Last Monday, a clump of commiserating sportswriters stood center court inside the Golden State Warriors’ practice gym. Less than 72 hours earlier, both the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants had been eliminated from the pennant race in the final weekend of the season. Sunday only compounded the sense of hopelessness in the Bay Area sports world; both the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers were whipped into the dirt by their opponents, a weekly ritual sure to be repeated until the season ends. Even hockey offered no relief. The players were recently locked out by the owners.
Meanwhile, the Warriors were hosting their annual media day, an event where reporters get to interview players who lob clichés about “high expectations,” “new opportunities,” and “reaching the playoffs,” which hasn’t happened to the Warriors in ten years, an NBA record. But the writers were in no mood to track down platitudes.
While Warriors’ players stood at the edges of the gym, available for interviews, KCBS reporter Joe Salvatore chatted up a few other reporters. His microphone and recorder were suspiciously absent. Salvatore was in the A’s locker room minutes after the team’s final loss, and he described a scene like that of a family finally relieved to learn that Dad’s bout with cancer was over. “They had to know it was coming,” he said. “They weren’t surprised, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s the problem. They didn’t have anyone to step up, and say, ‘Hey! This is getting serious! We gotta do something now.'”
“They need that one guy,” agreed Jeremy Kahn of Sports Radio Service. “That guy who will step up in the locker room.”
“They’re too laid-back,” Salvatore replied. “Nice guys, but too laid-back.”
Oakland Tribune columnist Art Spander entered the group to kind greetings from the other guys. Spander’s column the day before had begun: “It never will be any worse, any more depressing. They may play baseball for another hundred years, but there never will be an afternoon as awful for the Bay Area, for Northern California, for Oakland, for San Francisco.”
Someone asked Spander about the fate of the Giants. “Bonds,” he replied. “That’s all they got.”
Salvatore was asked if he knew firsthand whether A’s pitcher Mark Mulder was hurt, as fans had suspected. “The A’s will never admit it, but yeah, he’s hurt,” Salvatore said. “Guys saw him limping out of the trainer’s office this weekend.”
“Hell yeah, Mulder’s hurt,” Kahn added. “Physically. Psychologically. He’s hurt in a bad way, all over.”
Like the other reporters here, Kahn had shown up for the Warriors, but basketball seemed the furthest thing from his mind.
Warriors’ guard Jason Richardson stood in his new uniform and glowed in the optimism reserved for preseason. The NBA’s two-time Slam Dunk Champion admitted that in recent years he’d used media day to predict a playoff berth, even though, deep down, he suspected the team wouldn’t make it.
“I really mean it, now,” he said, with a grin that was difficult to disbelieve. “I know what I said in the past, but this time, I really think …” His voice trailed off. After all, he plays for the Warriors. “You never know what will happen once the season starts,” he said. “You could start the season and twist an ankle your second game and be out. You never know.”
One of the reporters asked Richardson if he was a sports fan outside of basketball, and if he’d watched the baseball games over the weekend “Oh, it was killing me, too,” he said, quickly. “I’m not an A’s fan or a Giants fan, or a Raiders fan or a Niners fan — I’m just a fan,” Richardson said. “But watching all of them go down like that? That was tough to watch.”
Another reporter asked, “Think the sports fans will turn to you to pick up the slack?”
“Yeah, Jas’, the hockey players are locked out,” a third reporter added. “Now it’s just you guys.”
“Yeah, you know,” Richardson offered, “our fans come out to support us no matter what. You see the same people out there all 82 games, and that’s great. They’ve been respecting us, so we gotta respect them.”
“How are you going to respect them?” a reporter asked.
“By getting to the playoffs.”
As Richardson answered questions, in the far corner of the gym his 22-year-old teammate Mickael Pietrus strutted in front of cameras with French flag draped around his shoulders. He was born in Guadeloupe and played for the French national team.
“Thees is real French flag,” Pietrus proclaimed in broken English. It was difficult to know if he was being serious or sarcastic. In fact, the flag was a flimsy replica, the kind found hanging inside mall food courts. The NBA has been marketing basketball as a worldwide sport, and the Warriors this year have five foreign-born players. While Andris Biedrins (Latvia) and Adonal Foyle (Grenadines) sheepishly held up their native flags for newspaper photographers, the wispy-framed Pietrus hammed it up as if he were at Paris Fashion Week.
After Pietrus finished with the media shutterbugs, he stepped onto a white backdrop prepared by the team’s own photographer. He first used the tricolor as a shawl, then wrapped it around his waist like a belt. He stuck a hip out for emphasis.
“Like thees?” he asked the team shooter, drawing laughs.
“Just like that,” the photographer replied.
Then Pietrus wrapped the flag around his head and moped as if he were a peasant woman. Finally, Pietrus got down on one knee and leveled a gaze at the lens, the flag draped around his head as if he were a boxer.
A few clicks later, Foyle, the team’s center, who stands six-foot-ten, joined Pietrus on the set, carrying a blue, yellow, and green flag. Still flirty, Pietrus waited until the photographer finished his official work, then began dry-humping Foyle from behind as the 265-pounder walked off set.
Foyle broke into a tippy-toe sprint, skittering away from Pietrus.
“You’re crazy,” Foyle shouted back to his teammate, who was now on the fringes of the set, scampering around like a chimp.
A few feet away, Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole was talking with radio commentator Larry Krueger and a few other scribes. Poole had been at the Coliseum over the weekend and was still agitated. In one hand, he carried his notebook, and with the other, he pulled back a finger for each pitcher he named: “If they don’t have Mulder, Zito, Hudson, that Moneyball stuff doesn’t exist. Moneyball is a crock.”
The group nodded, unwilling to disagree, at least on this day.
“Gimme some attitude on that team,” Krueger said.
“Like Bonds?” another reporter asked.
“No, someone who can get in someone’s face,” Krueger said. “Fire things up.”
“Miguel Tejada,” Poole said.
“That’s right,” Krueger agreed.
“Someone who cares so much about baseball,” Poole said. “Tejada cared. He wasn’t the guy to chew someone out or get in their face” — Poole puffed up his chest and towered over Krueger, then deflated just as quick — “but he lived and breathed baseball. He cared about it more than anything. Lived it, breathed it, ate it. You need someone on your team that cares that much.”
Krueger agreed, and the two men wondered if anyone on the most recent A’s had the cojones to assume such a role.
Poole shook his head.
Outside the gym, the Warriors served the press a spread of burritos and tacos. The reporters got in line and loaded their plates with rice and beans, took their seats and talked about the Giants.
“It’s all your fault,” Salvatore of KCBS said to a radio colleague. “You said the Astros were out of it.”
“Don’t blame it on me!”
“You said it.”
The reporters munched on tortilla chips, wiped their faces, and then headed back into the gym. Maybe a player would say something new?
But Salvatore was done for the day. He took a few steps back into the gym and waved goodbye. One colleague asked him, Wasn’t he going to do any interviews today? And by the way, where was his mic?
“Nah,” Salvatore said, holding up his Warriors’ press credential. “I only came by to pick this up.”