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How The West Was Won: Examining The Emergence Of The Santa Cruz Warriors

As they continue to chase that elusive NBADL title, it's clear the Santa Cruz Warriors have won over their fans and have continued to thrive on the business side since coming to town.

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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.

"The Showcase is really an emerging platform for our league. It continues to grow, but I think it has a really great future. We were thrilled with our first time in Santa Cruz, and that starts, first and foremost, with our partner in the Warriors, the Lacob's, and the city itself. By any measure, we were absolutely thrilled with how things went," the President told us. "The way they were able to control their building, and certainly their connection to the community, and the efforts Jim Weyermann and his team invested; they built an audience, not only around the team, but in introducing the Showcase to the local community. It was a tremendous week, from our players, teams, coaches, scouts, and media partners --- all around. We couldn't have been happier hosting the Showcase there this year," he asserted.

Community embrace? Check. Passionate fans filling up an arena? Check. Success on the court? Check (though Coach Casey Hill and Co. still chase the ultimate NBADL title victory). Hosting the Showcase? Check.

With all of that in mind, what's next for the surging minor league franchise? Team officials have their sights set on a new and improved arena.

"One prospective is, if it's not broken, don't fix it. But we've always set out with the notion of building a new arena that could kind of be the jewel of the central coast. There isn't a new sports facility that can host regional sports, be it on the high school, collegiate, or minor league level. It could expand from basketball to volleyball, wrestling, and community competitions; things that aren't necessarily mainstream, but still need new facilities," President Weyermann said while explaining his thought process. "If anything, we've been able to demonstrate that there's an interest and a need. On the business side, I think we'd like to be able to work with the city to bring that vision to a reality. Building a new facility and finally being able to connect downtown and the boardwalk, I think the Warriors and the energy behind them might be exactly what we need to maybe have a public discussion about it and get people excited."

While all of this is evidence that the team continues to thrive on the business side, make no mistake; such success goes on to translate on the court for the players, too. It's undeniable that the team is filled with quirky and talented personalities, an eclectic group, perhaps headlined by longtime members (and Dakota Wizards' transfers) Coach Hill and Moe Baker. They're easy to root for, which gives the fans a reason to get behind the Warriors consistently.

"I've loved it. Obviously this weather was the nicest I've ever seen from December to February in my entire life. That really helps to have a place to come home to and have it be sunny. It lifts your spirits up. From our coaching staff, interns, and everyone in between, everyone has been great here," Warriors' starting point guard Aaron Craft gushed. "They really want to put us in a position to succeed. The fans are great. The arena is packed every game. To be able to play in front of a crowd that provides energy means a lot."

Comparing the opportunity he has to that of others, Craft added, "It's easy to take it for granted, especially after you play a few games at home. I come from a big school, so even when you go on the road, you see the crowds the other teams get. You're left to create your own energy and get yourself going. That's never the case here in Santa Cruz. It's been a blessing."

"When I look back at the last three years, what I'm most proud of is the fact that we've been able to deliver an organization that Golden State was able to be proud of as well," Weyermann concluded. "I don't think there's a franchise that matches our numbers on the basketball or business side when it comes to the D-League's key metrics."