OAKLAND, Calif. – The Golden State Warriors had just eliminated the Denver Nuggets to advance to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, and Warriors owner Joe Lacob quickly found himself awash in praise. "Nice trade for Bogut," one Warriors fan said as he walked past Lacob. Another fan offered up a simple, "Thank you, Joe." More thanks, hugs and high-fives soon followed.
These were some of the same Warriors fans who angrily booed Lacob throughout Chris Mullin's jersey retirement ceremony a little more than a year ago. Lacob didn't hear any boos Thursday. Only cheers. With the Warriors pulling off a surprising six-game, first-round upset of the Nuggets, Lacob feels vindicated – and finally welcomed as the franchise's owner.
"I felt like we were doing the right things and people would see it after time," Lacob said. "They love me for tonight. Maybe for tonight. But that's all that matters."
To understand how much Thursday night meant to the Warriors and their fans, one must also understand how far they've come. Golden State weathered close to two decades of futility, making just two playoff appearances from 1994-2012. The Warriors endured countless bad draft picks, even more woeful trades and Latrell Sprewell's infamous choking of coach P.J. Carlesimo. Previous owner Chris Cohan was booed during the 2000 NBA All-Star Game here and hasn't been seen much since.
Cohan's forgettable reign ended on Nov. 12, 2010, when he sold the team to a new ownership group led by Lacob. While the Warriors were a mess, Lacob quickly made clear he was determined to clean them up.
That included the decision to trade popular guard Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for injured center Andrew Bogut at last season's trade deadline. A week later, Lacob was ferociously heckled by Warriors fans as he tried to speak during Mullin's jersey retirement ceremony.
"The hardest point was that I had not been in a situation like that," Lacob said. "It was sort of unexpected with 20,000 people booing you. What do you say? What do you do?"
The trade didn't look much better early this season when the Warriors shut down Bogut to further rest his ankle. Bogut played sporadically from Jan. 28-March 2 and it was anyone's guess what – if anything – he could give the Warriors.
"It was a rough homecoming the first three or four months," Bogut said.
But thanks to the play of Warriors guard Stephen Curry and forward David Lee, who became the franchise's first All-Star since 1997, the Warriors surprisingly earned their first playoff bid since 2007.
"It's night and day from my rookie year," Curry said. "Some of the changes that [Lacob] thought were necessary to make from the top to bottom and in the whole organization, he went under some scrutiny. Some of the fans didn't like the changes. But for him to stick to his vision and with where we are now, he's excited, I'm sure."
And lo and behold, the player most responsible for lifting the Warriors to their series-clinching 92-88 victory in Game 6 was the same player for whom Lacob endured the most scrutiny: Bogut. Despite needing to take a pain-killing shot before the game, Bogut finished with 14 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks.
As Bogut ran to the Warriors' locker room afterward, he stopped to embrace the one guy who always believed.
"He means a lot," Bogut said of Lacob. "He had the final say on the trade. I know they probably had doubts with my play, and I'm glad I can reward him right now."
Lacob's mother, Marlene, passed away on Tuesday at age 77, hours before the Warriors lost Game 5 in Denver. But late Thursday, Lacob blocked out the pain long enough to throw both fists in the air in celebration of Golden State's victory. This time, Warriors fans cheered with him.
"It's been a real rough week … a tough 48 hours," Lacob said. "This is a good end."
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