ATLANTA — Steph Curry pump-fakes, pivots and shoots. He dekes, ducks, elevates. He slides, jab-steps, fires. Again and again, the ball leaves his fingertips, and, after an impossible hang time, choks through the net.
Curry’s face is blank, his eyes distant. He might as well be in an empty gym. But he’s not — he’s running through his shot sequence in front of hundreds, maybe even thousands of fans at State Farm Arena more than an hour before tipoff Monday night.
Steph Curry, decent at basketball pic.twitter.com/xUYFioJEsP
— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) December 3, 2018
It’s the same scene, night after night, city after city. The Warriors — currently in the middle of their longest road trip of the season, a five-gamer — enter a visiting gym that sounds an awful lot like Oracle Arena. Over the last four years, they’ve played 176 road games, and in 127 of those, they’ve walked off the court as victors, conquering not just the other team but its fanbase as well.
“It gives you an extra boost of adrenaline and energy,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said, “when [you’re on the road and] there’s still a buzz and a support for your own team.”
The Warriors get those kinds of boosts an awful lot these days.
What happens when the Warriors come to town
The Warriors are a sleek machine, as adept at generating storylines as baskets. On this night, a routine December game in Atlanta, Golden State’s lone visit to Atlanta will spur half a dozen different stories: Kerr on the comparisons between Curry and Trae Young; Curry running out of patience with those comparisons; Kevin Durant getting trolled by Atlanta fans; KD giving it right back to other fans; and Klay Thompson dismissing comparisons between the Warriors and the Hawks. Oh yeah, and there was a game too, a runaway 128-111 Warriors rout.
When the Warriors arrive in your town, then it’s not just a game, it’s an experience. Ticket prices jump when Golden State comes to town — the lowest get-in-the-door tickets for the Warriors on this night are $54, compared with single digits when most other teams arrive in Atlanta. Courtside, everyone from Quavo to Chris Tucker to Falcons running back Devonta Freeman wants to see and be seen at the Warriors game.
Atlanta’s always been a friendly town for visiting teams, both because of the transient population and the bandwagoning tendencies of fans sick of the local teams’ futility. Atlanta still holds the record for attendance at a regular-season NBA game: 62,046, set when the Hawks played the Bulls in the Georgia Dome on Michael Jordan’s last season in Chicago.
“This reminds me a lot of playing with the Bulls,” said Kerr, who played 22 minutes in that Dome game. “Back then, we saw a lot of red 23 jerseys, and now we see a ton of blue 30 and 35 jerseys.”
He’s not kidding. Throughout the arena, both adults and kids — so, so many kids — are sporting W’s gear. They shout Steph’s name as he shoots, they position themselves so that they can get selfies with him firing away right behind them. Fans line the entire half of the court where Curry is working out; the house is more packed for this shooting session than it’s been in quite a few Hawks games of recent years.
You know this anecdotally, but the numbers bear it out: Golden State draws really, really, really well on the road. Back in 2011-12, the last year the team didn’t make the playoffs, the Warriors ranked 25th in percentage of seats filled on the road. The next year: 12th. In 2013-14, coming off just their second playoff appearance in 20 years, they moved up to seventh.
Then came the championship years. In 2014-15, the year of their first title, they ranked second only to Cleveland. The next year, the Warriors sold out 100.5 percent of capacity for every single road game, a mark only eclipsed that year by Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour. In 2016-17, Golden State reigned supreme, again selling out every single seat. And last year, while again ranking as the league’s top draw, the Warriors played to an average of only 76 open seats every single night.
Here’s a tip if you’re looking to get Steph’s autograph: get to the arena early, post up outside the visiting team’s tunnel, and wait. Curry signs a couple dozen autographs on his way back to the locker room after shootaround, from programs to No. 30 jerseys to a hat someone tossed from above. (Don’t play the “It’s my birthday!” sympathy card; they’ve heard it all before. When one woman screams for Draymond Green to sign her poster because it’s her special day, he replies, “Happy birthday! It’s my birthday too!” It wasn’t.)
One of several fans who tried the “it’s my birthday!” gambit for autographs/selfies. (It didn’t work.) pic.twitter.com/DyfM6RnRdE
— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) December 4, 2018
It’s the same everywhere the Warriors travel, like in this scene from Chicago a few weeks before:
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) October 30, 2018
(Note: be careful. In Chicago, a kid fell from the stands while reaching out to Curry. Granted, the kid got a signed shoe for his trouble, but still … that’s a hell of a risk.)
Worth noting: while Steph, KD, Dray and Klay are the marquee names, every single player on the Warriors roster draws love — knowledgeable love — from the fans. When kids are calling out the names of assistant coaches and trainers, you know they’re invested in this team.
Everyone wants a shot at the king
There’s a flip side to all this road love. You’re a target, and the team whose house you’re invading wants to take you down all the more.
“Everywhere you go, you’re getting the other team’s best shot,” said shooting guard Damion Lee. “Every game.”
Guard Jacob Evans agree: “You still gotta get out there and hoop.”
The Warriors huddle in the tunnel before running out to the court as a team — KD is last, for the record — and everywhere around them are people holding up phones. They’re on camera every minute, they know it, and they’re comfortable with it. And then the game begins, and you see why.
Watching the Warriors at takeoff speed is breathtaking. Again, not really breaking news here. But if you’re able to find your way into one of those few dozen seats still available at every Golden State game, do it. This is an experience unlike any in sports — against lottery teams, Golden State can look like it’s fielding eight men at a time. The game’s never in doubt, not from the opening tip.
The Hawks fans in attendance — and, yes, there are quite a few — try their best, but Atlanta doesn’t give them much to cheer this night. Curry outscores the Hawks by himself in the first quarter, and before long, even the Hawks’ best runs of the evening only draw Atlanta to within, oh, 15 points.
So Atlanta has to resort to trickeration. A contingent of fans in the Hawks’ rabid 6th Man section begins trying to get under Golden State’s skin, chanting “Draymond hates you!” and “KD’s leaving!” as Durant shoots free throws.
The biggest cheer of the night comes when Warriors forward Kevon Looney misses two straight free throws in the fourth quarter, because that means everyone in attendance — even Golden State fans — gets a free Chick-fil-A sandwich. Small victories.
“We’ve been on the road where it’s felt like a home game before, and we’ve been on the road where everyone’s [critical] as soon as the game starts,” Durant said after the game. “Having that experience and having different arenas gets you prepared for anything. … Everybody has each other’s back, especially on the road.”
Legends respect legends
Hearing cheers for the opposition can be a dispiriting burden for the home team. For Trae Young — who’s still just a couple dozen games into his career in Atlanta — it’s fuel.
“I don’t pay too much attention to [Warriors fans in the stands],” Young said. “When you win championships, you get that. When we win championships here in Atlanta, they’re going to be doing that on the road for us.”
A Hawks championship is still a ways down the road; for now, this is still the Warriors’ time. As Durant, Thompson and Curry make their way from the visitors’ locker room toward the bus, there’s a crowd — of course — waiting for them that includes childhood friends and smiling family and assorted hangers-on. Hugs and handshakes abound.
Looming over all of them, towering like Imperial walkers on the snows of Hoth, stood bygone legends like Dikembe Mutombo, Kevin Willis and Lenny Wilkens, all waiting for a chance to dap up the champs. Even NBA Hall of Fame royalty wants a piece of the Warriors these days.
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