You can still buy Chris Webber's jersey at Golden State Warrior home games, and it the thought of contributing honest U.S. currency to an organization as befuddled as the Warriors weren't so repulsive, that blue-and-gold shirt with the number 4 might be an attractive purchase. Right now I can think of at least 15,025 fans who would give the shirts off their backs to have Webber back in Oakland.
Warrior fans, only four months removed from dreams of an NBA title, are still trying to figure out how they got taken for suckers. How were they left with no Webber, no Don Nelson and no excitement? Webber, traded to Washington on Nov. 17, and Nelson, forced out as Golden State's coach and general manager last week, were the obvious scapegoats, but the Warriors' naive new owner, 45-year-old Christopher Cohan, is the guy who deserves the bulk of the blame. Golden State's demise has played out like a sick tragicomedy, and if you're looking for a catchy title, Cohan the Barbarian will do.
Until he bought out fellow Warrior owners Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane in October, Cohan's primary business was cable TV. And by exacerbating a silly feud between Nelson and Webber, Cohan immediately played Charles Keating to the Bay Area's basketball assets. Those of us who live in Oakland are particularly devastated because the hometown Warriors are one of the few ways for our city to gain positive publicity. In often-brutalized Oakland, any chance to discuss driving, shooting and scoring without listing suspects is a real image booster.
Now, after just four months of Cohan's stewardship, the only pressing question about the Warriors is whether they will replace the L.A. Clippers as the NBA's most inept team. "Cohan doesn't know what he's doing," Webber said in December, after Cohan overpaid—reportedly $139 million, or about 50% over market value—for his plaything. "He's a kid with a lot of money. He doesn't know what he's getting into."
For starters, Cohan handled Webber's contract negotiations in October the way former San Francisco 49er running back Wendell Tyler used to handle a football. During contract talks with Webber, Cohan came to believe that the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year and Nelson could not coexist. Not only did Cohan make this decision without calling the two parties together—Nelson and Webber hadn't spoken to each other since July—but he also lamely concluded that the Warriors would be a better team without their marquee player than without their coach. So Cohan threw his support behind Nelson and, having lost all leverage in the marketplace, traded Webber to the Bullets for forward Tom Gugliotta and three draft picks. At this point Gugliotta looks like Ernie Broglio to Webber's Lou Brock, only Broglio probably went to the hoop with more authority.
Last Saturday the Warriors gave up on Gugliotta and traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves for rookie Donyell Marshall, ending the glorious Googs Era. But the awkward Gugliotta wasn't the only reason that, as of Sunday, Golden State had gone 15-34 since Webber's departure. Virtually every Warrior has been injured, disgruntled or both. For the third straight year Chris Mullin's body is a mess, and it's questionable whether he will ever play at the All-Star level again. On Feb. 15 Mullin, who has missed all but two games this season because of injuries, got out of bed, fainted and suffered a concussion. He ended up in the hospital, and the 15,025 listless fans who watched the Warriors lose to the Boston Celtics that night shared his headache.
By all accounts Cohan is a well-meaning guy, and he should be commended for finally cutting his losses with Nelson. But Cohan has the public relations savvy of Prince Charles. At the recent All-Star Game in Phoenix, in the midst of a weekend in which he was finalizing the buyout of Nelson's contract, Cohan recoiled in horror when he saw a couple of Bay Area reporters heading toward his seat. Cohan grabbed his wife and made a mad dash through the arena, careening into fans, knocking over drinks and turning around nervously to keep track of his pursuers. "It was like a scene from The Fugitive," says one of the writers involved, Matt Steinmetz of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Cohan escaped by leaving his wife behind, dashing up a flight of stairs and entering a luxury box.
When he resurfaced the next day at a press conference to announce Nelson's departure, Cohan unwittingly played the role of the comic. After promoting assistant coach Bob Lanier into Nelson's coaching job on an interim basis, Cohan said he was basing his search for a new general manager on discussions "with my NBA contacts." Does that mean Ahmad Rashad will be on the selection committee? Cohan, who did not officially assume full control of the Warriors until January, then noted that he had been an owner for only 25 days. "Things have spun out of control in some areas," he said. "It looks pretty bad, but I just started. We're turning the page on a new chapter."
Here in Oakland, city of dilapidated dreams, we're wondering if that's a promise or a threat.