Having made basketball history, the Golden State Warriors appear poised to turn their march toward a second consecutive NBA championship into a victory lap. With a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series against Houston, it’s obvious the Dubs are the same irrepressible force that rolled through the regular season.
But when presumptive league MVP Stephen Curry hurt his right ankle in the series opener, I was reminded of another irrepressible force that rolled through the regular season: the 2001 Seattle Mariners, a dominant team that managed to avoid adversity for six months. When the Mariners finally met adversity, they were ill-prepared to deal with it.
Aside from the fact he made a lot of money in a game predicated on a round ball, former shortstop Carlos Guillen had nothing in common with Curry. One participated in a sport; the other has excelled at a sport to the point he’s revolutionized it. Still, when Guillen was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis before the 2001 playoffs, the Mariners were jolted from the rocking chair they had come to believe was a throne.
They finished the regular season with 116 victories — no big-league team has won more — on the strength of a 63-24 record going into the All-Star Game. Instead of exercising cruise control, they went on a 17-6 binge after the break.
There were All-Stars in the outfield (Ichiro Suzuki and Mike Cameron), in the infield (first baseman John Olerud, second baseman Bret Boone), in the dugout (designated hitter Edgar Martinez), in the starting rotation (Freddy Garcia) and in the bullpen (Kazuhiro Sasaki and Jeff Nelson).
The 2001 Mariners were as complete a baseball team as has ever been assembled, but losing Guillen for the first-round series against Cleveland had a domino effect. Mark McLemore, valuable for his versatility, was required to fill in at shortstop while fellow utility man Stan Javier was penciled in to play left field.
A bench renowned for its depth suddenly wasn’t as deep. The pitching rotation, meanwhile, showed it was fraying. When the Indians beat Garcia in the playoff opener and pounded Aaron Sele four days later, it forced Garcia and then Jamie Moyer into working a pair of loser-goes-home games.
The Mariners prevailed, but the starting staff was mismatched for the Yankees, who needed only five games to turn a 116-victory season into a trivia-game obscurity outside the Pacific Northwest.
Although Guillen’s condition was not as dire as originally feared — he appeared in three games against the Yankees — tuberculosis is contagious, and teammates wondered if they had been exposed. In any event, the carefree karma behind the 2001 Mariners was gone.
Had they placed too much emphasis on breaking the all-time record for single-season victories, set at 116 by the 1906 Cubs? Were they victims of burnout?
It’s a fair question, and one that brings me back to the Warriors. Aside from the serious problems related to the back surgery of head coach Steve Kerr, who spent several months as a consultant to de-facto coach Luke Walton, Golden State motored through the regular season in, well, a golden state.
In a league where the most common ailment is a bruised ego, they got along with a conviviality reminiscent of those sappy Coca-Cola TV ads during the early 1970s. (“I’d like to teach, the world to sing, in perfect harmony!”)
They took the floor with flair and zeal and a general sense they were in the perfect place at the perfect time. Most teams are able to muster such energy for a handful of home games, but the Warriors mustered it for their morning shoot-arounds.
The constant in the equation has been Curry, but after he limped off the court during the first game against Houston and was unable to start Game 2, he’s no longer a sure thing.
“We know that he’s had surgery on that ankle four years ago,” Kerr said Monday, referring to the 2011 procedure on Curry that repaired torn ligaments. “He’s got a lot of basketball ahead of him. There are plenty of cases in the past where people play through stuff it didn’t turn out so well — Grant Hill being the one that jumps out at me. Whether that’s the same thing as this, I don’t really know. I do know that we have to look after his health, because the competitor he is, he’s going to want to play.”
Kerr might be the most intelligent coach in basketball — in any sport, for that matter — so it’s possible his mention of Curry in the same breath as Grant Hill was an attempt to muddy the opposition’s preparation for Game 3, scheduled at Houston on Thursday. But Kerr is also principled, somebody whose intelligence is accompanied by a high mind.
Grant Hill was a Hall of Fame-caliber talent whose career was undone by an ankle injury. Bringing the name of a famously star-crossed player into the conversation is not the kind of gamesmanship Kerr uses.
Curry warmed up Monday but couldn’t attain any spring from his right ankle. He’s ailing, and until his head coach is convinced otherwise, the world’s most electrifying basketball player will be reduced to a cheerleader in street clothes.
There’s an alternative name for 2001 powerhouse that won 116 games, only to fizzle in the playoffs: the Seattle Mourners.
Fifteen years later, a basketball team that won 73 games hopes to take a different path, with or without Steph Curry. Call them the Golden State Worriers.