The Santa Cruz Warriors arrive. A look at Santa Cruz’s first professional basketball team and the ripple effects their presence could have locally.
Fifteen basketball players from all over the nation are taking turns aggressively driving on the hoop in the West Field House at UC Santa Cruz, practicing lay-up drills—their shoes screech across the hardwood floor, their sweat glistens under the bright gymnasium lighting. It's the second practice of the day for the Santa Cruz Warriors Development League training camp on this November evening, and just 16 days shy of the league’s first game against the Reno Bighorns in Nevada. Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren wants to have his final team of 10 operating like a well-oiled machine.
The much-anticipated arrival of the Santa Cruz Warriors, the minor league affiliate team for the Oakland-based Golden State Warriors NBA team, marks the exciting introduction of professional sports to Santa Cruz; exciting not just because there will be a whole new draw for basketball fans, or because the sports industry may boost the local economy, but also for more abstract reasons—in the short term at least. At the forefront is the way a professional sport team's presence may be able to create unique opportunities for locals and further unite the community.
Basketball at the professional level, like most sports, requires tremendous commitment, determination and passion. By bringing the D-League platform to Santa Cruz, many hope that it will become a model for what it takes to successfully pursue a dream. Each of the Santa Cruz Warriors players interviewed for this article say that playing basketball is at the core of their life, and that their involvement with the sport has brought them guidance, hope and opportunity.
Enter Stefhon Hannah. The 27-year-old guard, with tattoos covering both arms, was candid with GT about basketball and how participating in the sport has affected his life. Hannah grew up in a rough part of Chicago characterized by crime, gangs and violence. His biological father was sent to prison when he was very young and the man he called dad—his mother's boyfriend—was killed when Hannah was just a kid. He ventured into basketball when he was 8 and recalls that throughout his youth, just about everything off the court was bad news.
“I had a great family growing up, and they pushed me away from the streets and told me to keep playing ball,” Hannah says. “My cousins, my mother—they tried to keep me going on the track.”
Playing basketball kept him out of trouble when he was young and, as a result, opened many doors for him. After high school, he landed a basketball scholarship to the University of Missouri. He played for the Iowa Energy D-League team in 2010, was the D-League's Defensive Player of the Year last year while with the Dakota Wizards—now the Santa Cruz Warriors—and went to the Golden State Warriors training camp last month.
Asked what he would be doing if he were not pursuing a career in basketball, he mentions his degree in business administration and that he would probably launch his own business—a job that would allow him to be his own boss. But then Hannah pauses to reflect on the question again.
“You asked me earlier what I would be doing,” he says. “You know, it might have been something else altogether. I probably wouldn't have gone to college. Basketball kept me in school.”
The sport opened doors for Hannah, and now, it promises to do the same for Santa Cruz.
For starters, several local organizations, including Grind Out Hunger (GOH), United Way of Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz Boys and Girls Club and local schools, have already formed partnerships with the Santa Cruz Warriors. Danny Keith, founder of GOH, a local hunger relief group, approached Team President Jim Weyermann early on with a proposal to partner up. The team now aims to raise $20,000 for the local organization to put toward meals for local kids going hungry. Grind Out Hunger will also have a seating section at every home game and sell tickets, with proceeds going to its cause.
Keith, who owned Santa Cruz Skate and Surf Shop on 41st Avenue for many years—he began his hunger fighting work there by collecting food donations—believes the team will put a lot of eyes on Santa Cruz.
“You have all these musicians coming out of Santa Cruz,” he says. “You have the Mavericks movie that just came out, the Coldwater Classic on the World Tour, so we're very much on the map right now. I think it will change the dynamic [here]. I think it's going to give kids a good model for pursuing their dreams.”
It may also encourage people who want to pursue careers in sports, whether it's football, baseball or basketball.
“It gives people one more opportunity to have exposure and intermingle,” Keith adds. “Any time you can get people close to the stars, it inspires hope and breeds potential, especially in young people. And I know it isn't always a positive for Santa Cruzans, thinking about more people coming from the outside in, but at the same time, we've already got The Boardwalk—it's been here for 120 years.”
Twenty-three-year-old Santa Cruz Warriors guard Cameron Jones, a player last year for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants D-League team, was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He helped to win two basketball championships at his high school and landed a scholarship to Northern Arizona University, where he finished his college basketball career with an all-time leading score record of 1,643 points. Last year, he went to the NBA's Miami Heat training camp and was named to the 2012 NBA D-League All-Rookie First Team.
“Basketball has pretty much taken me everywhere I've gone so far,” he says. “And hopefully it continues to.”
Jones describes the team as having a sense of responsibility to the community, saying the Santa Cruz Warriors can be more than just entertainment.
“It's our duty to help other kids—as role models,” he adds. “I think basketball can help kids realize what they need to be doing. I've had plenty of friends whose family lives were broken, and all they really have is basketball and their friends. It's their life, really. Basketball can be more than a sport. It's kind of a medicine.”
Taylor Griffin, another former Dakota Wizards player, attended the University of Oklahoma and played college basketball there for four years. His younger brother is Blake Griffin, who plays in the NBA for the Los Angeles Clippers. Griffin, 26, was drafted in 2009 by the Phoenix Suns NBA team and split the 2009/10 season with them and their D-League affiliate, the Iowa Energy.
Now he's with the Santa Cruz Warriors.
While growing up in Oklahoma, Griffin says there was no local pro-basketball team until the Oklahoma City Thunder, formerly the Seattle SuperSonics, relocated to his city in 2008. That was during his senior year in college. He says that now, when he goes back home to Oklahoma City, the community is wild for the team.
“People are crazy for them, especially the kids,” he says. “Kids want to be Thunder players. They want to work on their game and it gives them something to strive for. I think that should be a great goal for us—to be role models in the community and reach out. Maybe give kids who might not necessarily have direction in their lives a positive direction. Maybe keep them out of trouble.”
Griffin's father was a high school teacher and the head coach at the school he and his brother attended. They played on their dad's basketball team and Griffin says he was harder on the two of them than any other player, which he now recalls fondly.
He also says that his dad's work as a basketball coach had a profound impact on a lot of people.
“Sometimes, when I go back home, I'll run into guys who played basketball for my dad in the '80s or early '90s, and they'll thank me for everything my dad did for them,” he says. “They'll say, 'Your dad made a huge impact on my life and I don't know if I'd be in this place right now if it wasn't for him.'”
“I'm not a coach, I'm a player,” Griffin adds, “but I think that can still be a goal of mine—to reach out and try to help kids.”
BREAKING NEW GROUND
The ground where the Santa Cruz Warriors arena is being built, 140 Front St., has long been a part of Downtown Santa Cruz that some people believe could benefit from economic revitalization. City councilmembers like Don Lane believe the arena will do a great deal to jumpstart activity and business in the area. And Keisha Frost, director of community giving and marketing for United Way of Santa Cruz County, believes the activity at the arena on game nights will improve public safety in the area by improving lighting and bringing in more families.
“It will breathe life into that area and make it a great place to spend time,” she says. “They're trying to build a family oriented opportunity here and that will have a positive effect.”
Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley, who also served as chair for the city's Ad Hoc Blue Ribbon Committee on the Santa Cruz Warriors project, says that the Warriors deal is projected to bring the city approximately several hundred thousand dollars in new revenue annually, and that's a pretty conservative estimate. That's assuming the arena has 30 to 40 percent attendance on game nights, that those attending buy at least one beverage, half of those people go out to dinner and a quarter of them purchase something downtown.
“Those estimates are made assuming no other use in the facility during the year,” Keeley says. “We just took the home game dates. Once you consider other factors, like concerts, those numbers go up pretty quickly.”
But the United Way is also hoping to make links with the Warriors elsewhere, especially with local youth, assisting them with setting and pursuing goals. As a result, the organization hosted a family Meet 'N Greet with the team at Aptos High School on Nov. 24. A few days later, on Nov. 27, the Boys and Girls Club held an event for children to practice basketball drills with the Santa Cruz Warriors team at their own downtown hub on Center Street.
And then there is Santa Cruz High School Athletic Director Erik Redding. He purchased season tickets so that he can take his family to as many Santa Cruz Warriors games as possible.
“It's good for kids to see how a professional organization works,” he says. “The team will be coming to high schools for pep rallies. Kids can hear how they made it to the pros, hear about their struggles and going to college as an athlete.”
Redding also has a good feeling about the way the Warriors’ presence will affect the local economy during the usually slow winter season.
“It's a pivotal moment for the city because of the revenue it will bring,” he says, noting that many people who attend games will pay for parking downtown and then walk the main strip on their way to the arena. “They're either going to stop and have a drink at a bar, or they might stop and have dinner; maybe shop. It's all going to have a domino effect.”
Bringing the team to Santa Cruz is also creating job opportunities. While at the D-League draft on Nov. 2 at the Santa Cruz Warriors main office downtown, GT caught up with Walker Nodine, a 17-year-old senior and basketball player at Santa Cruz High School. He landed a job as a ball boy for the team. He's excited that he'll be able to watch games and learn techniques from the pros that he can use in his own game.
Nodine spoke at city council meetings early on in the Santa Cruz Warriors deal, advocating for the team to come to town, sharing how he thought it would do a lot to energize high school sports in Santa Cruz.
“Watching them play, I think we'll be able to learn a lot from them and bring back ideas to our game at Santa Cruz High,” he says. “I can't wait to be right there on the floor watching games and getting rebounds and just wiping the sweat off the floor.”
Construction on the local arena—dubbed Kaiser Permanente Arena—began in late September, but it wasn't until early November that the structure really began to take shape. Cranes hoisted 175-foot-long steel frames into a towering arc bordering the San Lorenzo River, adding a prominent new feature to the downtown skyline.
Jones says the new arena is symbolic for the team in an almost sacred way. He compared it to a shrine, emphasizing how much the structure means to the team. The presence of the massive basketball temple, along with meeting the team at the Grind Out Hunger headquarters on Nov. 12, has turned this project from an idea into a reality for the community.
“I think it will be good for the community to start something new,” says Lance Goulbourne, a New York City transplant. He went to training camp with the Golden State Warriors last month and will now play his first year as a pro. He says it's taking him time to get used to Santa Cruz.
The team is living in a hotel on Beach Street, right across from The Boardwalk, two players to a room. They typically go out to eat meals together at nearby restaurants and, naturally, draw some attention—Goulbourne is an athletic 6-foot-8 and weighs 230 pounds.
“We're all tall. People notice,” he says. “But everyone has been really welcoming.”
Griffin says that the training for the rapidly approaching season has been all-consuming. Part of his post-workout routine involves plunging into a cold tub of water to help with muscle recovery. After practices, he and a few other teammates venture down to the beach and wade into the frigid ocean instead.
“It's like nature's own ice bath,” he says.
Elsewhere, Hannah, Griffin and another teammate were staying at a Warriors-owned house near 41st Avenue until training camp finished, but they have since joined the others at their beachfront abode.
Hannah also says it's taking some time to adjusting to life in Santa Cruz.
“We're hanging on the beach,” he says. “I'm not used to that. I'm from Chicago.”
But Santa Cruz is still an unknown quantity, largely, he says, because it's the first time the city has had a professional sports team.
“Some people in the community are welcoming us with open arms, and some people just don't know what's going on,” Hannah points out. “It's different, but I'm glad to be a part of the growth, the start of something new. I'm hoping the fans come out. We want to get everyone on this wave.”
Some fans, like Dennis Baldwin, a Santa Cruz METRO bus driver, are already fired up for the season to begin. He says he's been on the edge of his seat since he first heard the D-League team might come to town. He bought himself season tickets, which range from $288 to $3,240 (“Hollywood” seating), and is eager to watch the first home game—and all the games after that.
He and his friends prefer to watch development league sports because the players bring a supercharged energy to the game and are still in the early stages of their careers, with lots to gain. “I think having the team here is going to give us more insight on who these guys are, how they develop and how they play basketball,” he says.
ADJUSTING TO THE CHANGE
Still, some people have been less enthusiastic about the entire project, pointing out traffic and parking concerns.
At about 1 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in the doorway of the Blue Lagoon, Josh de Liberte, who has worked in Downtown Santa Cruz for 20 years, says the choice of location for the stadium is a disaster. “I mean, if they're going to put a sports arena there, give it to The Derby Girls—something the community actually really likes,” he says. “Come on, it's B-League basketball. Who watches that?”
“It's D-league basketball,” his friend standing next to him corrects him. “D-League, B-league,” de Liberte says. “Whatever.”
What is D-league basketball all about, anyway?
The number of NBA basketball players who have spent time playing in the D-League is steadily rising, making it an increasingly more viable route to success. The entire D-League system was implemented in 2001 and was designed to create a direct path for players to the NBA.
Last season, about 30 percent of NBA players had experience playing in the D-League, says Development League President Dan Reed. Last year there were 43 call-ups to the NBA, and collectively, those 43 call-ups made $11 million just last year, he says.
Currently there are 16 D-League teams around the country, each acting as an affiliate for one or two NBA teams. While Reed emphasizes slow, sustainable growth, he says sometime down the line there could be 30 teams, making a one-to-one ratio of NBA teams to their D-League affiliates—a model similar to Major League Baseball teams and their minor league affiliates.
The D-League is also used to develop coaches, management and trainers, making the whole system a trial and conditioning operation. Sometimes NBA players move down to their D-League affiliate teams to work on certain skills and general conditioning.
A minor league affiliate “... makes it a lot easier for an NBA team to customize the development of a player, or a coach, or a trainer, to fit exactly with what they want to do at the NBA level,” Reed says. “We're the fastest way for a player to make the NBA. We're the most heavily scouted league in the world. [The players] are on NBA TV, their games are streamed live online and we're actively promoting them to NBA decision makers on a weekly basis to help them get that call-up.”
Jones says the D-League is the next highest form of basketball after the NBA.
“You don't make as much money as overseas players,” he says, “but you're also right on the NBA's doorstep.”
Santa Cruz Warriors General Manager Kirk Lacob, who was a main force in spearheading the move to Santa Cruz, says the operation has had the “pedal to the metal” from the beginning. The ultimate goal for Santa Cruz Warriors players, and for himself personally, he says, is to move them up to a better job, whether it's overseas or in the NBA.
Many of these players have already played overseas. Hannah, for example, has played in Lithuania, Poland, the Philippines and China, where he was making a better salary.
“Some people look down on the D-League—say things like, 'It's not the NBA,' but it's a direct opportunity,” Hannah says. “It shows the dedication and love we have for the game. It's not just about the money.”
And Lacob is quick to note that the entire project continues to hit milestones. Each one makes the Santa Cruz Warriors more of a reality—from that first event at the Crow’s Nest on June 12, when NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West talked about the D-League and Lacob unveiled the team's trident logo, to hosting local tryouts, and onward to the draft.
“Each step, it feels more and more real,” Lacob says. “It just makes us feel closer and closer to our goal, which has been getting the team here. But the ultimate, ultimate moment will be when we open those doors for the first time, the fans flood in, we have an absolute madhouse, and we win the game. And I'll be thinking: 'Pinch me.'”
To many, this may seem like a dream, but Hannah notes the importance of staying grounded in the moment and focusing on the tasks at hand. His short-term goal: come out of this Santa Cruz Warriors training camp and be the best team in the D-League. “We just need to work at losing zero games,” he says.
When Goulbourne was asked what difficulties, if any, he foresees for the team—players moving up to the NBA and such—he says, “what we have right now is what we have, and if it changes, then we'll have to adjust. We'll just take it one day at a time.”
In the meantime, many of these players have their eyes set on the NBA. According to nba.com, the average salary for NBA players is $5.15 million. But Hannah remains humbled.
“I get to play the game that I love and get paid for it,” he says. “We're not in the NBA, but some people will never get this opportunity in their life. So you have to take advantage of the D-League. You have to focus on where you're at, and stop focusing on where you want to be. Because you'll never get there unless you're focusing on the moment—right now.”
The Santa Cruz Warriors will play their first home game against the Bakersfield Jam on Sunday, Dec. 23. To learn more about the team, or to purchase tickets, contact 831-713-4393. Visit santacruzbasketball.com for more information.
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