The D-league Warriors got to wear their white jerseys for the first time, winning the inaugural home opener over the Bakersfield Jam 93-88 but the real winners were the over 2,500 people on hand as well as the countless more locals who will get the chance in the coming weeks, months and years to experience, in person, a basketball game at the new landmark at the foot of Beach Hill in downtown Santa Cruz.
Despite flash flood warnings for the close by San Lorenzo River, a sold out crowd began lining up early to get their first look inside the Kaiser-Permanente Arena and their first taste of an unknown brand of basketball known as the NBA Developmental League. Neither the arena nor the on court product disappointed.
The brightly lit facility, with its sparkling blue and gold floor had the crowd smiling as soon as they walked in - and most were still smiling long after the game, particularly the youngsters who hung around after the final buzzer and were rewarded with an autograph session by the home team players.
The level of basketball is impressive. People whose opinions on the game I trust more than my own pointed out that essentially you’re watching NBA talent, if not todays stars likely tomorrows. Long time Golden State Warrior fans will be particularly pleased by getting game action previews of some current bench players who will likely soon become contributors for the parent team.
A look at the game stats bears out the comparative quality of play. Total scoring was just below an average NBA game, there were only a few more turnovers and there were more impressive dunks and blocked shots than are common at a college game. The speed and size of the players, is imposing, particularly since even the most distant seat is still very close to the action. You would need to have very, very good seats at an NBA arena to replicate the experience.
Beyond the basketball, the Warriors organization pulled out all the stops to make the crowd comfortable and entertained at every opportunity.
The “Warrior Girls” dance team was on hand and a big hit as was Mav’Ricks, the turtle costumed mascot who had a supporting cast of energetic Warrior employees as together they bounced around the arena flinging T-shirts, balls and other goodies to lucky recipients. BMX riders put on a crowd thrilling show as did a team of acrobatic “dunkers” and youth dance squads. Even an unexpected and unscripted performance by a young lady doing the “worm” during a second half timeout was well received by the fans at least.
One lucky couple was singled out in the early minutes of the contest with a seat upgrade to the cushy courtside seats that ring the floor. A video screen above the scoreboard featured replays, crowd shots and more and the wi/fi reception was (mostly) good.
Before the game began, team President Jim Weyermann went to center court to welcome everyone and thank the assembled dignitaries. He then asked all the kids in the crowd to stand up. He told them not to let anyone dissuade them from their dreams. "Just tell them you’re from Santa Cruz where we built an arena in 96 days." (Check out this time lapse of the construction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-Dhu-GNS04&feature=share&list=PL9E2A0FC109257E65 )
Even more impressive for many was that from concept to completion, just nine months passed. Santa Cruz City officials were taking credit for their part. Santa Cruz Mayor Hillary Bryant was resplendent in her black Warrior jacket and gracious in allowing former Mayor Don Lane to address the crowd. Lane, was a key proponent of the effort to get the arena and the team for the town. Rumor has it that another former Mayor was involved in the first “beer spill” at the facility.
The crowd appeared to be a healthy mix of all the Santa Cruz demographics, plenty of surfer/skaters, an ample assortment of high school age fans sporting their school sports apparel, young families with bright eyed youngsters and of course a collection of Santa Cruz movers, shakers, politicians and old timers. Perhaps none was more enthusiastic and visible than current County Treasurer, Fred Keeley, sporting a foam #1 fan finger and yelling encouragement to players from his seat along the endline, less than a week after being released from the hospital for treatment for a “minor stroke”.
American Idol star, James Durbin sang the national anthem and then took a seat in the stands with his wife and son.
There was also a small army of local media on hand to record the event for posterity and take home one of the free commemorative T-shirts that every paying customer received.
Boardwalk concessionaire Whitings Foods had a full supply of food and drink including all the usual fare plus pretzels, cotton candy and taffy (beer and wine at $7 was the top ticket item). Vendors were plentiful in the stands and included dedicated staff that collected the garbage and recyclables right at your seat. Ken Whiting was on hand inviting people to suggest menu items via an online app.
There were a few glitches, including getting everyone in - at one point a line stretched all the way to Laurel, before someone from the organization began directing the crowd to the three other lines available. And then the pyrotechnics that accompanied the player introductions left the court a little smokey for tip off and the first few minutes of action. Overall though, the event was a huge success and bodes well for the future of the franchise.
It may be too early to declare the venture a complete success but given the evidence, I’d say the team and the town seem very well suited. One hopeful sign was the bustling crowds along Pacific Avenue both before and after the game.
To purchase tickets for upcoming games: http://www.nba.com/dleague/santacruz/splash_idvtix.html
For the official inaugural game recap: http://www.nba.com/dleague/games/20121223/BAKSCW/gameinfo.html
For Shanna McCords account of opening night: http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_22252728/sc-fans-give-hearty-welcome-new-basketball-team