Golden State’s Playoff Reappearance Doesn’t Quite Feel Like Old Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The scene felt both comfortingly familiar and oddly askew.

Warming up before Game 1 of the Golden State Warriors’ first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, Klay Thompson launched orbital jump shots beside his longtime teammate Stephen Curry. The nets singed with swishes, same as they ever had.

This was a home game for Golden State, which in the not-too-distant past — let’s just say anytime during the five straight N.B.A. finals appearances and three championship titles that began in the 2014-15 season — would have meant Oakland, inside the madhouse bandbox known as “Roaracle,” the worn-at-the-heels arena long known as one of the loudest in sports.

But that was the past.

This was San Francisco. The present. Chase Center. The first Golden State playoff game since 2019. A crowd full of new fans who can afford the astronomical ticket prices. A crowd still learning how to love its favorite team.

At Oracle, fans rarely left their seats during the heart of the action.

At Chase, there are so many amenities — lounge-like lobbies, $25 lobster rolls — that plenty of seats were open as the first half wound to a close Saturday with Golden State on a scintillating run that propelled it to a 123-107 victory.

At Oracle, fans often broke out into a loud chants that seemed to spell doom for opponents.

At Chase, fans chanted, but the sound seemed comparatively diminished, the cadence, strength and timing not quite right.

What a difference nearly three years makes for two great American cities and one great global brand of an N.B.A. team.

On June 13, 2019, Golden State played its final game at Oracle Arena in the heart of Oakland. Presaging the dark days ahead, the Toronto Raptors won Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals, snatching the title from the defending champion, closing the building and ending Golden State’s run as this century’s most dominant N.B.A. team. Thompson tore up his leftknee in that game. Kevin Durant, felled by an Achilles’ tear in that series, signed with the Nets within weeks.

A mural of Curry adorned the rear wall of a gym complex near Jack London Square in Oakland in 2019.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Golden State now plays in a three-year-old crown jewel of a waterfront stadium nestled across the bay, tucked within a high-priced neighborhood of gleaming shops, offices and condominiums.

Butthe longtime, nearly spiritual bond between Oakland and its famed basketball team remains. Emblazoned on Curry’s shoes Saturday was the word “Oakland” in a gold font. The players still speak of the city as if it is sacred. “The soul of our team comes from Oakland,” Draymond Green said this year.

To get a sense of the city and gauge how residents feel about losing a team that bonded with its home community as few franchises do, I spent a few days in Oakland last week. I walked the downtown streets and the working class neighborhoods near the old Oracle, now known as Oakland Arena. I visited a mosque and an old church, several tiendas, a shopping mall, a soul food jointand several homes.

I trudgedaround the old arena, which looks sad and forlorn. It is primarily a concert venue now. Maxwell, the silky-voiced R&B singer, had been set to play on Saturday night, but his concert was postponed.

That seemed symbolic. Nothing seems certain in Oakland these days. As the city struggles to recover from the worst of the pandemic, its connection with professional sports — a history that includes 10 league championships won in Oakland among its N.B.A. franchise, the A’s of M.L.B. and the Raiders of the N.F.L. — hangs by a thread.

The Raiders followed the Golden State blueprint and left for Las Vegas in 2020.

The A’s remain, but for how long? On Monday, when they play their 2022 home opener against the Baltimore Orioles, they will take the field at a decrepit old stadium that looked marvelous when it was built in the 1960s but now has the charm of a concrete coffin.

With the team’s plan to build a waterfront stadium along thebusy Oakland port at a standstill, the city again in financial distress and the A’s team owner flirting with Las Vegas, nobody can say that professional baseball will stay put.

“Very soon, we might have no teams here,” said Paul Brekke-Miesner, a historian of the Oakland sports scene who has lived in the city’shardscrabble eastern flats for decades. Brekke-Miesner grimaced, thinking of Oakland and its long heritage of professional sports greatness now fading.

Seeing Golden State play a postseason series at the Chase Center, “it’s more than a gut punch,” he said, echoing a sentiment I heard often. The wound remains raw. “And it’s so ironic because we have the legacy here as far as basketball, but that doesn’t matter to the owners anymore. They don’t understand.”

Perhaps this should not surprise. The relocation of teams tears at the fabric of a community, but it is nothing new.

The Raiders started in Oakland, moved to Los Angeles, came back to Oakland and now have a Las Vegas address.

Both the A’s and the Warriors were born in Philadelphia.

When the basketball franchise came west in 1962, it played in San Francisco. Oakland didn’t become home until 1971. What’s old is new again.

More than once last week, I heard Oakland residents describe going to Golden State games at the arena in their city as akin to a spiritual undertaking. When the team was in Oakland, through lean years and world titles it oozed with the town’s vibe — soulful, tough, while also willing to break old norms and throw jabs at the status quo.

Oakland birthed the Black Panthers and became one of the most diverse and progressive cities in the nation. It produced a slew of trailblazing athletes, iconic and unafraid. Bill Russell, Frank Robinson and Curt Flood to name three. That Curry changed how basketball is played while suiting up in Oaklandfelt perfect.

“Oracle was like my cathedral,” one longtime fan told me,thinking back to all the games he watched from the rafter seats while Curry strung together mind-bending 3-pointers as if touched by grace. “Chase Center? Hmm. Definitely not.”

It’s not anyone’s cathedral just yet.

“Oracle, especially during the playoffs over the years, was just an incredible atmosphere,” Steve Kerr, Golden State’s coach, said before Game 1. “Those are amazing memories that will last a lifetime. Now it’s time to start some new ones.”

Getting out to a 1-0 series lead was a good beginning. Even if the home crowd, still learning how to rise with raucous chants, made three years seem like eons and Oakland feel far, far away.

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