The Golden State Warriors didn't start thinking about putting Matt Barnes back in one of their uniforms until Kevin Durant hyperextended his knee last month. But Barnes had been thinking about it ever since, well, he took it off 10 years ago.
That's understandable when your NBA persona, your career and your deepest friendships were forged wearing it.
"I always wanted to come back here and be a Warrior," he says. "Always. No matter where I was. I want to be a part of this."
"This" is the fulfillment of what he expected to achieve the first time here: winning a championship for the team's Bay Area fans. The images from that team are both unmistakable and unforgettable. A sea of yellow "We Believe" T-shirts and placards. A frustrated MVP, Dirk Nowitzki, towering over, yet incapacitated by, a leering Stephen Jackson stuck to his chest. And, of course, Baron Davis, in full flight, crushing a dunk over a splayed-arm Andrei Kirilenko.
The on-the-fly squad Golden State assembled in the spring of 2007 vaulted, in the span of three months, from lottery-bound to the second round of the playoffs after an epic upset of the No. 1-seeded Dallas Mavericks, who had won an NBA-leading 67 games, 25 more than the Warriors.
Cinderella teams are the stuff of the NCAA tourney, but if there ever were one in the NBA, the We Believe team was it.
BORN IN SANTA CLARA and having spent most of his formative years either in the Bay Area or Sacramento, Barnes grew up well aware of the franchise's dogged embrace of futility, at one point owning the league's longest streak of seasons without a playoff appearance, 12. He also knew how fervently Warriors fans clung to the idea that one day their relentless support would be rewarded.
Barnes has never forgotten what it felt like, 10 years ago, to be part of the 2006-07 squad, dubbed the "We Believe" team in homage to their fans' relentless faith. "It was a magical season," he says. "We only went to the second round, but we captured everyone's imagination and brought the spirit back to this city."
Barnes speaks with equal parts affection and wistfulness about the "We Believe" team. Affection for the bond created by that group within weeks. Wistfulness that they weren't able to be the first team to bring a title to the Warriors' long-suffering fans.
"My favorite team, hands down," says Barnes, who subsequently made stops in Phoenix, Orlando, Los Angeles (with both the Lakers and Clippers), Memphis and Sacramento. "The brotherhood was just unmatched. We were a bunch of Draymond Greens back then, as far as our attitudes. We had five of us out there with that same mentality, and that's what made it so much fun."
His tone is one of almost hushed reverence, though, when he talks about the current Warriors.
"I still don't feel as if I can say 'we' because I don't think I've earned the respect to say 'we,'" he says. "I just want to find my spots and find my way."
In that regard, Barnes' situation is not all that different from his first turn with the Warriors. After being drafted in the second round in 2002 by Memphis, he shuttled among six teams in his first three seasons.
Barnes was an All-American wide receiver in high school, and his agent began lining up tryouts with NFL teams, thinking it might be time to change sports. Then UCLA teammate Baron Davis invited him down from his home in Sacramento to play pickup at the Warriors practice facility.
He caught the eye of then-Warriors coach Don Nelson, who invited him to training camp despite already having a full roster of guaranteed contracts. Barnes' willingness, at 6'7" and 225 pounds, to defend guards and big men alike won over the small-ball-minded Nelson.
"I beat two guaranteed guys out," Barnes says. "Slowly but surely grinded my way from 12th man to sixth man to starting in the playoffs. Crazy.
"My flame was burning wild then because I still had so much to prove still. Every game was an audition not just to help my team but for the rest of the league. I knew I didn't want to find a real job, so to speak."
His timing was perfect because the Warriors had just regained their appetite for fiery personalities. Acquiring Davis from the New Orleans Hornets in February 2005 was an indication the Warriors were tired enough of losing to ease their unspoken mandate of building around only trouble-free stars.
That mandate had been inspired by the December 1997 incident in practice in which the team's three-time All-Star, Latrell Sprewell, choked head coach P.J. Carlesimo and ultimately received a 68-game suspension by the team before he was eventually traded to the Knicks.
Davis acknowledged his disagreements with Hornets GM Allan Bristow prompted his trade to the Warriors and created a shadow over him as a leader.
"All I really wanted was to hoop," he says. "I didn't want to talk to management or ownership about stupid s--t. I didn't want to talk about players. I didn't want the responsibility of guys having to put their hands over their hearts for the national anthem. I didn't want to be part of none of that. I just wanted to do my job. So I had that on me from New Orleans. New Orleans was like, 'Watch out for him.'"
Almost a year-and-a-half later, then-Warriors VP of basketball operations Chris Mullin replaced mild-mannered head coach Mike Montgomery with Don Nelson, whose previous stint with the Warriors saw him clash with rookie forward Chris Webber, a battle so toxic neither one of them survived.
As if that weren't enough, Mullin then went after Ron Artest, aka Metta World Peace. Artest/Peace was still in the throes of living down his central role in the infamous "Malice in the Palace," a brawl involving players and fans alike at a November 2004 game in the Palace of Auburn Hills between the Pacers and Pistons.
"Yeah, we had good guys, but we were getting our asses beat," says Mullin, now the head coach at his alma mater, St. John's. "F--k good guys, we want to win."
The Kings outbid the Warriors for Artest by giving the Pacers sharpshooting small forward Peja Stojakovic, but the conversation between Mullin and Pacers GM Donnie Walsh eventually led to the deal that completed the Warriors' makeover—Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell coming to Golden State for Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, Keith McLeod and Ike Diogu.
"It was so unexpected," Harrington says. "I didn't really know what to think. All anyone really knew about Golden State was that they were losing all the time."
The post-brawl Pacers had the same mindset as the post-Spree/P.J. Warriors.
"They were looking at basically changing their whole team," Mullin says. "Before [the Malice in the Palace] happened, they might've won the championship that year. They wouldn't have moved any of those guys if that hadn't happened.
"We were at the other end of the spectrum, trying to build through the draft and go a little slower. They went with, 'Look, we have a mess here, we have to go the other way, get some solid guys and settle things down a little bit.' When we traded for Baron, that expedited everything. So we almost flipped scripts."
THE WARRIORS DIDN'T EXACTLY take off after Jackson and Harrington—the key additions—came aboard. They were 19-20 and one game out of the last playoff spot when they made the trade in mid-January.
Davis would then miss most of February after surgery to reduce knee soreness. Jason Richardson, the Warriors' dynamic shooting guard, missed the first seven weeks of 2007 after he broke his hand chasing a loose ball and being inadvertently kicked by teammate Mickael Pietrus. After a one-point loss on the road in Washington, the Warriors had slid to 12th in the West and nine games under .500 by early March.
"BD was our leader and competitive head of the snake," Harrington explains when asked why the group struggled initially. "Obviously we weren't going to be the same without him."
Mullin and former "Run TMC" teammate Mitch Richmond, serving as Mullin's special assistant, flew to L.A., where Davis had been recovering. GM Rod Higgins flew in a different direction, to Washington, D.C., to check on Nelson.
Having sat idle and unwanted for a season after being bounced by the Mavericks both as head coach and GM after a nasty feud with owner Mark Cuban, Nelson was eager both to prove he could still coach and to earn an extension on a contract with a year left on it. He finally had the kind of personnel suited to play his small-ball style, yet they were moving steadily in the wrong direction in the standings.
"I sent Rod to New York to talk [Nelly] off the ledge," Mullin recalls. "He was getting frustrated. Mitch and I spent the day with Baron in L.A. We said, 'You're moving well, you need to go play. Let's go.' So Baron met the team in Detroit, Rod stabilized Nelly a bit, and they won that night in Detroit."
Did they ever. The Pistons were in the midst of six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond. They entered that game with the best record and stingiest defense in the Eastern Conference, allowing 92 points per game. The Warriors, finally whole, ended a six-game losing streak by thrashing them 111-93 on their home floor.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Richardson says. "We get on the airplane and we're like, 'Man, that felt good, we're at full strength.' And I think it was Matt who said, 'Hey, we got a shot to make the playoffs.' We're all looking at each other and we were like, 'Yeah, we do.' I think we all had a drink in our hands, and it was a long flight home, and we all had a cheer for making the playoffs. Like, 'We're going to do this.'"
Much like the Warriors who wound up winning the title in 2015, the '07 squad found solidarity in that they were all rejects of sorts.
"I liked to call us all delinquents," Richardson says. "Jack had his situation in Indiana. Everybody thought Al was done. Everybody thought I got numbers on a bad team. Everybody thought Baron was done. Matt Barnes was a journeyman. Our personalities meshed together. We all respected each other. We all had each other's backs."
Davis had been serving as a bearded Tony Robbins from the time he arrived in the Bay Area. As he and Richardson recovered from their respective injuries over the All-Star break, he promised that he'd get Richardson his first taste of the playoffs. He also worked on pumping up 20-year-old forward/center Andris Biedrins.
"He made me that good," Biedrins says. "He really trusted me and threw me all those crazy passes only he could throw."
But when Jackson and Harrington arrived, Davis had reinforcements.
"Our team had no chemistry before they came," Davis says. "I was trying to keep everybody's spirits up because they were used to losing. When Jack and Al came, they allowed everybody just to be themselves.
"They were loud and silly. They even allowed me to have fun. Once we got those guys, I was, like, we got a chance, dude. We went to the movies, to dinner; dudes were coming out of their hotel rooms talking to each other. So for the first time our team was hanging out."
Assistant coach Larry Riley saw it as well.
"I think Mike Dunleavy was one heck of an NBA player," he says. "It wasn't about their playing ability as much as it was the acquisition of an attitude. Stephen Jackson epitomized the attitude. We didn't have strong leadership. Baron did the best he could, and he was the team leader. But when Stephen Jackson got there, now we've got two guys that are not afraid of anything. They embraced everything that came at them. Most of the team kind of rose up with them."
Both on and off the court.
"I think that's what made our on-the-court chemistry grow faster than it should have," says Barnes, who would give car-less rookie Kelenna Azubuike rides to and from the airport to make the team flights.
"With all due respect to the game, we burned it at both ends. But we were always together as a group, whether we were going out to dinner or out to a club or going to Jack's house to watch film. It was always six, seven, eight, nine of us. There was always a core, so no matter what we did, it was always a group of us doing it. And we knew whenever it was time to play, it was time to play. But we had fun off the court as well."
Nelson had most of the same traits. He wasn't afraid to scream and shout in a game or enjoy a late night on the town.
"I don't think any coach other than Don Nelson could've coached that team," Richardson says. "He had our personality, we had his. We tried to bully-ball guys; we talked junk and he loved it. He fed off of that, and we fed off of him when he got going."
That discounted junkyard-dog persona fit Oakland and its beaten-down-yet-resilient fanbase. The joke at that time in the Bay Area was, "You can always pick out the Warriors fan at a party—he's just pure scar tissue."
PAUL WONG WAS NOT on the plane home from Detroit, but somehow the Alameda-based restaurateur and Warriors season ticket holder saw something special in that win over the Pistons as well. He arrived at the Warriors' next home game with a homemade "We Believe" sign, flashing it as Golden State raced past the Nuggets to a 14-point win.
Wong made more signs, then T-shirts, and passed them out for free. Slowly, they began appearing throughout Oracle Arena as the Warriors won 16 of their last 21 games, including a 29-point drubbing of the Mavericks in the second-to-last game of the season. Dallas coach Avery Johnson decided to rest four of his five starters for that game, including Nowitzki.
"That gave us confidence because it meant they were scared to play us," Richardson says. "We knew if we got the eighth seed we'd have a chance to beat 'em. We went into that whole series confident, especially that first playoff game back in Oracle. That was unbelievable. Those fans had been waiting so long for the playoffs. They had so much energy they made us feel invincible."
By that time, Fox Sports Net Bay Area, the team's local broadcast outlet, got into the act, printing yellow "We Believe" T-shirts for the Warriors to place on every Oracle seat. The crowd did the rest.
"I was one of the people who thought by the time you get to the playoffs everybody is going to play in front of a big crowd and it doesn't matter, home or away," Riley says. "I still think, for the most part, that's true. However, those people changed my mind pretty damn quick.
"I thought of all the things I've been around, that crowd lifted our team more than anything else I've ever seen. I'm totally serious: I've never seen anything like it. That crowd did more for that team than it did for the championship team or the team last year. They were just starved for any kind of winning."
Nelson's time coaching the Mavericks also served to help. Having helped engineer the draft day trade that delivered Nowitzki to Dallas in 1999, Nelson's stint during Nowitzki's formative years gave him great insight into how to frustrate the league's MVP.
"It helped a ton," says Azubuike, who was plucked out of the D-League when Richardson went down in January. "He knew Dirk's every move pretty much, and we made him turn the ball over a ton because of that. He'd get the ball around the free-throw line, and coach would say, 'OK, he's about to spin,' and he'd have us practice sending one guy over there when he turned and we'd be able to get that steal. It wasn't just that play; there were a bunch like that. It helped us tremendously."
As Harrington put it: "We were like computers. Nelly knew exactly how to beat them. He entered the information into our minds, and we just executed it."
Nowitzki would punt a trash can after the Warriors won the series, 4-2, leaving a gouge high on the wall outside the visitors' locker room. It has since been memorialized with Nowitzki's autograph, a plexiglass cover and a We Believe T-shirt.
John Denton @JohnDenton555
Of all landmarks in @NBA this is my fave -- hole in wall 15 ft up where Dirk Nowitzki flung a garbage can in 2007 POs http://t.co/NtDKUn09pl12/3/2014, 2:09:52 AM
"We knew we were going to beat the Mavericks, and I think a lot of people were maybe anticipating that we felt that way and wanted to see if we could actually do it with this team full of strong personalities playing this unconventional style," Azubuike says.
"I always say it was the most fun I had in my whole career, and I didn't really play all that much in the playoffs. We had a swag about us, too, and people could sense that. We'd walk into an arena and feel like we owned the place. Even if we weren't the best team there, we just felt like we could play with anybody."
Not just play, but beat. Although the Warriors slipped into the playoffs with a 42-40 record, they had their sights set on far more than a first-round upset.
"It wasn't a celebration to make the playoffs," Richardson says. "We really thought we had a chance to win a championship. To some people that might be a joke, but that's how much confidence we had. That's how much we believed in each other."
Harrington explains why: "The teams we beat to go 16-5 were teams that were supposed to be winning championships. People say what makes us good as NBA players is that we don't really have a firm grasp of reality. So when you have 15 guys thinking like that, it can be pretty powerful."
While their uptempo style and insider knowledge made them ideally suited to knock off the slower, bigger, less versatile Mavericks, they didn't have the same edge versus the Utah Jazz. Although the series had plenty of intensity and suspense, the Jazz prevailed in five games.
"We did not match up with Utah because there was a guy named Andrei Kirilenko," Riley says. "He could guard Stephen Jackson and shut him down. He made life miserable for Stephen. He was one of the few people in the league who could do it, and he had the length to do it.
"On the other side of the ball, we couldn't guard Kirilenko, either. It wasn't so much his scoring. If they got him the ball in the middle of the floor at the top of the circle, boy, we had trouble. … Our nightmare was we spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out how to get Kirilenko off Stephen Jackson. We tried screens; he'd just fight through them."
Davis put an exclamation point on the Warriors' lone victory in the series against the Jazz, launching his stocky 6'3" frame over 6'9" Kirilenko and his 7'4" wingspan for a dunk that had all of Oracle howling in joyous disbelief. The same Kirilenko who'd been a one-man chain-link fence, blocking 13 shots in the first two games. It was more symbolic, though, than definitive. While Riley admits "that dunk made Kirilenko look bad … in my mind he was the key factor in them winning."
SURROUNDED BY A SEA of yellow "We Believe" T-shirts and placards, Davis' dunk became the lasting image of that run. A more tantalizing one, though, never made it out of Mullin's dreams: Davis and Jackson joined by Kevin Garnett—yes, that Kevin Garnett, still in his prime—to take the step the We Believers had left untaken.
"It was basically done," Mullin says. "I was doing an extension with [agent] Andy Miller on Kevin Garnett's deal. KG liked Baron enough, and we had talked enough. He said, 'Yo, I'll do it.'"
A 2007 draft-night three-team deal with the Timberwolves and Charlotte (then the Bobcats) would've sent Garnett to the Warriors, Richardson to the Bobcats and picks and talent to the Timberwolves. It fell apart, Mullin says, when then-Warriors owner Chris Cohan dragged his feet and ultimately said no.
Instead, Richardson was shipped to Charlotte for a long athletic rookie big man, No. 8 pick Brandan Wright. The core of the "We Believe" team remained and would go on to win six more games than the year before, but this time they stumbled down the stretch, losing 11 of their last 19 and finishing two games out of the last playoff spot.
"We were making moves to get KG, and then we traded J-Rich for Brandan Wright," says Barnes, one of the few players aware of Mullin's plan at the time. "We won more games, but it just wasn't the same anymore. It all shifted so quickly. The magic was gone."
Davis felt betrayed. He opted out of his contract the following summer and wound up signing with the Los Angeles Clippers. Barnes was offered a three-year, $11 million deal in the summer of 2007 but chose instead to sign another one-year, $4 million deal, hoping a strong season would land him something even more significant.
"I'm thinking if I did what I did last year I'll be able to get a nice five-year contract," Barnes says. "The five-year deals were around $30 million, so that was my mindset. If you're older you'll take the years, but being younger I was 'I'll take the money.'"
Then his mother was diagnosed with cancer on the eve of the season, and 26 days later she was dead. "When the clouds finally started to clear and I kind of felt better about myself, I asked Nelly what I could do to get back in the rotation," Barnes says.
"He told me, 'Glad you didn't take that three-year deal. Unless someone gets hurt, you're not going to play.' Holy hell. What a Jekyll and Hyde. He gave me that chance and took it away, too. I played sparingly, and that was the end of my time here."
Richardson, who hoped to spend his entire career with the Warriors, did not hold back when told he had been traded. "No disrespect to Brandan, but it was an animated conversation I had with Chris and whoever else was in that draft room," Richardson says. "I gave it to those guys."
At the time, he assumed he was being moved to make room for shooting guard Monta Ellis, who had just won the league's Most Improved Player Award. It wasn't until two years ago, when former Warriors executive Pete D'Alessandro was hired by the Nuggets, that Richardson learned how he'd nearly been traded for Garnett.
D'Alessandro, having bought a house two blocks from Richardson's house in the Denver neighborhood Hilltop, was driving down the street when he saw Richardson in his yard and pulled over.
"I'm outside, playing with my kids, and he stops and I say, 'Hey, Pete!'" Richardson says. "He tells me he got the Denver job and we start talking. It was my first real conversation with him outside of a basketball arena. We start talking about the We Believe team, and he says, 'The only reason we traded you is because we had a deal to get Kevin Garnett.'
"When it was all said and done, you have a chance to get a Hall of Famer, one of the 10 best to ever play this game, you have to take that chance. I'm not mad at them. You take that chance. Things happen for a reason."
IT IS MARCH 2017. Barnes sits in the Warriors practice facility and stares across the floor. The last time he was here he was in the midst of proving who he could be. He returns with his reputation cemented as a feisty defender and passable three-point shooter.
He's simply hoping to have enough left in his 37-year-old body to help plug the vacuum left at small forward until Kevin Durant returns from his hyperextended knee. However long his stay is this time, he also hopes to leave with no thoughts about what could've been. He has enough of those from the last time.
"From that four months we became friends for life," he says. "I still see all those guys every summer, and every summer we talk about it. 'What if…' What if this, what if that. We had to hold each other accountable, we had to hold each other back and police ourselves.
"We were dying for each other out there. We just wish, whether we had KG or J-Rich, we had just brought that same team back the following year so we'd have had a chance to see what would happen."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.
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