Inside a road trip with the Warriors: 'This is not the real NBA, the way we get taken care of here'

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4244/" data-ylk="slk:Kevin Durant">Kevin Durant</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4612/" data-ylk="slk:Stephen Curry">Stephen Curry</a> high-five during the first half of the Warriors’ loss to the Celtics on Thursday. (Getty)
Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry high-five during the first half of the Warriors’ loss to the Celtics on Thursday. (Getty)

Draymond Green, still salty a questionable call cost the Golden State Warriors a close game in Boston on Thursday night, strolled out of the visitor’s locker room at TD Garden and spotted the target of his ire across the hallway. Kyrie Irving was outside the Boston Celtics’ locker room, reveling in making the decisive free throws that led to his team’s 14 straight win and chatting with his good friend, WNBA star Sue Bird.

“Horse [expletive],” Green shouted toward Irving, then repeating to make sure he had his attention. “Horse [expletive]!”

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Irving finally lifted his head, smiled sheepishly and offered a smug shrug. After some playful back and forth, Green shook his head and walked over to let Irving — a principal figure in the Warriors’ three-year rivalry with the Cleveland Cavaliers who now wears green and has helped the winning streak reach 16 games — know the referees bailed him out. “I had you, bro. I knew what you were going for. You had to go left,” Green told Irving, dropping into a defensive stance. “I had you!”

The Warriors did a little East Coast swing through Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn that revealed a hyper-competitive group that’s contending with what one team insider referred to as “success fatigue.” The novelty has worn off from the rise that produced two championships, a 73-win regular season and attracted an MVP from a rival team, but they can still draw a crowd of 50 autograph seekers and admirers outside the team hotel on a cold, rainy evening in Philadelphia. They can still take over a visiting arena like Barclays Center and fill almost half the seats with fans rocking Golden State attire. But they are trying to establish something long lasting, a culture that could potentially spawn copycats and remain relevant beyond the typical competitive window.

The NBA has had dominant teams in the past, but not many with individuals so willing to be at the forefront in addressing the major issues and concerns of the day. It has had fun teams that have captured the imagination of fans and foes, but few have been able to match that boisterous enthusiasm with a cutthroat passion to avoid losing. And polarizing teams have come and gone, but the Warriors have staying power because of four in-their-prime stars and the creation of an almost anti-corporate environment of inclusion that has led to deeper, family-like connections.

“Will it get old? No. I will get old, eventually,” Stephen Curry told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “You think about all the greats in this league who have never had a taste of that. And even people in the league now, that are chasing that first one, it’s an intoxicating feeling and you want to do everything you can to give yourself the opportunity to win championships because at the end of the day, we ain’t going to be able to play this game forever, so why not have the dreams of more?

“We win it in ’15. Don’t get it done in ’16. Win it in ’17. This year I look at everything through the lens of ‘How do we get back to that point?’ You don’t think about getting your numbers or anything like that. You know if you play your game, at the end of the day, we’re going to be playing for championships year after year. As opposed to being on the chase, where you’re not really sure. You haven’t done it yet or proven that you can do it. This is just a different kind of motivation.”

Steph Curry meets a crying fan before the Warriors’ win over the 76ers on Saturday. (Getty)
Steph Curry meets a crying fan before the Warriors’ win over the 76ers on Saturday. (Getty)

‘We’re not in the real world here’

Nine-year-old Davit Pachulia, decked out in a Warriors T-shirt and sweatpants, scampered into the visitor’s locker room at Barclays Center and immediately regretted his decision. Like the popular Homer Simpson-backing-into-the-bushes meme, Davit, moonwalked out and shouted to no one in particular, “Ew, it stinks in there!”

Saba, Davit’s 7-year-old younger brother, leaned against a wall outside the locker room and responded, “Daddy doesn’t want me in there.”

Zaza Pachulia might have warned his sons to wait outside until he finished getting dressed, but none of his teammates would’ve taken issue with them hanging out. They’d already been serving as honorary ball boys for the Warriors’ first road trip of the season, trailing their father like ducklings in a row as he boarded the team bus for games, strolled into team dinners and as he walked off the court. Players were welcoming rather than resentful as Nick Young taught the Pachulia kids some moves at a voluntary practice at Temple University and Curry gave them pairs of his new shoes.

Pachulia isn’t the most popular player on the Warriors by any stretch — don’t be deceived by him receiving over a million votes for last year’s All-Star Game — but he is part of one of the more unique, all-inclusive basketball families in the league. With the culture that coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers have fostered, the lines aren’t delineated by the number of MVP awards, All-Star appearances or salary structure. If you’re employed by the team, you’re granted the same privileges.

“It’s a very special moment for me and them as well, for them to experience all these things is priceless,” Pachulia told Yahoo Sports. “Normally, you don’t necessarily have that luxury with other teams. Some teams don’t allow any sort of distractions. This team is different. Family is a part of the success. The happier your family is, the happier we are.”

The Warriors allow players’ children to attend practice, a perk that allows Pachulia to stick around for extra work without having to feel obligated to rush home. Pachulia was so appreciative of the ball-boy gesture for his sons that he didn’t want to be a jinx. After the Warriors rallied from a 22-point halftime deficit to defeat the 76ers, he joked with Kerr that had the team lost, he would’ve shipped his kids back to the Bay on FedEx the next morning.

Kerr brought the concept of team dinners over from his days with the San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors usually rent out a room at a restaurant for about four hours, with transportation provided for players and staff. “It’s not mandatory, but it’s as much a symbol,” veteran big man David West, who had a similar experience when he played with the Spurs, told Yahoo Sports. “Guys can always just keep the conversation going. I’ve been on teams where as soon as you get to a city … you don’t see each other until shoot-around the next morning. And sometimes, a lot of things get lost in translation. So it’s good. It’s something that works. Keeps the group close.”

“Steve, he’s the brainchild behind finding a way for our players to connect outside of practice. In order to create real relationships, it can’t be about basketball,” Myers told Yahoo Sports. “Why does that matter? When you’re going through adversity, you start looking at the guy next to you and if you’re judging him solely by what’s happening on the basketball court, that’s not much of a relationship. If you only know what number a guy wears, how much money he makes … when the chips are down, that’s not going to get it done. In the heat of an emotional moment, you recognize that I know this guy and I know how they are, and I’m willing to forego what mistakes they make because I know they’re trying.”

Steve Kerr has been influenced by his time around Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. (Getty)
Steve Kerr has been influenced by his time around Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. (Getty)

On an off-night in Philadelphia, Kerr joined assistant Bruce Fraser for a shuttle ride to a team dinner at Del Frisco’s steakhouse. Kerr shared some shrimp cocktail with his coaching staff while a game between Oklahoma City and San Antonio played on a huge screen. Lead assistant Mike Brown would normally sit with the coaches but had other obligations. Because his parents grew up in the area, Brown hosted a family gathering for about 50 relatives in the same room as the team. An overflow began to accumulate and Brown asked if he could open a partition that separated the two factions. Assistant Jarron Collins thought Brown was kidding but was dumbfounded when he saw such a large gathering on the other side. Brown footed the bill for his family and made sure they respected the space of the Warriors’ coaches and players, but admitted he had to make an exception.

“One of my cousins was in love with Draymond and she kept hounding me,” Brown told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “Draymond was gracious enough to come over. I’m not saying it just because I’m with these guys. I’ve been with a lot of great organizations, great people. This organization, by far, is the craziest, most gracious when it comes to not just taking care of not just their players, because some organizations just take care of their players, but these guys … I don’t care if you’re a coach, assistant coach, trainer or assistant trainer. Our owner, GM … we’re not in the real world here. This is not the real NBA, the way we get taken care of here.”

‘Educated and not afraid to speak about it’

Golden State has mostly avoided trouble spots since Kerr took over, giving his players the freedom to express themselves. Kerr has deflected much of the credit for the Warriors’ ascension, humbly pushing the praise in the direction of his players and his predecessor, Mark Jackson, for laying the foundation. His quick wit, charm and incredible back story have led to a bombardment of interview requests that he usually declines. But he agreed to a sit-down with CNN political commentator and President Barack Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod, with whom he hit it off while taping a podcast last season.

Kerr shot an hour-long special for “The Axe Files” at the team hotel in Philadelphia, touching on Colin Kaepernick, what led to President Donald Trump refusing to invite the Warriors to the White House, gun control, Kerr’s playing and coaching careers, and possible political aspirations. Kerr has routinely expressed his opinion on controversial topics and rarely are his players stunned to hear his opinions. “You know where he sits on a lot of issues, even if you don’t ask. Sometimes, he just opens up practice, with, ‘Man, did you see what the hell is going on?’ ” West told Yahoo Sports. “And he gets his little five minutes off. But I think it’s healthy. The lines aren’t blurred in terms of being professional athletes but also being citizens.”

As the Warriors’ profile has risen, they’ve matured from merely being entertainers to using opportunities to educate. “You have a bunch of guys that’s comfortable in their own skin, educated and not afraid to speak about it,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “I think being in an organization like this, where they support us, no matter what, is also special, because it gives you the confidence and freedom to do what you want.”

During the Warriors’ stay in Boston, Green was afforded a unique opportunity to speak at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics about race relations, political activism and what he believes is the need to remove the term “owner” from sports lexicon. Some within the organization were concerned about Green participating in an event on a game day, but they chose not to deny him an opportunity that Green said is, “Definitely a dream come true.” The spoils of winning have perhaps secured more flexibility because some issues that other teams might consider distractions are met with little to no restrictions.

“It’s trust,” Myers told Yahoo Sports. “We’re paying these guys a lot of money. You’d like to think they’re great basketball players and also good people. It’s hard, but you try to get high-character guys. You try to get guys that you trust well enough to speak in an educated way and in a responsible way. There’s certainly a risk, but muzzling players also carries a risk. You risk resentment and somebody feeling like they’re not able to speak their mind. These are grown men. This is their job. So who am I? It doesn’t preclude conversations, like, ‘Why do you feel things are that way?’ Those are important things. The more you can make your relationship go beyond basketball, the better chance you have of having genuine dialogue.”

During a taping of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on Monday, Curry made it clear that he is “far from an activist,” but still ended some mostly playful banter with a serious tone. With wife Ayesha and teammate JaVale McGee in the audience, Curry read the closing paragraph of an essay he wrote for The Players’ Tribune called “The Noise,” which addressed the need to take better care of war veterans. Curry has found himself in the midst of some controversy in the past year for his criticisms of Trump. He feels that he has never been shy about taking on issues that are important to him — such as his involvement in Nothing But Nets to help prevent malaria in Africa — but that his voice resonates more as a two-time champion and two-time MVP.

“The biggest thing is, you have to be comfortable with the fact that you’re not going to please everybody,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “You’re going to piss people off in certain situations and you’re going to have people having your back, even if Trump or the White House wants to draw you into that kind of conversation. The decision we made about going to the White House, all that stuff comes with the territory. … As much as I’ve been thrown into that conversation, I wanted to make sure I planted my flag on what’s important to me.”

Kevin Durant, conducting a postgame interview in Philadelphia, embraces the chance to be himself with the Warriors. (Getty)
Kevin Durant, conducting a postgame interview in Philadelphia, embraces the chance to be himself with the Warriors. (Getty)

‘They don’t waste [their talent]. They don’t take it for granted.’

If he had only been out on a ring chase as a free agent in the summer of 2016, Kevin Durant perhaps could’ve found success at another destination. But he was seeking something deeper and more fulfilling. Durant wanted to play an enjoyable brand of basketball, free from the burdens of carrying an organization. The championship hasn’t changed him — “Still the same player,” he told Yahoo Sports — but the environment with the Warriors has. Durant isn’t afraid to admit his flaws or when he falls into “a mental rut” and that he doesn’t have all of the answers.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I feel like I’ve been allowed to use my voice, but now I just feel like I have more veteran guys than anything,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I think that just comes from experience. It comes from being more comfortable with myself and my surroundings. Also having people around that don’t really judge. Being in OKC and being here, that allowed me to be who I am today, being myself. It’s rare for players to let you in on their feelings and emotions. They’ve encouraged me everywhere I’ve been, but they’ve encouraged me a lot here to do so.”

West never hid his reasons for coming to Golden State but he admitted that there is a reason — more than a talent overload — that this was the first team that allowed him to embrace the Larry O’Brien Trophy. “These guys, even with all the success that they’ve had, are fierce competitors, still play with an edge, a chip on their shoulder and they won’t let up,” West told Yahoo Sports. “That’s a testament to their talent. They don’t waste it. They don’t take it for granted. They’re very motivated to win and excel, even with all the success, still feel like they’re not getting the respect they deserve in the midst of all of this.”

Kerr told Axelrod that West is the player he most enjoys communicating with on the team. West is stubborn in some areas, but he has enjoyed the experience in the Bay because he continues to learn. The Warriors held what West called a “shake off the [jet]lag” practice upon arriving in Boston from Oakland last Wednesday and he sat under the basket where Curry was working out with Fraser. Curry, the league’s first $200 million man, is an all-time great who still has the hunger of someone seeking a seat at the table. His shooting routine is known to draw a crowd at every arena, but West was studying the footwork of his point guard, taking note of what he does to create space and release his shot.

“Whatever people say about us, or me in particular, doesn’t really affect me. It’s just more, you’ve got to have a sense of humor about it. Most of the stuff, it’s out of your control,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “People saying I’m declining because I’m shooting threes [lower] than my usual rate, percentage or whatever the case may be. I hear all that stuff. It’s hard not to read it or hear it as you go through.”

Though they often have to find their own challenges throughout games or even the course of the season, the Warriors maintain a healthy respect for their competition. They are still striving for the sustained excellence of a franchise like San Antonio. They’ve learned to never get too ahead of themselves, especially since ill-timed injuries and a Finals suspension possibly kept this from being a quest for a four-peat.

Walking toward the tunnel with Irving, Green turned off the trash talk faucet for a second to give props to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. “Y’all young boys are all right,” Green told Irving.

Yet the Warriors aren’t necessarily seeking affirmation in return, because, as Green said, “We know how good we are.”

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