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Original Issue

GOLDEN AGE

DURING A RAPTUROUS, HISTORY-MAKING SEASON, THE WARRIORS MADE BELIEVERS OUT OF HARD-CORE FANS AND HOOPS NOVICES ALIKE—EVERYONE, IT SEEMS, EXCEPT THE TEAMS GUNNING FOR THE DUBS IN THE PLAYOFFS

ON SUNDAY NIGHT, as Steph Curry took the floor at the AT&T Center in San Antonio to chase history, Beth Keiser, a thousand miles away in Asheville, N.C., sat in a sports bar for one of the few times in her life. Beth is 78 years old, a retired English professor at Guilford College. Her husband taught religion; her son moved to Ghana and instructs locals in sustainable gardening. In a long, full life, she has rarely thought much about basketball.

This season, however, Beth became hooked on the Warriors when, by luck, she saw part of a game during a dinner party. She was riveted by Steph Curry, and began DVRing Golden State games to share with others. Soon enough she was staying up till 1:30, agonizing over outcomes. She emailed friends, including this reporter's mother, to ensure that they too were witnessing the grace of this unselfish team, the "contagious pleasure" they took in the game, as she puts it.

Normally sports must intrude upon the real world to capture the attention of people like Beth. Joe Paterno, Ray Rice, Jason Collins. But here we have a rare phenomenon: Sports atheists converted solely on account of the virtuosity of a star and his team.

"Light years ahead of probably every other team," said Warriors owner Joe Lacob recently, in a rare moment of hubris from an organization that prides itself on humility. But there's truth to his comment. Across the league, franchises have rushed to mimic the magic. But how can you replicate Steph? The warmups-turned-pay-per-view. The OKC half-court heave. The flitting and weaving and ankle breaking. He will win the MVP again; he could just as easily be Most Improved Player. He is on track to shoot 40/50/90 while setting records unlikely to be broken by anyone not named Steph Curry. All while appearing to live in the moment.

From the start this season felt different. Golden State opened with a record 24 straight wins, forcing many fans to care about the NBA a good two months early. In the process Draymond Green evolved from defensive maniac to all-around maniac. He played point-forward—and at times point-center—becoming the first player in NBA history to finish a season with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocks. He leads the league in plus-minus—not to mention in flexing and bellowing "AND ONNNE!" after every attempt. He is not, we now know, a robot.

The only team to have the Warriors' number, strangely enough, was the Lakers, who beat Golden State twice. O.K., so the first time was in an exhibition game—the Warriors actually had a losing record in preseason—and the second came when the team played at noon on a Sunday, after Steph chose to see a midnight showing of Deadpool the previous evening. Some of his teammates headed off on less-cinematic adventures, leading media folks to note that of all the assumptions in the league, not one is more assured than Los Angeles on a Saturday night remains undefeated.

As the season wore on, and the wins piled up, every Warriors loss became reason for concern. They were never allowed to have a bad day. The players dissected any stumble. Ah, that game against Detroit. Such is the price of chasing perfection.

Gradually all other NBA story lines receded. Kobe's final season stumbled along, a distant hum in the background. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns convincingly impersonated Tim Duncan, but few paid much mind. Russell Westbrook averaged a near triple double and may not receive a single MVP vote. Instead the Warriors became a black hole, sucking up all our attention. In one week The New York Times Magazine put them on the cover, only to see ESPN The Magazine devote its entire issue to the team. (This is SI's second cover story in the past two months.) Then again, how much do you remember about the 1995--96 season, outside of the Bulls' traveling circus? Our hearts go out to that campaign's ignored stories—Damon Stoudamire's Rookie of the Year win, the Kings' surprise playoff appearance—and now, another season's worth of moments is lost to time.

Perhaps in time we'll also forget that the Warriors made it to midseason without their head coach. For Steve Kerr, off-season back surgery led to a second surgery which led to debilitating headaches. Kerr, as optimistic a man as you'll meet in sports, in what should have been one of the best times of his life, instead went to what he says was a dark place. Slowly the pain eased. Finally he returned to the bench, after Luke Walton led the team to a 39--4 record and ensured an off-season full of job offers (a striking result considering many wondered, before the season, if the team could survive the loss of last year's top assistant, Alvin Gentry, to the Pelicans).

As the world pressed in, the Warriors held their ground. Danielle Steel visited practice. Draymond Green appeared at a local Peet's to serve coffee, only to cause a craze, the line stretching two blocks hours before his arrival. Occasionally the wave crashed too hard. A railing broke in Utah as fans tried to reach Curry for autographs. In Toronto, during All-Star weekend, Curry's security guy, Ralph Walker, a former Oakland police officer, had to lead Steph on a dead sprint through a department store, running low like back in the days of a house raid, to escape a mob of fans. (Recently a friend of this reporter, who lives in Berkeley, became excited because his young daughter managed "eye contact" with Ayesha Curry at an event.)

In the final weeks seemingly everyone weighed in on the team. They should rest their stars! Prepare for the playoffs. Screw that, go for the record. Meanwhile, NBA alums, including Oscar Robertson and an assured Scottie Pippen, lectured us on how, back in the day, this Warriors team would have gotten absolutely smoked. Finally center Andrew Bogut, a caustic Australian, responded on Twitter. "My under 14 team in Melbourne Australia would have beat these @warriors 109-99," Bogut wrote. "Fat Jimmy would have locked down @StephenCurry30 !!!!"

How do you deal with the weight of history? Kerr brought in guest speakers, including the author Michael Lewis, who noted how important it is to have people around you who can help you stay grounded. GM Bob Myers read books at night when he couldn't sleep, then passed them on to coaches, firing through The Boys in the Boat before giving it to Ron Adams. Myers knew he was supposed to be elated at the team's success but says it only made him more anxious. His wife, Kristen, says that when the Warriors hosted the Spurs last Thursday, with 70 wins on the line, it was the most nervous she'd seen her husband in a long time. Hoping to lighten the mood, she suggested during the game that they go on the Dance Cam together. Bob did not laugh.

The Warriors won that game, just as they won two nights later in Memphis after being down 10 in the fourth quarter, and just as they won 92--86 in San Antonio on Sunday in a game that Kerr later compared, in a quiet moment, with a "playoff war." The win tied the Bulls for 72 wins (their shot at 73 came in the season finale at home against the Grizzlies three days later, after this issue closed) and spoiled San Antonio's hopes of an undefeated home record. It also cemented Curry's competitive legend—he scored 37 points, many of them in absurd fashion—while reinforcing what we already know about the team as it heads into the postseason. Namely: As go Curry and Green, so go the Warriors; offensive magic aside, the team wins when it plays D and limits turnovers; and don't ever fail to contest a Curry shot, even when it's from 60-odd feet (the distance from which Curry banked one in at the end of the third quarter against the Spurs, only to have the basket waved off).

Afterward Curry clutched the ball, refusing to let go of the memento, or the feeling. This magic season, and the record, was, he pointed out, "an opportunity that may never come again." Klay Thompson used the word "surreal." Kerr tried to put into perspective what it's like to play for, and then coach, the two best teams in NBA history. Meanwhile, Green, wearing flip-flops, sweat still on his forehead, made one thing clear. "It's an accomplishment," he said of the win. "THE accomplishment is 73."

By the time you read this, we'll know which it is: an or the. For new converts like Keiser, however, this isn't about wins, or stats or accomplishments. Rather, she says she watches the Warriors for the simplest of reasons: joy. Theirs at playing the game; hers in watching them do it.

AS THE WINS PILED UP, EVERY WARRIORS LOSS BECAME REASON FOR CONCERN. THEY WERE NEVER ALLOWED A BAD DAY.

A FRIEND BECAME EXCITED BECAUSE HIS DAUGHTER MANAGED "EYE CONTACT" WITH AYESHA CURRY.

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Photograph by David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated

BEARING DOWN Even a struggling Curry couldn't derail the Warriors, who won their 71st last Saturday against the Grizzlies despite their star going 7 for 22 from the floor, his fifth-worst shooting performance of the season.

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GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

WHO'S THE BOSS? Well, it didn't matter. Thompson (top) and his teammates thrived from the start under Walton (above, left) and didn't miss a beat when Kerr (above, right) returned to the bench in January.

TWO PHOTOS

GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

[See caption above]

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GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

SPLASH AND THRASH The O provided the highlights, but the Warriors were able to chase 73 because of suffocating D from the likes of Thompson (above, left).

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GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

[See caption above]