Before Jeff Horan closed the hissing doors of his charter bus filled with basketball fans, Santa Cruz Warriors employees began throwing out shiny blue-and-gold, Mardi Gras-inspired beads to passengers. Even 62-year-old Horan got in on the action, wearing his new bling proudly as he drove fans to a development league game in Stockton on Friday, Jan. 25.
The Santa Cruz Warriors, the development league (now called G League) team for reigning back-to-back NBA champions the Golden State Warriors, were getting ready to take on the Stockton Kings, an affiliate of the Sacramento Kings.
“I’m definitely a Warriors fan,” Horan said proudly, referring to both the Santa Cruz and Golden State teams. “I mean, who isn’t? I drive a lot of pro teams—the Sharks and Washington Wizards—on this bus, but the Warriors are definitely my favorite. These trips are just plain fun.”
The Santa Cruz Warriors are clinging to the development league’s best record, while Golden State is widely favored to win another NBA championship. So the energy on the fan bus was palpable from the start—but it hit a whole new level when Santa Cruz Warriors President Chris Murphy climbed aboard carrying the team’s 2015-16 championship belt over his head.
Through snarling traffic, Santa Cruz basketball fanatics endured a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride that was made more lively by games of trivia and bingo. Many of the traveling fans were early converts—season ticket holders obsessed since the moment the original squad arrived in Santa Cruz in 2012—and experts on the club’s ever-changing roster, as well as who might get called up to the NBA.
Retired and in their late 60s, Gail and Robert Suhr have been to more Santa Cruz Warriors games than they can count. They chatted each other up on the trip back, dissecting the game and commenting on individual performances.
The Suhrs were sporting Warriors T-shirts from the team’s earliest days in Surf City. “We were so excited about having pro basketball in Santa Cruz,” Gail said. “We were like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go to all the games.’ We have great seats. It’s been such a great decision.”
This was the second time that the Suhrs travelled with their team to an away game. They told me that the Santa Cruz Warriors’ charity, leadership and generosity makes them want to support the team that much more. “The players go to schools and talk to kids who need role models, and do hundreds of hours volunteering and helping people,” Robert said.
Warriors games have become a family affair. Gail told me that her 37-year-old son Matt, who plays on a basketball team with the Special Olympics, is the biggest fan of them all. Matt, who was also on the trip, could hardly stop smiling or talking about the team.
He’s been able to get autographs and take pictures with all of his favorite athletes. “I get high fives from all the players,” he said. “I see my friends at all the games. I have a lot of fun and feel like I’m part of a community.”
Arriving to Stockton just in time for warm-ups, Sea Dub nation, as it’s sometimes known, wasted no time double-fisting $1 Bud Lights, buckets of popcorn and $2 hotdogs strategically balanced under arms. When their team came out for warm ups, the four-row block of Santa Cruz fans—who were sporting bright yellow “Road Warriors” T-shirts—erupted, sending popcorn flying and drinks splattering.
The game was tense. In the match’s final minute, the 40-plus diehard fans rose as one, filling the cavernous Stockton Arena with their unmistakable fear-inducing chant: “Warrrriors … Warrrriors.”
Despite a career night from guards Kendrick Nunn and Jacob Evans III, Santa Cruz fans watched their team fall just short in the final minutes, losing 105-104 to the resilient Kings. In the first half, the Kings went on a tear behind the arc, hitting half of their 18 three-point attempts. The Warriors kept it close until the final minute, when a three-point dagger from Kings guard Reggie Hearn with 53 seconds left gave Stockton the lead for good.
Even after the rare loss, Santa Cruz held a league-best record. The team got right back on track with a win Sunday over the South Bay Lakers in Santa Cruz during the Warriors’ first-ever Latinx Heritage Night. After the home game, Digital Nest’s Jacob Martinez led a discussion with Warriors forward Juan Toscano about race and being a role model.
On Friday night, the drive home was quiet—the travelers feeling the effects of either the roller coaster loss or the $1 brewskies. Or perhaps it was the $4 buckets of bottomless popcorn. Every few minutes, though, a fan would to chirp up to remind the others on the bus that “We’re still in first place!”
The Warriors play the Oklahoma City Blue, the league’s second best team, at Kaiser Permanente arena on Friday, Feb. 1. For tickets visit santacruz.gleague.nba.com, call 713-4400 or visit the team office at 903 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. To watch, visit live.fb.com.