Home Sports A Basketball Mecca That Just Needed a Name

A Basketball Mecca That Just Needed a Name

It was the unexpected gift that helped set the stage for one of the greatest runs in N.B.A. history.

On Oct. 20, 2006, the Golden State Warriors announced that Oracle, a Bay Area software behemoth, had purchased the naming rights to the team’s arena. It was the type of deal that is routinely mocked — let us never forget Houston’s Enron Field. But this one was different.

Saddled for 30 years with the moniker Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, the concrete-and-glass temple chugged along with a reputation for boisterous fans and a name so cumbersome that no one quite knew what to call it. An attempt to rebrand it as simply The Arena after an interior overhaul in 1997 took the venue’s name from overly specific to woefully generic, and a two-year period in which it was called the Oakland Arena was at best a mild improvement.

Enter Larry Ellison’s company, which gave the Warriors a modest 10-year deal to call the place the Oracle. It was a corporate name, not unlike the former Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego or Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena or the N.B.A.’s two — (2) — arenas named for American Airlines. But this one, somehow, was cool.

It was not Oracle Arena, at least not to anyone who went there. It was the Oracle, or just Oracle.

Suddenly a team mired in a seemingly endless stretch of basketball irrelevance had a name worthy of its arena, a building that somehow found itself as the longest-tenured venue in the N.B.A. Open two years before Madison Square Garden, and 24 before the league’s third-oldest venue, Target Center in Minneapolis, the Oracle was beloved despite sitting in an ocean-size parking lot in East Oakland. It was a sharp-dressed elder statesman whose fraternal twin, the Coliseum, became known as much for leaking sewage as for its M.L.B. and N.F.L. teams.

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Fans greeted the Golden State Warriors returning to the Bay Area after winning the 1975 N.B.A. championship.CreditThe Associated Press

The Warriors were the N.B.A.’s best regular season team in 1975-76, but they lost the Western Conference finals to the Phoenix Suns in a Game 7 in Oakland. They wouldn’t reach the conference finals again until 2015.CreditJohn Storey/Associated Press
The facade of the arena has remained largely unchanged since 1966, but a huge interior renovation in 1997 paved the way for it to eventually become the Oracle.CreditDigital First Media Group/The Mercury News, via Getty Images

The change to the Oracle came four years before Joe Lacob and Peter Guber purchased the Warriors from Chris Cohan and brought a Silicon Valley attitude to an East Bay team. But the deal with a tech giant was the disruption the team needed to start its transition from laughingstock to powerhouse.

Starting with the 2019-20 season, the Warriors will play across the Bay in San Francisco’s Chase Center, a gleaming cash register more suited to a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent. But it’s worth remembering, as Golden State prepares to face the Toronto Raptors in Thursday’s Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals — the last N.B.A. game at Oracle — that for the majority of the Warriors’ 47 seasons in Oakland, the building and its fans were far more impressive than the team on the court.

Of course, some of those die-hard fans were pushed to the side well in advance of the move to San Francisco. They were fans who rooted for the great teams, like Rick Barry’s 1975 N.B.A. champions, and the fun teams, like Run T.M.C. The fans kept coming, and kept cheering, even when the team was cartoonishly horrible.

They caught the tail end of Nate Thurmond’s brilliant tenure with the franchise, and they adored Chris Mullin, but they cheered just as loudly for Larry Smith and Adonal Foyle. And they promised they were laughing with Manute Bol and not at the lanky giant.

Those fans got their moment in the sun, at least briefly, with the We Believe team in 2007. A national audience took in the overwhelming noise of the arena — in its first season as the Oracle — and saw its crowd power the underdog Warriors to a first-round upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks.

In 2007, the Warriors unexpectedly made the playoffs and advanced to the second round. A national audience got to see just how loud the Oracle could be.CreditSara Wolfram/Getty Images

But that was also the beginning of the end of an era. Thanks to Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, liking the Warriors — the perpetually awful Warriors — had inexplicably become cool. And with Oakland surrounded by far-wealthier communities, it was only a matter of time before the die-hards were either priced out or confronted with the impossible decision of whether to hold onto their tickets when selling them could turn an outrageous profit. (A pair of floor seats for Thursday’s game sold for more than $100,000 on Tuesday.)

For the Oracle to end up with such a celebrated send-off is a departure from a lifetime in which it usually couldn’t catch a break. Built in 1966, the arena has been Golden State’s home for all but one season since the 1971-72 campaign. The Warriors had won a pair of titles in their Philadelphia days, but it took them until 1975 to win another. And in a move that continues to baffle people, Barry’s team played its home games in that finals at the Cow Palace in Daly City rather than at home in Oakland, because the Coliseum Arena was unavailable: The Ice Follies were in town. Golden State ended up clinching that series at the Washington Bullets’ Capital Centre.

In 1976 the Warriors came back even stronger, finishing as the top team in the N.B.A.’s regular season. But the fans in Oakland saw that promising season go up in smoke with a loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

And that’s when the dark times began. Over the next 38 seasons, the Warriors failed to make the playoffs 29 times, and in the nine seasons they did qualify they never made it out of the second round.

Baron Davis led a basketball resurgence for the Warriors in the mid-2000s, but the team’s newfound success helped lead to die-hard fans being priced out of the team’s arena.CreditJeff Chiu/Associated Press
Celebrities eventually flocked to Oracle — Jay-Z and Beyoncé were at Game 3 of this year’s finals — but E-40, above, an icon of the East Bay hip-hop scene, has been a sideline fixture for years.CreditNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
The 2017 finals saw the Warriors finally clinch a title in Oakland, but by then tickets to games at the venue had become outrageously expensive.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

In 2015, when the Warriors finally won another championship, Stephen Curry and the gang clinched at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. It wasn’t until 2017 that the Warriors, with a Game 5 win over the Cavaliers, won a title on their home court in Oakland.

In all, five of the franchise’s six championships were clinched outside Oakland. If the Warriors are to overcome what was once a three-games-to-one deficit against the Raptors in these finals, to win a third consecutive championship, they will have to do it on the road again.

The future of both Oracle and the Coliseum next door remains up in the air. The Raiders are moving to Las Vegas, the Warriors are shifting to San Francisco and the Athletics are trying to build a new stadium on Oakland’s waterfront. There has been talk of a housing development and of trying to use the Oracle and Coliseum land to benefit the surrounding community. But in an overlooked section of an overlooked city, it will fade from the national consciousness. One saving grace is that when they come to tear down the arena some day — and that day will probably come before too long — we will at least know what to call it.

It was the Oracle. And for five years, right at the end, it finally got to be the center of the basketball universe.

Many thought Game 4 of this year’s finals would be the last N.B.A. game at Oracle. A shocking Game 5 victory in Toronto brought the team back for one more night.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
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