On Wednesday night, the Oklahoma City Blue and Santa Cruz Warriors will face off in game one of their first round playoff series. Santa Cruz has made it to the D-League Finals in each of the last two seasons, but after boasting a league-best 35-15 record in the regular season this year, the team is hoping to go all the way in year three.
Coincidentally enough, the team has resided in Santa Cruz for three seasons now. It's obviously easy to find proof of the success they've garnered on the court, but there was still a journey to be had when initially aiming to find success off of it, as well.
Golden State Warriors' Assistant General Manager Kirk Lacob was among those spearheading this very movement. From recognizing the potential for embrace in Santa Cruz, to building an arena, raising awareness, and more, the executive truly believed he could spark the birth of something special in town.
"I think part of the story that gets missed is that when Kirk and I presented the idea to Joe [Lacob] and Peter [Guber], it took a tremendous amount of faith on their part. It took a leap of faith from them. They had to believe that we would be able to pull this all together," Santa Cruz Warriors' President Jim Weyermann told RidiculousUpside.com.
"People also forget that without their financial and emotional commitment, this would have never happened. I think it all starts with them. It's a remarkable tale. In the early stages, Joe and Peter were looking to validate who the new Warriors were," he added. "There was a sense that we would take calculated risks and push as hard as we could to be as talented as we could, as quickly as we could. All of that rolled into making Santa Cruz a good strategic choice."
"When the Warriors approached us, it was one of those moments where you go, 'Really? Santa Cruz? I don't know.' We were not sure how the community would feel about it, but the Warriors certainly had done their homework on Santa Cruz and felt as though it was going to be a good fit," Hilary Bryant, former Mayor of Santa Cruz, said.
Bringing basketball to Santa Cruz was a risk. There were doubts. Things were uncertain. But perhaps those who believed in the potential saw an unique foundation of sorts deep within the community's blueprint.
"It's interesting, because I think of Santa Cruz as being a sports town; just not necessarily the sports one would think of. We have so much outdoor recreation here, from mountain-biking, surfing, and skateboarding," Bryant went on to point out. "Everyone finds an outdoor activity and embraces it in one way or another. We're not a place where people think about baseball, football, basketball."
Nevertheless, there were obstacles to overcome.
Mayor Bryant further discussed the process, asserting, "At first, there were plenty of discussions around where the team would actually play. It was amazing how quickly people around the community thought it was a great idea, and that we should do it. It helped that the Golden State Warriors were starting to have some really good seasons." She asserted, "it was a moment where some people thought this was a great idea, while others weren't so sure. But it's actually been transformative. People who had doubts are now coming around and saying that this is the best thing we've ever done."
President Weyermann concurred, appearing to reaffirm such a similar sentiment. "This was a city that had a quirky identity. This is about how a professional sports team changed their lives. It's presumptuous of me to speak to that, having not been a long time native of Santa Cruz," he said. "But that's what I hear most often from fans after they say thank you. It's transformed the fabric of this community."
There's no doubt that the fans who follow the team, attend player appearances around town, and fill up the arena on a nightly basis are some of the more passionate ones in all of the D-League. Still, it certainly doesn't hurt that the Warriors have continued to embrace them right back again and again; not only granting terrific access, but also lending a helping hand and providing an assist to the community whenever possible.
"As a community member, I played basketball growing up. I've been a fan. My children didn't have that experience. They went skateboarding and surfing. They didn't have an interest in basketball. Now, they are both avid fans. They not only play, but also follow both Warriors teams," Mayor Bryant explained. "For our community, this has transformed our perception of the sport and how we engage with the sport. That's tremendous. It's something that has brought an unique change for our community. Now, Santa Cruz is a basketball town. Everyone who steps into our arena will have that experience."
Looking back at things from the business side and further providing a window on the organization's extended embrace, she continued, "When we were building Kaiser Permanente Arena, I was serving as Vice Mayor. By the time the home opener came around, I had been Mayor for about two weeks. The arena was packed. People were excited. You couldn't believe it was happening. We have a lot of projects come through with promises to deliver. The Warriors have been an exception, because they've actually exceeded our expectations again and again. Not just from the way the fans have embraced them, but also what the team does for the community. They invest back and support our schools and non-profit programs. The list goes on. There's hardly any non-profit in town that hasn't benefitted from the Warriors, because they go above and beyond."
Such progress, influence, and passion all undoubtedly played into the NBA D-League's decision to move its annual Showcase to Santa Cruz for the first time this season. First-year President Malcolm Turner and Co. were impressed by the turn out, the subsequent success, and what they saw throughout the week.