Earlier this month, RidiculousUpside.com had the opportunity to shadow, observe, and take in the culture surrounding the Santa Cruz Warriors. The direct D-League affiliate of the NBA team of the same name, The Warriors have quickly made strides in less than two seasons residing in Santa Cruz.
Last season, Golden State utilized its minor league squad with plenty of player assignments, and even a couple of call-ups as well. That trend has only continued with the back and forth assignments of Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic. What's more, Coach Casey Hill has done a tremendous job of instilling an unified atmosphere as his team guns for an NBADL division title, fresh off last year's D-League Finals appearance. All the meanwhile, the rest of the staff in town focuses on providing its passionate fan base with a great family-friendly show each and every night.
Without further adieu, here's an exclusive look back with a step by step journal of our weekend in town, complete with observations and nuances one would only grasp firsthand.
Day One, Thursday night, 11:15 PM PST
After a little over an hour cab ride from the San Jose airport, I arrive at Hotel Paradox --- the in-season residence of the Warriors' players, and even some coaches as well.
Nothing about the first night of the trip is quite noteworthy except for this simple fact: traveling, for D-League teams, can tend to be a little tricky. There are bus rides that last for hours on end. There are multiple flights taken on the same day to get to the most obscure of locations. Such arrangements aren't quite as glamorous as of those in the NBA, but as Jerry West notes, such a grind prepares such young athletes for many of the other obstacles that may lie ahead in their careers.
The fact that the Warriors can travel in and out of the San Jose airport provides them with a more reliable and convenient way of venturing from city to city to face out of town opponents, but the distance from San Jose to Santa Cruz itself is still a bit of a trip.
Day Two, Friday morning, 10:15 AM PST
Arriving a few minutes after morning practice begins, I'm greeted by Public Relations Manager Matt De Nesnera, who proved to be Santa Cruz's truest All-Star and an absolute godsend throughout this visit. More on that later.
Whereas on an NBA practice hardwood, players may be off to the side fraternizing and/or going through individual drills and/or respective training, the Warriors are completely in sync. Each and every player is focused on Coach Hill as though he were some sort of defensive guru --- with further observation, I'd realize that was a relatively fair assessment.
The coach leads his team through respective offensive and defensive sets, and conferences with the players after each and every one. There's teaching, guidance, and more specifically, individual attention, given throughout. In the D-League, practice is perhaps all the more important --- though there likely aren't as many scouts watching as in actual games, the chance to improve and develop is key for these young guns.
Standing tall amongst the group is six-year NBA veteran Hilton Armstrong. Having just played out the final days of a recent 10-day contract with Golden State less than 48 hours earlier, Armstrong was already back on the practice floor with Santa Cruz. No rest for the weary, and the big man proved to be as hard of a worker as they come.
"He's the best," Coach Hill said with a huge smile as I realized Armstrong was back so soon. Himself, one of the nicest guys you'll meet, Coach greeted me by thanking me for coming out. Much to De Nesnera's credit, the entire team's staff was aware of RidiculousUpside.com's presence and was equally as welcoming and grateful. Very passionate about the product they put forth (the Warriors' team, of course), the organization appeared to take an immense amount of pride in having an outlet like us (and that of our good friend Gino Pilato's DLeagueDigest.com, for that matter) cover the D-League and shed some light on some of the more positive developments.
Day Two, Friday afternoon, 1:00 PM PST
Walking to lunch with De Nesnera on this sunny afternoon, it's easy to realize how passionate and powerful such a fan base really is. There are residents donning Warriors gear all over (both Santa Cruz & Golden State themed), and a variety of local businesses are sponsors of the minor league team. Mid-day, there are fans looking to buy tickets to that evening's game. Others are looking for team appeal at the Santa Cruz office & team store.
As we walk down the street, many people are excited to see the the top notch PR man. At lunch, he spoke to a gentleman about participating in a pickup basketball game sometime soon. When I casually asked who that was, De Nesnera told me it was Santa Cruz's former mayor.
On a day where the city's former mayor was simply out and about, talking about playing pickup ball, it was clear to see that De Nesnera himself was the "mayor" of Santa Cruz, as the expression goes. So many people are excited about the team, and he's at the heart of it all. The close-knit community is one where everybody knows everybody, and there's no doubt they're all unified around their love for the Warriors.
Day One, Friday afternoon, 4:00 PM PST
Returning to the arena early, I start to settle in for the game. Through both games I attended that weekend, I had the treat of sitting next to Kevin Danna --- Santa Cruz's broadcaster, and the only traveling one in all of the NBA D-League. if I can offer my explanation as to why that is, it's simple: he's the best one there is. Why wouldn't a team like the Warriors want the best in the (D-League, of course) business broadcasting all of their games, both home and away?
It takes Danna and the rest of the audio/video crew hours to set things up, going through various sound checks, etc. before the game even starts. And here I was thinking I arrived to the game early. For everyone else, their was only beginning.
It's also at this time that I realize the D-League trading deadline has by now passed on the east coast. Dominic McGuire and William Buford, who were both at Santa Cruz's practice earlier that morning, had been traded.
Day One, Friday night 7:00 PM PST
It's game time. With the Delaware 87ers and the Warriors set to face off, I begin to hear, as I've referred to it as, the loudest crowd of 2,500 people I've ever heard.
Many of the highlights from this game, as well as (of) the atmosphere itself, can be further read about by clicking this link here to an earlier piece.
Following Santa Cruz's win that night, I retreated to my room at Hotel Paradox. Throughout my stay, I'd run into players here and there. No big surprise. That night, however, I ran into a couple of employees. When I asked if they were hanging around the players, they replied "Nah, we live here, too."
On one hand, the Warriors attempt to make D-League life as comfortable as possible for all involved. With some caring and a little help from the Paradox, they do an awesome job. On the other hand, it still has to be tricky for players and coaches alike to live out of hotel rooms. In the minor league, it's difficult to know whether one is coming or going (and when, for the matter), and if a call-up will occur. Whereas the coaches aren't likely to get "called up" or simply, hired, midseason, that unknown factor proves they're on a similar grind themselves.
Day Three, Saturday afternoon, 2:30 PM PST
Displaying a dedication to the team's involvement within the community, the Warriors hosted a first "birthday" party for their mascot, Mav'Riks. The sea turtle danced, pranced, and entertained the young fans as they got to shoot around on the same hardwood as their Santa Cruz Warrior heroes.
As the afternoon progresses and game time grows nearer, Warriors' guard Cameron Jones is one of the first players to arrive. With many kids sticking around from earlier, a pair of boys in particular see Jones and go absolutely crazy. Excited as if they've just seen Michael Jordan walk through the arena, they chase the guard and aim for high-fives.
Often referred to as "the best kept secret" in the D-League by dual Warriors' executive Kirk Lacob, Jones is mostly unknown to many casual NBA fans. Still, in a community like Santa Cruz, his local fame is seemingly second to none --- he's celebrated mightily by all.
Day Three, Saturday evening, 7:00 PM PST
It's game time once again. Earlier in the evening, I watched Danna and the rest of his crew go through pre-game rituals and preparations for a second time.
As fantastic as Danna is, he truly out-did himself on this night. For the 87ers' contest, Danna found himself sitting next to a broadcast partner. For Saturday's matchup against the Bakersfield Jam, Danna flew solo. For an entire game, the Stanford product provided the most fast-paced, yet efficient and accurate, commentary one might ever hear on a live broadcast. There was a lot of weight to carry, but Danna does more than hold his own. He's awesome, and makes D-League basketball enjoyable to listen to.
Whereas Santa Cruz dismantled Delaware the night before, Bakersfield made things interesting and gave the home team a run for their money. The game came down to the final minutes, but the Jam failed to execute on some opportunities down the stretch, and the Warriors came away with the win. Credit Coach Hill, who was screaming at the top of his lungs for his team to keep up the intensity throughout.
Day Four, Sunday afternoon, 2:00 PM PST
Though my time in Santa Cruz was coming to an end at this point, I still had a couple more stops. Having lunch before I exited the Paradox, I was eating a beets and goat cheese salad. Across the way closer to the pool, Joe Alexander, the 2008 NBA Draft lottery pick turned Santa Cruz Warrior, could be found chatting it up with teammate Kevin Kotzur and others. Walking over to my table, Alexander pointed over and emphatically asserted, "that's the best salad!"
Something tells me the forward enjoys these quite often.
Following lunch, I observed Kotzur and D-League veteran Moe Baker participate in a "Read to Achieve" event. Both players told me that such gatherings can attract upwards towards 100 people, and on this day, the turn out was certainly respectable as well. Kotzur spent time reading Dr. Seuss books to the younger fans and making funny voices to go along. Baker was more in his element across the bookstore, doing arts & crafts and playing around with some kids on a "Fisher-Price" like basketball hoop.
We all shared a big laugh when a little boy (I later found out he was just three years old) leapt into the mascot's arms and imitated its signature pose (as shown here). Kids really say (or in this case, do) the craziest things.
From there, it was time to head on out to Oakland. My time in Santa Cruz had come to a close.