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Two Fan-Favorites Further Prove the Continued Local Embrace of NBA D-League Teams

On Friday night, two surprising NBA D-League fan-favorites, the Warriors' Kiwi Gardner, and the 87ers' Thanasis Antetokounmpo, took the court for an excited crowd in Santa Cruz.

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The crowd that packs into the Kaiser Permanente Arena each and every night is the loudest gathering of 2,500 people under one roof you may ever hear.

The compact but passionate group roars as they cheer on ten minor league athletes with NBA aspirations. In the Santa Cruz, California area, the residents appear to lovingly throw their support behind a team of D-League players (whose players' names aren't exactly household ones to the casual everyday NBA fan) without hesitation.

It's easy to sense the excitement. You can hear the joys of laughter. There's undeniably a buzz throughout the building. You can even feel the anticipation -- the crowd remains standing until the Warriors score their first basket.

This all seems to go beyond basketball. This local community is hungry for a team to be loyal to. They're hungry for competition, a reason to cheer. The Warriors appear to satisfy such a craving.

The fans' affinity towards all players (and even the coaching staff. There are front row seats right next to the team's bench. Coach Casey Hill and his staff exchange brief laughs with spectators throughout) is felt quite easily. Still, the excitement seems to grow immensely upon the appearance of one Warrior in particular.

That would be none other than 5'7" Kiwi Gardner, who weighs in at just about 155 pounds. This diminutive neophyte (who also happens to be a local Bay Area product) is loved by all, and the crowd goes wild every time he's about to check in the game. His average build may make him an easy youngster to relate to, but the 20 year old's play is anything but average.

Still very young, Gardner isn't exactly ready for the NBA just yet.

Still, his energy is second to none, and his hustle never wavers on either side of the court. He's fun to watch, if nothing else. And the crowd knows it.

"Kiwi's kind of like the Rocky Balboa of the Bay Area," Coach Hill told "It's hard for me to explain it. It's about the type of game he plays -- the defense, the quickness, the aggressive, and then he's got the hair. That's all wrapped up together. This is Santa Cruz, after all. He's been great. He's been above and beyond what we expected. We're really happy to have him."

Of course, so are the fans.

Gardner's presence and endearing effect on the crowd is a true testament to how important having a local team or players (in this case, a D-League one) really is for a smaller community. They embrace it full-heartedly, further proving the type of impact implementing such a squad in town can really have. It works for many reasons that go well beyond simple player development.

Ironically enough, though Gardner is undoubtedly a local favorite, the Santa Cruz crowd was also treated to the opportunity to watch a nationally known hot commodity strut his stuff in the 87ers' matchup against the Warriors on Friday.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo led the way for Delaware with 24 points, despite a 116-95 loss. Having said that, the home crowd still seemed to be receptive to the swingman, appreciating what he could do on the court. Commonly known as "The Other Greek Freak," the NBA Draft hopeful is actually the older brother of Bucks' rookie Giannis.

Much of Thanasis' notoriety can be attributed to that of his brother's, but there's no doubt his solid play this season helps. His decision to take the road far less traveled to the NBA (playing in the D-League before declaring for the NBA Draft) makes him an easy player to root for.

"Thanasis just plays hard," 87ers' General Manager Brandon Williams told after the game. "He enjoys playing. These fans come out here, and they're great. But even they just pick up on the energy. These young guys are out here working hard, and you can see that they're passionate about what they do. It's hard not to pull for them. I think what you pick up on, with Thanasis, is that excitement. It sort of bleeds out to you."

Fun names like "Kiwi" and "Thanasis" make it even easier for fans to continue cheering them on. The fandom achieved by each young gun (even while playing in the D-League) is proof that minor league teams can be successful, as it relates to so many things off the court for fans, as well as on it.