the Splash Brothers’ court at the Oracle Arena – from the sudden and real worry surrounding the Golden State Warriors – a renowned Bay Area rapper is heckling a youngster who had the temerity to throw up a sorry shot in the middle of the afternoon on the east side of The Town.
“That’s hella weak,” Mistah FAB (aka Stanley Cox) intoned to a half-embarrassed teen of maybe 14. “You hella weak.”
“There you go, Fab,” Sam Moses said, nodding. “There you go. Set ’em straight.”
Maybe I should explain.
The three of us are at “The ‘Wood” – Mosswood Park in Oakland, California, where a schoolboy legend barely standing 5-foot-10 once won a dunk contest by jumping over a drop-top Chevrolet, spinning 360 degrees in midair and throwing it down with malice. And then threw away his life.
Where future basketball stars Gary Payton first seethed and sneered and J.R. Rider became the first to throw the ball between his legs, inventing, as Fab says, “The East Bay Funk Dunk.”
“This is the heart of Oakland,” said Moses. He is the general manager of JamTown, an industrial warehouse converted into four full-length courts and home to every major youth tournament in the East Bay. “If you were a player, [The ‘Wood] is where you came to play. This is where you learned your toughness, your grittiness, how to compete.”
Fab: “This park saved our lives. You gotta remember there was a time when this park was the only sanctuary kids had growing up. And everything around it was, like, this was a serious area. A. Real. Drug. Zone. You know what I’m sayin’?”
We know what you’re sayin’.
Waiting on the end
The Town is growing impatient this week. It’s waiting.
Not like Northeast Ohio has been waiting, of course, no 52-year, Cleveland/Believeland purgatory or anything.
Still, when your crew eclipses Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls for the greatest single-season record in NBA history, when your baby-faced assassin becomes the first player since Larry Bird in 1981 to lead a team back from a 3-1 deficit in a conference final, you want that gold-gleaming ball atop the trophy back in Oakland. You want the cherry on the top of the sundae.
You want to be dancin’, huggin’ and mean-muggin’ after the confetti falls from the rafters onto the heads and shoulders of your champions for the second straight season. Shoot, the parade route has been set for two weeks now. Just like last year, Warriors Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and friends are supposed to board a float at Broadway and 11th Street downtown, turn right on Grand Avenue and make another right on Harrison to Lakeside Drive before ending on Oak Street.
The Warriors rep the entire Bay Area, but on a visceral, emotional level very much belong to Oakland. From Mosswood in the east to DeFremery Park in the west, where basketball greats Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Paul Silas plied their trade 60 years ago, from the ground floor of playground hero-worship to Oracle Arena and the Dubs, Oakland ‘ball is an essential part of the city’s identity.
And for all the sentimentality around Cleveland being 48 minutes from its first major-sports title since the Browns in 1964, know that The Town and its team only have so much time together.
Belying this authentic communing between the people of Oakland and the Warriors is a hard truth: The Dubs are deep into plans to leave Oakland, their home of five decades.
A newly designed, soon-to-be-built technodrome across the bay in San Francisco promises more seats, much more revenue and many more amenities than a renovated 50-year-old house of howls like the Oracle (née Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum). Projected move date: 2019.
I made the mistake of reminding Ice Box (aka Robert Smith).
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said the arena security guard of 28 years in a low voice, shaking his head in resignation.
Ice Box protects the Warriors and their fans. He is a barrel of a man, going about 5-foot-10 and an easy 270, he says. He is a little-known institution here. East Oakland to the core, he started a roller derby career at 16 with the Bay Area Bombers. He watched Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s father, Rocky, wrestle at the Cow Palace. His core indeed has the circumference of an icebox. He is still an active tag-team wrestler at 52.
Yet his enduring sports memories are from patrolling the corridors, tunnels and locker rooms of the Warriors’ home since 1966 – getting to know Run TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) in the early 1990s; seeing Baron Davis and Monta Ellis light it up, circa 2007; and now being awestruck by the Splash Brothers, Curry and Thompson, who seem to launch from the Bay Bridge and beyond.
“It’s a disheartening feeling to know they’ll eventually be gone,” said Moses.
“Yeah, they’re called Golden State, but when it happens it will be kind of like the Raiders going to L.A.,” he said. “At its core this has always been a basketball city. When they leave, what do we have? It is our team. It will always be our team.”
A glorious history
For Fab, Sam and Ice Box, removing the Warriors from Oakland will be like taking the top off an ancient pyramid. Inside, you’ll find yellowed newspaper clippings and grainy black-and-white footage. The place is full of fantastical tales from the parks that sculpted future Hall-of-Famers and made high-school gymnasiums such as those at McClymonds, Skyline, Castlemont and Oakland Tech reverberate with choruses of “Oooohhhhhh.” Summer pickup players became artists and acrobats, their free-flowing games a form of jazzy syncopation. Ultimately, Oakland basketball produced the most tenacious, tested, true-grit ballers west of Harlem.
It reared Russell and Silas. Raised Gary Payton and Jason Kidd. Phil Chenier. Lester Conner. J.R. Rider. Brian Shaw. Greg Foster. Antonio Davis. And Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers’ All-Star point guard, whom Fab sees as Gary Payton, the Next Generation: “He’s quieter, but you watch and he’s got Gary’s same toughness.”
Oh, and never forget a phenom simply called Hook – Demetrius Mitchell, the most explosive, gifted athlete all of them can remember, the kid who won that dunk contest and so many others by levitating over inanimate objects such as bicycles and cars. Apart from a tryout with the Warriors and an itinerant college career, Hook never made it. But he’s revered to this day.
Even Fab, who, before he started crafting his own hooks and rhymes for Too $hort and slaying a five-minute freestyle on the Warriors (more on that later), once balled at Hardaway’s invite-only camp as a young teen.
Moses wasn’t bad, either: “I was cold, ask any of those cats about me. I caused havoc.”
“He could play,” Brian Shaw said of Moses. “They all could play. Come on, they’re from The Town.” Shaw played 15 years in the NBA. The consummate role player, he helped the Lakers to three straight titles. He was just hired as Luke Walton’s top assistant coach, but he still lives in Oakland because, “When you’re from Oakland, a part of you never leaves. Too much of The Town is in you to ever completely bounce.”
Shaw told me he keeps one book with him at all times, Home Field Advantage: The City That Changed the Face of Sports, written by Paul Brekke-Meisner.
It documents the migration of African-Americans from Louisiana and other parts of the south to Oakland to find work in the military shipyards during the city’s industrial boom. And how the children of those pioneers became Presidential Medal of Freedom winners (Russell), the first black manager in baseball (Frank Robinson), Grand Slam winners (Don Budge), the man responsible for baseball free agency (Curt Flood), and yet another generation of stars, from Kidd to Marshawn Lynch, Lillard and former NBA player Leon Powe, who once so aptly said, “Oakland isn’t a city that feels sorry for you.”
“If there is a trait from Oakland that almost everyone who made it has, it’s probably the grit and nastiness it takes to be a good defender,” Shaw said. “Just look at the history: Bill Russell, shot blocker for the ages, maybe the greatest defensive player of all time; Gary Payton, getting in everyone’s grille; J. Kidd, so quick and determined, take the ball from you in a second; Even Lester ‘The Molester’ Connor, he just picked guy’s pockets. You grow up with that inane desire to compete and hold a court in Oakland. It really never leaves you.”
Silas is now 72, five decades removed from the rugged forward whose “Mac” high school teams finished a remarkable 69-0 in his three years. In a telephone interview from his home in Charlotte, he said that every time Russell sees him now he greets him with a reference to his high school days, “How you doin’, McClymonds?”
Oakland can be a double-edged sword, though. “The same things that motivate you, that make you want to get out of bad situations – the streets, drugs, whatever – that’s the same things that are crippling you,” Fab said. “This city doesn’t make sense sometimes. Because you would think if I’m motivated by something, you should be motivated by it as well. But we take signs differently. It might have told you to go forward and someone else’s perspective he came to the fork and strayed right or left.”
No one had seen Hook in a while, including Glen Graham, who runs a basketball camp where Mitchell used to be a counselor and who was one of the first to personally train NBA players. Graham said that when a young player shows remarkable talent and desire, a larger community looks out for and protects that player.
“We call it the Bubble,” he said. “You bubble up. You got all the bad stuff that surrounds you, but we keep you in. Even the hustlers work to keep kids in the bubble, telling ’em, ‘What are you doing on this side of the block? Go home.’ Or they’ll call somebody to get the kid out of a bad area. They don’t let the guy they see can be successful get out of the Bubble.”
And Mitchell? “He got caught up too young.” He stayed with the Moses family during his one year at Hayward State University. Athletic and strong, able to leap and touch the top of the Mosswood backboard when he was just 5-foot-8, he became the first player to represent Oakland at fabled Rucker Park. Crack cocaine and a string of arrests ended it all. He got sober for a while and many people helped him out. But the general feeling now is: Don’t help Hook until he helps himself.
“There’s a Hook in every city, I suppose,” lamented Shaun Livingston, the Warriors reserve guard. He is speaking at East Oakland Pride Elementary School, where he and many of his teammates joined NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in dedicating a library, a science room and a refurbished basketball court. Livingston said every player on the team eventually learns about The Town’s basketball past. “We show respect. We pay homage. That’s the main thing.”
Said Thompson, “You hear the stories and the names and all you think of is, I’m blown away I’m a part of it.”
It’s easy to be drawn in. It happened to me 25 years ago at the Coliseum when I was covering a high school girls’ sectional championship game. Afterward, as I was typing up my story, a roar could be heard from the crowd watching the next game and a wide-eyed security guard (not Ice Box) ran into the press room, yelling, ”You got to see what this boy is doin’ to Skyline!”
We all ran out to witness a 15-year-old from St. Joseph’s High in nearby Alameda bring his team almost all the way back from 20 points down, intercepting passes at half court, taking off from the dotted line and dunking on two seniors that went 6-6 and 6-7.
It was Kidd’s coming-out party, the night he first made a big building rumble.
The thing about The Town is, everyone has a story like that:
“ ’member Tank?” Moses asked. “He lived right there.”
“Aww, yeah,” Fab replied from the back seat. “Darnell Robinson, Emery High. Won a national championship at Arkansas.”
Forged in the furnace
Moses turns left, looking for the first house he owned – a single-family residence with no more than 1,000 square feet on Weld Street, which now features men in cars waiting to be flagged over.
I look at a couple of young boys on the porch who need to be in the Bubble, and I remember something Fab told me over the phone the day before.
“Support system goes a long way. Not just talkin’ about athletes. With no support system, it’s hard to realize your worth because no one took consideration to invest in you emotionally. You feel like you’re left alone in the world. You feel like no one loves you. And it’s hard to carry on when no one loves you.
“There is so much psychological warfare you deal with in Oakland. Abandonment and the constant struggle with yourself makes it hard to put forth 100 percent.”
“The Town is a furnace of sorts,” wrote Brekke-Meisner’s son in a blog post about his father’s book. “Some melt in the heat, but those that emerge are made up of the some of the strongest metals on earth.”
Now it’s on to Touch Of Soul, a restaurant in North Oakland owned by Fab’s cousin. The ribs are smothered in a sweet, tangy sauce and on a separate plate come baked beans, collard greens and a potato salad with just the right amount of vinegar and mayo.
Everyone congratulates Fab on his album that just dropped – Son of a Pimp, Pt. 2 on the hyphy label. (Me being old, white and not quite down with the fellas yet, Moses was good enough to inform me that “hyphy” is what the kids use now for being amped or ready to go.)
Fab might be the Warriors’ most animated fan, chirping at LeBron James from his A-1, Section 1 seat at the Coliseum for the entire series. Curry and Thompson, Fab and Sam admit, aren’t your hard-core, Oakland street-ballers.
“But that’s good,” Fab said. “Steph has a lot of these young guys working on sheer skill set. He’s opened it up for the average kid, know what I mean? Don’t tell that little dude he ain’t big enough.”
The more championships the Warriors win, of course, the more their departure from The Town is going to hurt.
They call this progress, but there is something that doesn’t feel right about it. There was a reason that this team belonged in Oakland. It’s more than the legends and the playgrounds they came from.
It’s Ice Box. It’s Moses. It’s Fab, showing up on Sway’s Universe – a Sirius XM hip-hop show – when the Warriors were down three games to one against the Thunder in the conference finals. He takes on something called the 5 Fingers of Death freestyle challenge and just kills it. Let’s just let him take us out:
“They say we down 3-1 so it’s ovah.
Yeah, right, we got Steph, that’s the second coming of Hova …
“Hold up, World B. Free, Nate Thurmond and some other OGs.
When I spit this game and I keep it 100,
Who you think Wilt played for when he scored the hundred?
Man, this s— is all good, it’s the Splash Brothers
Dash and Splash, cash your a–, smash and gas, Everybody know when this game go sick
And can’t forget about the Warriors in ’06 …
… Monta Ellis, I was mad when he got traded
But when Steph came here, I really can’t hate it
… It’s Mistah Fab with the Gift of Gab
And if you don’t like the Kid, you can kiss my a–“