These were the NBA finals that the Golden State Warriors were losing last year, and yet they acted as if the whole thing was a joke. They were supposed to be practising in Cleveland’s arena, trailing the Cavaliers 2-1 in the series, but this hardly looked like basketball practice.
Music boomed from mini-speakers the team brings on all road trips as players kicked balls around like they were on a soccer field. Several of them lined up for half-court shots. They were laughing. Anyone who walked into the arena that day would have gazed at the spectacle, more open gym at the Y than NBA workout, and decided the Warriors didn’t care.
And suddenly everything made sense to the team’s general manager Bob Myers.
“Sitting in the stands I had this epiphany,” Myers says now. “I said: ‘I get it!’”
Basketball was supposed to be fun.
For months, he had tried to grasp the gentle frenzy of Steve Kerr, the rookie head coach he hired the spring before to help his team reach missed potential. Kerr was different from every coach Myers had known. He didn’t scream or push, yet his team had dominated the Western Conference. Finally, in the franchise’s most important series in decades, he understood that Kerr’s brilliance came not from how hard he coached, but how content he made his players.
“Steve had kept those guys relaxed all year round,” Myers says. “Ask anybody if they can perform better at their job if they have a level of joy around their job. They will say yes. And if you can create joy while working with people you like, then you can do an either better job.”
Want to understand how Golden State could come back from 3-1 down to the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the Western Conference Finals? Want to know why the Warriors are on the verge of a second-straight NBA title even as their best player, Steph Curry, struggles to hit his jump shots? The reason lies in that Cleveland morning. They have made their team the happiest place in sports.
You hear the word “joy” a lot around the Warriors, who are two wins from a second straight NBA title. This is not a common sports term. The longstanding narrative says championships are earned through a relentless fire, not morning playtime. What was it Vince Lombardi once said to his Green Bay Packers? “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” The Warriors set an NBA record for victories this year, winning 73 of 82 games. By that imperfect measure they are the best team in NBA history, but they rarely speak in war metaphors. Their motivation is not the fear of losing, but the jubilance of winning together.
All the old gimmicks of conjuring enemies don’t apply with this team. There are no bulletin boards with dismissive quotes pinned to the front as a way to inspire anger. Several times in the last two years, Bruce Fraser, the Warriors shooting coach, has expected Kerr to explode at his players the way coaches do when things go wrong –and he is always surprised when the storm never comes.
So, yes, just two wins from a second-straight title, that morning in Cleveland last June, where his players played soccer on the floor and took half-court shots, now makes perfect sense to Bob Myers. It is the justification for hiring an unproven head coach for the carefree Curry and the other players who had lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2014.
“We felt, as an organization, that if we put two positive people together they would bloom,” he says of Kerr and Curry.
But none of them could have imagined this. And that, everyone agrees, is because of Curry.
“Our best player is also our best person,” Myers says.
This is not the kind of thing basketball people say about superstars. Nobody called Michael Jordan the Chicago Bulls’ best person. Kobe Bryant was never adored by his Lakers team-mates. Their leadership was the kind we have become familiar with in sports. They were propelled by rage, driven by anger. They fed off criticism, parsing their opponents’ words, searching for the merest hint of a slight that could ignite a blaze. They pushed, harassed and humiliated team-mates into winning, freezing out those they felt unworthy of their outrageous lust for victory.
Curry does not rage. He does not stare down team-mates or bully them in practice. His leadership comes from the happiness of seeing everyone succeed. His press conferences are rarely about himself, even in a year when he became the league’s first unanimous MVP. Several times this season he has stopped conversations about his game to remind people that his fellow guard, Klay Thompson, is as valuable to the team as himself. Unlike most huge superstars who have an uneasy relationship with their so-called sidekicks, jealous of any attention that player gets, Curry wants everyone to bask in the same sunshine as himself.
“Steve said it best: Steph plays with intensity but joy,” Myers says.
It’s hard to imagine another player like Curry pushing his team to titles with happiness. The closest might be San Antonio center Tim Duncan, who has never been a furious player. But Duncan has never looked like he is having the fun that Curry has, laughing as he launches shots from center court. His contentment defies every principle we hold sacred about superstars. Men of his stature are supposed to be angry. They demand perfection in in furious tones. Curry almost seems sad if everyone else doesn’t have the same exhilaration as him.
“Steph’s a pleaser,” says Fraser. “He wants to please people. It’s an incredibly redeeming quality.”
A few weeks ago Fraser, who works the most with Curry of any Warriors coaches, asked the MVP how many of the off court things he did – the charity appearances, the interviews, the favors for friends of friends of friends – were because he simply didn’t want to say ‘no.” Curry paused. “The fact you are thinking about it means that it exists,” Fraser said to him.
Curry shrugged off the conversation, as Fraser expected he would. And telling the story now, on the side of the Warriors practice court one recent afternoon, he laughs and shakes his head.
“How do your guys remain happy? We have guys like that,” Fraser says. “How do you not stay happy around a guy like Steph? We have good pieces that complement the whole. It’s a great place to start if you are going to build something really good.
Fraser has been around the NBA long enough to see how great players act. Most big stars come off jerks, he says. They are self-absorbed, which is a natural byproduct of their fame. He understands how this can happen. He won’t judge such behavior harshly. Narcissism is often the driver of athletic potency. Belittling others to conjure success is something most big stars on most champions do. They demand their team-mates are burning to win as much as them.
Even after an NBA title and two MVP awards Curry remains the cheerful player who giggles with team-mates, takes 100 shots after practice, and performs an elaborate home pre-game ritual that involves a number of Oracle Arena playing starring roles.
He is the first huge superstar who doesn’t mind being a huge superstar, but doesn’t want to act like one.
“That’s what’s so miraculous about it all,” Fraser says.
When Kerr first took over the Warriors in May of 2014, he and Fraser met for coffee nearly every day to plot the culture they wanted to create with their new team. They wanted to do this right. Eventually all the coaches went on a retreat to Napa to discuss their vision even more. They came back with a list of four values that has served as the base for what they have become: competition, mindfulness, compassion and joy.
“And when we hit all four of those things, we are not only very tough to beat, but we are very fun to watch – and very fun to coach and to be around,” assistant coach Luke Walton says.
The easy assumption is that Kerr is a copy of Phil Jackson, who coached him for five seasons with the Chicago Bull,s back when the Bulls owned the basketball universe. This is partially true. Kerr has clearly pulled from Jackson, who was known more for his unorthodox motivational tactics with players like Jordan and Bryant than his in-game coaching maneuvers. You can see evidence of Jackson in the way Kerr handles players, encouraging them to try things like yoga and meditation.
Sometimes Fraser will look at the team, sense they are tired, like he did one time on a road trip to Minneapolis, and say to Kerr: “Let’s do something Phil would do.” And sometimes when Fraser suggest this, Kerr will listen and do something like he did that day, in Minneapolis, when he canceled practice and took the Warriors bowling.
But Kerr has taken things from every coach and every team he was involved with as a player, from Lute Olson at Arizona to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. His approach is a confluence of ideas and experiences, both good and bad, that have been melded into a style he embraces.
“Steve has been able to balance our players,” Myers says. “You can still hate to lose, but that doesn’t have to be everything. It can’t be about hating to lose. Somewhere this team has found the joy of winning, too.”
Perhaps this has a lot to do with how Golden State survived the conference finals, after they looked certain to be done when Oklahoma City blew them out in Games 3 and 4. Curry was struggling, and the Warriors seemed lost, yet their confident rhetoric never wavered. Curry kept as each big game approached. Kerr repeatedly spoke of staying on the same path. There was strangely little worry on a team that had set a record for victories in a season and was suddenly facing their first adversity and didn’t seem to have the answers.
Then, when the Thunder did panic, throwing up wild shots in Game 6 and 7 collapses, the happy Warriors chugged merrily along, riding big games from players like Thompson and Andre Iguodala, showing that unlike Jordan and Bryant’s championship teams, their culture does not demand that Curry carry them.
“We don’t look at the instant result,” Fraser says. “Some teams look at the instant result, and if we stumble that doesn’t detract from the ultimate goal. I think that this is a unique team. The day-to-day doesn’t affect us. That process is our day and as long as the process is productive and has joy to it then we feel we have been successful.”
How many other teams could shrug at the loss of their head coach at the start of the season the way Golden State did when Kerr missed four months after back surgery? Instead of stumbling through the opening weeks, the Warriors won their first 24 games and were 39-4 when Kerr returned in late January. Who, too, could overcome the loss of a player like Curry for much of the playoff’s first two rounds and continue to win when he has still not been himself against the Thunder and Cavaliers?
Imagine the Bulls winning championships with a hobbled Jordan or the great Lakers teams of a few years back marching through the playoffs without Bryant. But the culture Kerr set up with the Warriors demands the next-man-up should be ready to thrive. Walton seamlessly replaced Kerr in the same easy way that Shaun Livingston and Iguodala picked up for the fallen Curry. Nothing changes, the winning keeps happening.
Much of that is Kerr’s ability to make every player and coach feel important to the success, regardless of their role. He didn’t start for much of his NBA career and can relate to the frustration of not playing as much as some players. “I have a lot of empathy for bench players having been one myself,” Kerr said after Game 2. Jackson was great at getting people to accept lesser places on clubs that are winning; Kerr has embraced that too.
“If you look at the history of our season, and seasons, you’ll see this guy didn’t play for three games, and then he comes in and has a big night for us or does something,” Fraser says. “I think once players understand they are not left out and they will be involved, they stay involved, and their minds become active, and their bodies become active.
“You don’t lose at the end of the bench, and that helps the joy, too, because if you are losing guys (then) that’s human nature to just not care. All of our guys care, and that’s a powerful thing.”
After the Warriors lost the first game of the Oklahoma City series, Myers was amused when he heard Curry say in a postgame press conference that he thought it would be fun to see how the team responded in Game 2. This was a jarring thing to come from a player of Curry’s level. Fun? Could anything be fun after a playoff loss?
Looking back, he chuckles.
“Who says that?” he asks.
He loves that Golden State’s best player doesn’t obsess over himself which means he doesn’t berate his teammates after a defeat. Instead he stays measured, trying not to seem frazzled when things don’t work well. He doesn’t rattle so the Warriors don’t rattle.
“Steph has a quiet confidence, and Steve does too,” Myers said. “Both lead with confidence and a sense of humility. You are under such great scrutiny as a player and a coach. It can be hard. But both these guys are very confident in their ability to lead without arrogance.”
Yes, there is rage on Warriors. Kerr, for instance, smashed his clipboard during a timeout the other night. And star forward Draymond Green has exploded so much at officials and opposing players, famously kicking the groin of Thunder center Steven Adams in the last series, that he is precariously close to a league suspension. But even his fire fits Golden State’s system, complementing Curry’s gentle approach when the team needs someone to scream.
“Steph gives us our culture, Draymond gives us our voice,” Fraser says.
Sometimes Fraser worries that he sounds “sappy” talking about Kerr and Curry and the rest of the Warriors. He imagines no one else can believe what it is like because it’s like nothing he has been around in his coaching life. It’s like nothing any of them have been around. It’s just what it has been for the last two seasons and maybe a for a little bit longer…
The happiest place in sports.
This article was written by Les Carpenter in Oakland, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th June 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010