Golden Days

West's Lakers, Steph's Warriors, and the California Dreamers Who Reinvented Basketball

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The bestselling author of Dream Team tells the interconnected stories of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors and the early-1970s Los Angeles Lakers, two extraordinary teams playing in extraordinary times and linked by one extraordinary man: Jerry West.

During their 1971–72 championship season, the L.A. Lakers won thirty-three games in a row, a streak that still stands as the longest and greatest in the history of American professional sports. It was a run of uninterrupted dominance that predated by decades the overwhelming firepower of today’s Warriors, a revolutionary team whose recent seasons include some record-threatening win streaks of their own.

In Golden Days, acclaimed sports journalist Jack McCallum uses these two teams—the Jerry West/Wilt Chamberlain/Elgin Baylor Lakers and the Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant/Draymond Green Warriors—to trace the dynamic history of the National Basketball Association, which for much of the last half-century has marched memorably through the state of California.

Tying together the two strands of McCallum’s story is Hall of Famer West, the ferociously competitive Laker guard who later became one of the key architects of the Warriors. With “the Logo” as his guide, McCallum takes us deep into the locker rooms and front offices of these two era-defining teams, leveraging the access and authority he has amassed over his forty-year career to create a picture of the cultural juggernaut that the NBA has become.

Featuring up-close-and-personal portraits of some of the biggest names in basketball history, from the larger-than-life Wilt Chamberlain to the innovative Warriors coach Steve Kerr to the transcendent duo of Curry and Durant, Golden Days is a history, not just of a changing sport, but a changing America, as seen through the prism of two teams that ruled the league during times of violence and political turmoil—the Charles Manson murders and the athlete-activist in the age of Trump among the narrative backdrops.

In the end, McCallum’s book leaves an indelible portrait of West, the man who lived, played, and worked through it all—and who remains, on the cusp of his eightieth birthday, one of the most vital, complicated, and compelling figures in all of sports.

“I spent some of the 2016–17 season working as a consultant for the Golden State Warriors, but even I didn’t know every detail of how this championship team came together. Golden Days breaks that all down and shows how the Warriors have revolutionized basketball.”—Steve Nash, two-time MVP

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Golden Days

“Steph has taken things to a crazy, new place.”

—­Steve Nash

Chapter 1

Uncertain Start to the Revolution

Three nights after the depressing loss in Cleveland, the Warriors back in the protective bosom of Oracle Arena in Oakland for Game 5, it’s a different story. West is in a corporate suite watching what he knows ­is his last game as a Warriors consultant. With about fifty seconds left, here is Curry speed-­dribbling away the seconds, the blue and gold confetti about to fall like snow, the Oracle set to explode, Warriors fans eating it up, Cavaliers fans pissed off at the Curry dribbling show.

With the shot clock running down, Curry suddenly straightens and fires, going from handle to shot in a split ­second, his trademark, something he does better than anyone in the history of the game, and let’s hear no back talk. The shot goes in—­of course it does—­from an official distance of twenty-­six feet, an emphatic exclamation point on the season, and, in a way, the Warriors rise from laughingstock to the top of the heap.

The shot was audacious, arrogant, and altogether fitting from a player and a team that have carved a new path over the past half dozen years. Others have played fast and others have fired up three-­balls, but no team has ever been as effective at doing both as the Warriors, largely because they have hung a “No Limits” sign on their offense.

“Steph has taken things to a crazy, new place,” says Steve Nash, a Warriors consultant and a guy who himself shot some long three-­pointers. “Steph is not just stepping back, he’s stepping back from three-­point distance into never-­never land. We’ve never seen that before, and we’ve certainly never seen anyone do it with that accuracy. What we’re seeing is a revolution.”

But how did we get here, to a revolutionary place, to that place where the Warriors have come to define basketball greatness and innovation (albeit with some pushback from LeBron) over the past three years, to a place where, going into the 2017–­18 season, Golden State seems practically unbeatable? Superlative seasons, such as the ones the Warriors enjoyed over the past three years—­and the one that the West-­and-­Wilt Lakers enjoyed forty-­five years ago—­do not happen in a vacuum. They result from an endless reinvention process. Coaches get fired, replacements are hired, they get fired, somebody else gets a chance. Rosters turn over, transform, improve, regress, show promise. Ownership strategies get modified, rationalized, modified again, abandoned, and a “For Sale” sign appears on the franchise, come and see if you can turn it around. The hopes of fans rise, wane, rise again, eternal until they are not.

One could close one’s eyes, run a finger across virtually any season in the history of the Golden State Warriors, open them up, gaze at the record book, and think, Wait, this is a team that became a champion? The Warriors won an NBA title in 1975 behind the play of another revolutionary, Rick Barry, a determined iconoclast who aimed a middle finger at everyone while at the same time launching his free throws from between his legs, like some stubborn black-­socks-­wearing holdout at the YMCA. Then they won no more until the pair that came along in the past three years. In many of those forty seasons from 1975 to 2015, the Warriors were a laughingstock, the anti-­paradigm, the ghost on the Left Coast, the franchise that plays in Croakland.

What did it? What turned it around? New owners? New blood in the front office? Old blood (West’s) in the front office? Luck? Playing style? Coaching? Maybe a little bit of all of them. To see how far the Warriors have come one could choose many points in their history. I choose this one:

The date is June 26, 2009. The Warriors are coming off a 29-­53 season. Curry, the son of an NBA player known for his marksmanship but more of a sixth man than an all-­star, sits uncomfortably on a podium, tentative smile airbrushed on his boyish, twenty-­one-­year-­old face. He is surrounded by Warriors owners, executives, and coaches, none of whom are still around today. His mien is somewhere between bewildered and resigned. He didn’t want to be drafted by Golden State in the first place, but then he heard he was being traded to the Phoenix Suns. Is there hope of avoiding Golden State? But, no, apparently that deal didn’t go through, and here he is in the Land of Losers with a Team That Time Forgot.

With a few exceptions, this was a feeling-­is-­mutual situation. Curry wasn’t wanted by the Warriors players any more than he wanted them. When incumbent point guard Monta Ellis was asked soon after the draft if he and Curry could coexist in the same backcourt, he doubled down on his doubts. “We can’t. We just can’t,” he said.

Move ahead several months, to their first season together, a game against the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves at Oracle Arena on November 9, five months after the draft. The Warriors score 146 points, but Curry, demonstrably frozen out, gets off only eight shots and scores only eight points. Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Kelenna Azubuike, Acie Law, Anthony Morrow, and C. J. Watson—­guards to one degree or another—­all score more points than does Curry, who seems to be on an island of his own.

Why, oh why, Curry thought for the thousandth time after that game, couldn’t I have gone somewhere else?

That’s quite a journey from there to that moment in the 2017 Finals when his audacious three-­pointer goes through the hoop and the noise goes through the roof.

Some consider the Warriors’ rise as rather a cautionary tale and view the franchise as a kind of Icarus in sneakers, daring to add too-­weighty pieces and tamper with ancient formulas. The basketball world seemed a lot more logical when the Dubs were a cult attraction, the noir film playing at the Capri off the main drag, defined by the resolutely eccentric Don Nelson, who wore his spectacularly awful fish ties and walked his pot­bellied pet pig through his Alameda neighborhood.

Golden State’s transformation to overdog started a couple of years ago, perhaps during the 2014–­15 season, after which Curry won his first of two straight MVP awards. Everybody loved the Warriors, it seemed, when they were underdogs clawing their way to the top with this smiling, skinny kid beating the odds. But when Curry morphed (almost magically it seemed) from question mark to superstar, the Warriors became something different. No matter how many Silicon Valley “Moneyball” references were attached to the Warriors, they had in fact grown into a team no longer fueled by low-­salaried, high-­performing scrappy B-­listers, the kind that Billy Beane wanted for his Oakland A’s. They were a superpower with a superstar.

And when they added Durant in the summer of 2016? Why, something must be rotten at the very core of an organization that wants too much talent, it was said. Durant had always been a popular player but was pilloried for leaving Oklahoma City and daring to join a better and more glamorous team. Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed his skepticism about “super teams” being good for the league. Somehow the Warriors became the first franchise that ever wanted to get better, and Durant became the first player who ever changed teams.

And what else would a thoroughly modern team like Golden State be expected to do but flee its ancestral home for that biblical Shining City upon a Hill? That’s what the Warriors will do in 2019 when they leave Oakland’s ancient Oracle, where they’ve played since 1971, for a bright and shiny, self-­financed (at somewhere around $1.4 billion), decked-­out, teched-­out arena in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco near AT&T Park, home of the baseball Giants.

Lacob and Guber claim that a new arena wasn’t on their agenda on day one. But it’s hard to believe that those two weren’t from the beginning thinking about setting up shop in the lovely “Baghdad by the Bay,” as columnist Herb Caen labeled San Francisco back when that was a compliment. The owners’ introductory press conference, after all, was held at the tony Epic steakhouse on the Embarcadero, where, incidentally, one can pay forty-­three bucks for a martini made with Hangar 1 Fog Point vodka, a splash of vermouth, a twist of lemon, and water “harvested” from the San Francisco fog. Apparently nothing was available in Oakland that day. “For a guy like Peter Guber,” observes veteran San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins, “Oakland just doesn’t resonate.”

The Chase Center—­whose groundbreaking ceremony in January 2017 was a Guber extravaganza, with acrobats, a choir, and synchronized, dancing backhoes—­is the symbol of a franchise that, in some respects, is searching for its soul or, at the very least, trying to keep it. The Warriors were born as the league’s counterculture team, moved around the Bay Area (Memorial Gym, Civic Auditorium, Cow Palace) like an unsettled grad student, landed in hardscrabble Oakland, and finally established what seemed to be a comfortably symbiotic relationship with the place: The club drew its oxygen from a fan base that remained fiercely loyal despite years of underperforming, and the Bay Area fans got a (sometimes) entertaining underdog that satisfied their basketball cravings going way back to pioneering offensive player Hank Luisetti and pioneering defensive player Bill Russell. Sure, the swells from across the bay were welcome—­the Warriors have always drawn equally from each side—­but the essence of the franchise, its soul, was gritty Oakland. And beginning in 2019 the Warriors will be gone.

- About the author -

Jack McCallum is the New York Times bestselling author of Dream Team and Seven Seconds or Less and a longtime member of the staff of Sports Illustrated. While concentrating mostly on basketball—in 2005 he won the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame—he has also edited the weekly Scorecard section of the magazine, covered five Olympic games, and written about virtually every sport, including bowling, bicycle racing, squash, and wrestling. McCallum teaches journalism at Muhlenberg College and lives with his wife in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

More from Jack McCallum

Golden Days

West's Lakers, Steph's Warriors, and the California Dreamers Who Reinvented Basketball

Buy

Golden Days

— Published by Ballantine Books —