Looking Forward and Back at Basketball and Canned Beans

Ready for the Raptors to swoop in. Photo by Lisa Black

When the Oracle calls you, you must respond. So I headed to my cousin’s place in San Francisco on May 8 to join her for Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals between the Golden State Warriors (yay!!) and the Houston Rockets (boo!!!). But first we had to live through the suspense of whether there’d even be a fifth game because the Warriors won the first two at home, and the sport-o-sphere was predicting a sweep. Until James Harden and his teammates won their home games and the series was tied for the battle I’d get to see. Already, the MVP-caliber players on both teams were bloodied (eyes), with dislocated joints (fingers) and bruised bones (tail).

My cousin and I were born into basketball-mad families. Her dad and his twin, my mom’s brothers, went undefeated throughout their high-school years in Brooklyn and played at Long Island University until World War II took them overseas, where they played some more. After Germany and Japan surrendered, the twins each played a year of pro ball. Being born in LA, I’m a Lakers fan first, Golden State second. But LA has sucked, and no soothsayer is needed to predict they will for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Bay Area team has risen into a dynasty.

After dispatching the Rockets and sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers, they have “Won the West” and are headed to the championships for a fifth year in a row. Only one other team has accomplished this feat. The Magic and Bird teams didn’t, neither did the Phil Jackson Lakers nor his Bulls.

But I didn’t know any of that when I flew north on game day, ate the best falafel sandwich of my life at Old Jerusalem Café on Valencia (secret ingredient: eggplant), then caught BART at 16th and Mission to Oakland, getting there nice and early. We disembarked at the Coliseum station and made our way through towering plywood tunnels covered in photos 10 times human size of the Core Four (Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson—who played high-school ball in OC and was a classmate of former Weekling Mary “Prankster” Carreon) and the super-superstar Kevin Durant (KD). But images of two-time league MVP Curry predominate. Oakland honors him at the top of its pantheon, even more so for adjusting his game to accommodate KD’s spectacular skills.

I wanted to stop for a pic, but my cousin pointed out that while the earthquake retrofit in progress was great, in the meantime, it was vulnerable to collapse in even a mild trembler.

We climbed out of the station and up onto a pedestrian bridge with a chainlink cover. Strewn along the ground were vendors grilling hotdogs on makeshift barbecues or hawking knockoff tees and booze. Once across, we had to circumnavigate the Oakland A’s stadium before going through tight security. Lastly, we climbed the Oracle’s mountain of exterior stairs, which are covered in glowing gold carpet and thoroughly stained. We are in the Town now—Oakland’s nickname since the 1850s and 1990s hip-hop.

DJ D Sharp created the soundtrack for finding our seats, where an XL “Strength in Numbers” Warriors tee awaited all. As soon as my head poked through, I saw KD taking warm-up shots, his length and strength immediately recognizable even from our seats high up in Club 200. Harden and his beard were doing the same in a jarring red. Gold was everywhere you looked in the arena, which was state-of-the-art in the 1990s. Since it has sold out for nearly 340 consecutive games and is notorious for loudness, I’d brought earplugs, but I never put them in. I joined the 20,000 fans on almost every chant and rhythmic handclap, every melodic “Warrrriorrrrs,” until I got the two notes right. Jubilation and uninhibited joy freely expressed. The only cheer I skipped was “REF YOU SUCK.”

The game had the arc of a play. It started with an even back-and-forth, as we figured out who’d take off or if the lead would bounce. Then excitement began to build, and we leapt to our feet with each three-pointer made. I couldn’t take my eyes off the court. There is no announcer telling you what’s happening or score within easy view. The fans watch the action intently with high basketball IQs. When a time out is called, I relax in my seat, pick up my $15 ale for a sip and seek out the score: Warriors are up by double-digits.

But that lead evaporated. At last, KD hit a fall-away jumper from a sweet spot we saw in his warm-up. I was sure he’d ignited a run and was headed to his 35-plus postseason average. But in the next second, he was limping. Stunned, we watched him head to the locker room. We barely breathed, but the Core Four dug in on defense and returned to their pre-KD style of play to prevail—with Curry affirming Oakland’s idolization.

We funneled out slowly, retracing our steps shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of content strangers. “Warrrriorrrs” would break out and be joined. At the chainlink bridge, we had to squish around a cooler. Inside, I saw a bottle of hard liquor and cans of Modelo floating in melted ice. I kidded my cousin, asking if she wanted a brew for the walk across the bridge. Without missing a beat, a guy held up a can for me and said, “You want one? We bought an extra.”

It was absolutely thrilling, from beginning to end.

As we rode through the dark tunnel under the bay, I wondered why theater couldn’t be more . . . euphoric. True, most performances I cherish unfold in intimate spaces where I’ve been spellbound or astonished. I wept in true Greek catharsis not long after my father’s death, when a character describing a renegade funeral rite set a tiny boat ablaze, a pyre for her dad. The Maverick Theater’s recent adaptation of 1933’s King Kong, which pushed a Saturday-afternoon-matinee button that allowed the audience to holler and recoil from the projected monster, merely grazed it.

Then it hits me. The intoxication of a playoff home game has come closest to my days back in Chicago, when I was watching Danny Thompson in his scathing DANNY AND HIS THINGS shows. (George Bush was a potato, Bill Clinton a sweet potato.) Polite yet utter mayhem so pants-wettingly funny you missed bits because the hilarity was out of control. He passed away just days ago, so the photos and memories have been flying on social media as freely as the canned beans did in his performances. RIP, Slotkins.

Earlier, at Oracle Arena, fire-blasts introduced the players, the cheering relentless on defense and offense no matter how big the deficit or lead. I joked with the person seated to my left to not throw our popcorn at the Houston fan wearing a Rockets jersey. “He’s just some guy,” I told him, and then we laughed.

Will that Oakland-born fan take BART into the City when the team leaves his Town for its new arena in San Francisco? Will the Bay Bridge logo on Warriors jerseys keep the fans linked and loud? Only the Oracle knows for sure.

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