Barnstorming: The Golden State Warriors and a shroud of invincibility

Dec 11, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates a three point shot during the first overtime of the Warriors 124-119 double overtime win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 11, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates a three point shot during the first overtime of the Warriors 124-119 double overtime win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

Most of my sports-playing life has been marked by helplessness. I was a three-year starter on my high school baseball team with six career hits–which speaks both to my personal inadequacies and my school’s desperate need for warm bodies to sustain the program. Through the quirky structures of New York state high school athletics our team made the playoffs all three seasons, despite a .500ish record, and we always found ourselves matched up against suburban high schools from outside our league. These schools inevitably destroyed us, often invoking arcane rules of mercy. Losing a baseball game by 20 runs doesn’t feel good exactly, but knowing that we were doomed before we even took the field softened the blow somehow.

The suburban schools always hosted our playoff games and they played on fields unlike anything we encountered during our regular season. They had outfield fences and infield dirt that was soft, ochre, and freshly raked. Their foul lines were new, clean, lilly white. Even the players themselves seemed to have stepped out of our television sets. The bodies were uniform–built for baseball, proportional with muscle in all the right places. The uniforms themselves all fit in the same way, stirrups pulled high, hat brims bent at identical angles. We, on the other hand, were a disaster, both functionally and aesthetically. Everyone on our team was a geometric outlier, absurdly tall, or short, or wide. We looked like a collection of randomly generated players from some video game. Nothing fit right and nothing about our uniforms matched, other than the color scheme and lettering. We were doomed and we knew it. So we showed up, took our cuts, and enjoyed playing cards on the bus ride home.

I imagine this is sort of what it feels like to play the Golden State Warriors right now.

The Warriors finally lost; dropping a game to the Milwaukee Bucks that was the worst jump-shooting performance by any team in 15 years, the seventh game of a seven-game road trip, the second night of a back-to-back, following a double overtime game, when Klay Thompson was hobbled with an ankle injury and Harrison Barnes wasn’t healthy enough to take the court. I don’t mean to take anything away from the Bucks, they beat the Warriors and deserve all the attention and momentum they’re likely to receive. But it’s not like they discovered Golden State’s secret weakness. As the Phoenix Suns prepare to take on the Warriors Wednesday night, watching game tape of Milwaukee’s effort isn’t going to provide many easy answers.

An aura is a powerful tool in sports. Those faceless suburban opponents from my high school baseball days projected one with uniforms and landscaping. They followed through by beating the snot out of us once the game started. The Warriors have one loss. But they also have 24 consecutive wins. They have shiny championship rings and synergy and beautiful systems and shooting and spacing and Stephen Curry. I don’t actually have to play these Warriors but, from my futon, this one loss has rubbed off none of their shine.

Aura is a mental construct and our brains work furiously to build it. Every season there is a very good team who stands a little higher than the rest. Probability always stands with the field, but the parts of our psyche that love story and obsess over pattern can’t be bothered to slow down enough for logic and reason to catch up. Someone always looks unbeatable. When I was growing up, it was Reggie Miller. His shooting and swagger meant that, as a Pacers fan, no deficit was ever insurmountable. No moment was ever too big for his chutzpah. Which was all ludicrous because Miller always lost the last game of the season and I watched nearly every single one of those. But again, emotion is much stronger in the moment. As a fan, I have been on the other side of that aura as well. Watching Michael Jordan dispatch the Utah Jazz. Or Kobe and Shaq set aside their differences to lay waste to the Sacramento Kings or the Portland Trail Blazers. I rooted against them but I never really thought that would be enough.

From where I sit right now, the Warriors look unbeatable, which might end up being the most special part of their legacy. You see (back to my awkward high school baseball analogy), the Warriors are not the crisp and uniform denizens of suburbia. They are the Bad News Bears here. Physically, they don’t look like dominating basketball players. Collectively, they don’t play the way dominating teams are supposed to play (just ask Charles Barkley). They are too short, or too thin, or too awkward, or too limited, or too slow. Their style is all variance and illusion, touch, skill and finesse. Any casting director worth their salt would take one look at this roster and slot them as the hapless underdogs, not the invincible super team. Their aura is not woven with tangible threads like size, strength, or will. It is born from the repetitive process of making the impossible seem mundane.

The Golden State Warriors are what happens after the sports movie ends. When the lessons learned are carried over into the next season and beyond. They don’t just look unbeatable, they look unbeatable in way that is so foreign we can’t help but stare.

However this season ends for Golden State, storybook ending or not, this is what I’ll remember most about this season. Their win streak and the helplessness they project onto the rest of the league. The way they roll up each night–a visual stew of templatic basketball flotsam–greatness disguised in bad goatees and wispy frames. The way they take their cuts, take the win, and then enjoy playing cards on the ride home.