SANTA CRUZ – It swept the land like a plague, indiscriminant of its victims.
Soon a quirky beach town and its surrounding populace caught an epidemic for D-League basketball. (Road teams beware.)
Today, a cure hasn’t been found, and the success of the Santa Cruz Warriors is making symptoms worse. Back-to-back D-League Finals appearances and a 61-39 regular season record the past two years has local residents in a frenzy.
Prior to 2012, when the team played in Bismarck, North Dakota as the Dakota Wizards, the club carved a 55.3 D-League winning percentage (it previously competed in two independent leagues) and took home the championship trophy in 2006. The Wizards’ success developing NBA contributors like DeMarre Carroll for the Memphis Grizzlies and other parent clubs prompted the Golden State Warriors to purchase the franchise in summer 2011. The team was renamed and relocated a year later, and the rest was gravy.
“The fans here are the best in the D-League. When you walk around in Santa Cruz, you see people wearing their gear, you see people coming to our events, you see an autograph line after games which is typically pretty long, and people want to talk to these players,” public relations manager Matt de Nesnera told Sports Out West before the playoffs.
“There’s a sense of ownership in Santa Cruz, that this is their team, and when (players) get to that next level, like Hilton Armstrong, Dewayne Dedmon and Seth Curry all have this year, they get to say, ‘That started in Santa Cruz, and I was a part of that.’”
Expected sellout crowds at Kaiser Permanente Arena (2,505 fan capacity) have gone a long way to help the Warriors, who were led by the star backcourt tandem of Curry and Cameron Jones. Jones has been the fixture while Curry spent time in the NBA, which raises questions how the team is successful with so many unexpected lineup changes. First-year head coach Casey Hill credited the assembly of a level-headed roster.
“It’s one of those things that really depends on the personality of your players, and how they manage it,” he noted. “The way we manage it as a staff is decent. We acknowledge when guys get called up, (and) it’s a great thing. That’s why we’re here. But for the most part, it really depends on the locker room. We got a good group of guys.”
Those good soldiers include veteran Maurice Baker and former first round picks Nemanja Nedovic and Joe Alexander. The players live in Santa Cruz and have embraced its isolated beauty and peaceful atmosphere.
“Our players are in the community pretty much every day,” added de Nesnera. “They have assimilated well in Santa Cruz, and they bike around town. Any given day you’ll see a member of the Santa Cruz Warriors biking down to get dinner at Kianti’s on Pacific Avenue, you’ll see them hanging out at the Boardwalk and the beach.”
“With the team, we do so many events in the community, (like) our Read To Achieve program in the Santa Cruz City School District. Over two years, we’ve encouraged students to read nearly a billion words at seven elementary and middle schools. They’re out working with our local charity partner, Grind Out Hunger. We have some designated ‘Hunger Warriors’ who help to grind out hunger and raise awareness on childhood hunger. So the list goes on and on. They see the fan support, and they want to give back every possible way.”
The Warriors boast a fan base whose enthusiasm rivals a few NBA cities, but their national popularity lags mostly due to the stigma of being a minor league squad. All D-League contests are broadcasted on Youtube, yet traffic is slow, so how could one market the world’s best kept secret?
“If (you) enjoy watching the intricacies of the game, the D-League serves up a completely different menu of basketball,” suggested coach Hill. “One night, we went and played the Los Angeles D-Fenders. They had four offensive rebounds the whole game. They ended up beating us, because they killed us from the 3-point line, and we missed layups! You don’t see that in the NBA.”
Hustle, bold experimentation and warehouse arenas are a few more things you don’t see in the association. No one who attends a D-League Warriors game is immune to the excitement, so skip the vaccination and let nature take its course. Santa Cruz is ground zero.
Photo Credit: Getty Images