Klay Thompson Made the Warriors Human (2024)

Late one evening in January 2021, on the corner of 13th Street and MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland, James Pullum saw a surprising face in the passenger window of a Mercedes G-Wagon that was preparing to stop in front of him.

Pullum, an Oakland rapper who goes by the moniker 22nd Jim, was hanging with friends in the middle of the Bella Vista district, an area known to locals as the “Murder Dubs,” where danger is imminent at that time of night and unidentified cars can mean trouble. But as the vehicle crept toward the group and the familiar face came into focus, Pullum and the homies’ furrowed brows gave way to exuberance.

“I was out there like 10 deep,” Pullum remembered. “They’re like, ‘That’s Klay Thompson. That’s Klay Thompson.’ I was like, ‘What the f*ck are you doing down here?’”

From the SUV, Thompson reciprocated the group’s excitement. During the late 2010s, he had befriended Kiwi Gardner—a former teammate of Thompson’s brother Mychel—who made it a practice to put Thompson onto the newest hip-hop acts out of Oakland, including Pullum. Immediately enthralled, Thompson began consuming Pullum’s music and encouraged others in the Warriors locker room to follow suit. That night, Thompson had jumped at the chance to meet his favorite artist.

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“He drove to the neighborhood and he seen me and he stopped the car,” Pullum said. “Stuck his whole head out the window and was like, ‘Jim!’

“That’s not something that NBA players do,” he continued. “At all.”

For 10 minutes, Thompson parlayed with the fellas and expressed his love for Jim’s music before driving off into the night. That brief exchange was quintessential Thompson, who over 13 seasons came to occupy a distinct role on the Warriors and built a special relationship with Golden State fans. While Steph Curry was the face of the team and its undisputed best player, Thompson’s essence as a larger-than-life everyman may have resonated even more with those who rooted for him. His picturesque jumper formed one-half of the greatest shooting backcourt ever, but the way he embraced the Bay Area bonded him to the region like Montana, Rice, Payton, and Lynch before him.

“I think Klay represents the joy in a lot of it,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “And the reverence, in some ways—of his being on his boat, hanging with his dog. It’s such a unique connection to the fans.”

On Monday, that relationship took a sad turn when Thompson left the Warriors in a sign-and-trade, agreeing to a three-year, $50 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks. As Klay leaves the only professional home he’s ever known, it marks the end of the greatest stretch in Warriors franchise history and prompts questions about what the organization and its connection to the Bay will look like without him.

Thompson’s journey to Northern California was much quieter than his exit. Drafted 11th overall by Golden State in 2011, he spent the beginning of his career backing up the Warriors’ beloved shooting guard Monta Ellis, whom Thompson would soon replace. When Ellis was traded later that season, Thompson flashed signs of his potential, averaging 18.6 points per game as a starter in the Warriors’ final 28 games. The next season, he averaged 17 points and shot 40 percent from 3-point range, teaming up with Curry to lead the Warriors to their first playoff berth in seven years.

“I think the first time he endeared himself in, like, a mass scale to Warrior fans was probably the first playoff season,” said Sam Esfandiari, a longtime Warriors fan and contributor to WarriorsWorld, which covered Golden State’s run. “People started seeing what the Splash Brothers could be.”

"I think this is actually good for him to move into this new phase."

Will Klay Thompson thrive in a new environment? @BillSimmons and @kevinwildes examine what Klay could bring to his next team: pic.twitter.com/7NH7GkoWI9

— The Ringer (@ringer) July 1, 2024

Even as he shared the court with the greatest shooter ever, Thompson became the Warriors’ fire starter, capable of heating up in the blink of an eye and burying opponents under a cascade of 3s. The first of his signature outbursts came against the Sacramento Kings on a mundane Friday evening in January 2015. After scoring 13 first-half points, Thompson began the third quarter on a tear. In a manner that would become familiar during Thompson’s run with the Warriors, his teammates fell over themselves trying to get him the ball, and the lower bowl at Oracle came alive. By the end of the frame, Thompson had accumulated 37 of the team’s 41 third-quarter points, helping the Warriors to a 126-101 win and inspiring a euphoria that coaches and fans alike still recall to this day.

“I think that 37-point quarter is still the greatest basketball experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Kerr told me last week, as Thompson was mulling his free agency decision. “Because it was this religious fervor. It was like he was in a trance, and we were all there just in the trance together with him. … That was an out-of-body experience for everybody who was in the building that night.”

Thompson’s scoring binges became one of the most exhilarating trademarks of the Warriors dynasty. Five months after that midseason eruption, Thompson helped beat the Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals, bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Oakland for the first time in 40 years. The next year, he poured in 41 points, including 11 3-pointers, in Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals, forcing a Game 7 against the Kevin Durant–led Thunder. A year after Durant joined the Warriors, Thompson exploded for 35 points in Game 6 of the 2018 Western Conference finals against the Rockets, helping Golden State force a Game 7 in Houston and keeping its title defense alive. His knack for the moment and his idiosyncratic charm helped immortalize a dynastic group whose impact was felt in Oakland and beyond.

“In Oakland, we don’t got too much good sh*t going on,” Pullum said. “So when we do got good stuff going on, people gravitate toward that and parade behind that.”

Game 6 of the 2019 Finals was the peak of Klay’s mythology, if also a turning point for him and the team. With 2:22 left in the third quarter, Thompson went up for a layup, came down awkwardly, and tore his ACL. After a few minutes of writhing in pain on the Oracle Arena floor, Thompson briefly went to the locker room before reappearing and making two free throws to a thunderous ovation. Golden State lost the game and the series that evening, but Thompson’s toughness endeared him to Warriors fans even more.

After going down with an apparent knee injury and leaving the court, Klay Thompson returns to a roar from the Oracle crowd to shoot the free-throws. #NBAFinals pic.twitter.com/Px5gtYtKHm

— NBA TV (@NBATV) June 14, 2019

In retrospect, that injury was an inflection point in Thompson’s career. He missed the entire 2019-20 season rehabbing his knee, only to tear his Achilles and miss all of 2020-21 as well as over half of 2021-22. By the time he returned to the team in January 2022, Thompson had missed 941 days of action. When he came back, it took some time to regain his sea legs, and the lateral quickness that made him one of the best two-way players in the league never fully returned. Nonetheless, he battled back to become a core member of another title-winning team, helping Golden State climb back to the mountaintop and beat the Celtics in the 2022 Finals.

A few days after the Warriors arrived back in the Bay following that title, Thompson’s presence was requested by Stanley Cox, better known as Mistah F.A.B., who is a rapper and entrepreneur. Cox was en route to present championship rings to the girls basketball team at Oakland Technical High School, his alma mater, which had just won the 2022 California Interscholastic Federation state title. Wanting to make the event extra special, Cox called in a favor. “I need you to go talk to the state champions, our girls at Oakland Tech,” Cox recalled saying. “And nobody is giving them no praise and no reward. Can you pull up at this ceremony for me?

“Dude just was like, ‘Send the addy,’” Cox continued. “Pulled up and surprised all the girls. It was crazy.

“That type of stuff is the stuff that, to me, will be more legendary than …” Cox said, trying to summon the words to describe his friend. “My respect and admiration for him has nothing to do with his on-court activities. It’s more so about his off-the-court character and person and who he is, man.”

Similar anecdotes color Thompson’s tenure in Golden State. His postseason performances made him one of the greatest players in franchise history, but his legacy is also built by the many memorable moments that connected him to fans and made him someone they could see themselves in. Like when he autographed a toaster oven at a signing and the Warriors went on to win 31 of 33 games. Or when he practiced karate moves with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background for no apparent reason. The pregame treks across the Bay on his boat displayed an eccentricity that endeared him to all. And his introspective quotables often teetered on the line between earnestness and hilarity. He could fit in with Silicon Valley’s wealthy, techy ethos and summon the grit of Oakland, Richmond, and Vallejo, and he had a game that defined a generation of Bay Area sports and a charisma that transcended it.

The dynastic run of the Warriors will forever be defined by the contributions of Thompson, Curry, and Draymond Green. Each figure had a distinct presence in the region, but Thompson’s may be the most accessible.

“Steph’s like Mr. Perfect, global icon, face of everything,” Esfandiari said. “And then Draymond is the heartbeat of the team. And Klay, of the three, I would say he always comes across as the most approachable and, like, the most human of them.”

It once felt like fate that the Warriors would keep Thompson, Curry, Green, and Kerr together through their respective twilights. But in the past few years, the relationship between Klay and the team began to crumble. After missing two full seasons recovering from two reconstructive surgeries, Thompson expected a big extension following the 2022 title. Instead, the Warriors extended nine-figure paydays to teammates Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins. The trend continued last season, when the Warriors signed Green to a four-year, $100 million extension while offering a two-year, $48 million pact to Thompson, prompting the franchise pillar to question his place in the organization.

Thompson declined that deal, instead betting on himself to earn more a year later in free agency. But his play this past season pushed him and the Warriors even further apart. His lack of lateral movement left him struggling to guard opponents’ best players, and his streaky shooting couldn’t always compensate. After scoring just eight points, he was benched in the final minutes of a February Warriors win in Brooklyn, prompting an emotional scene in the locker room, where Thompson confronted his basketball mortality in real time. “To go from one of the best players …” he said following the game, before trailing off. “It’s hard for anybody. I’ll be honest with you. It’s really hard.” Two months later, in what ended up being the final game of his Warriors tenure, he shot 0-of-10 in a season-ending loss to the Sacramento Kings in the play-in tournament.

When the 2023-24 season ended, contract negotiations between Thompson and the team were virtually nonexistent. Tensions rose when the Warriors prioritized a trade for All-NBA guard Paul George, among other offseason to-do items, over the pursuit of Thompson’s services. By the end of the first weekend of free agency, the Warriors were unable to pull off a trade for George, waived Chris Paul, and saw Thompson depart—leaving Warriors GM Mike Dunleavy Jr. with a depleted roster and dwindling options to improve it.

Now, Thompson will begin a new chapter in Dallas. The Mavericks, led by the high-octane scoring tandem of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, are coming off an NBA Finals run, giving Thompson a real chance at a fifth ring. With less offensive responsibility expected of him, in his final years he can settle into a role similar to that of his idol Ray Allen, who won a title as a lethal spot shooter for the 2013 Miami Heat. But no matter how his Mavs years shake out or how much he wins elsewhere, Thompson’s mark on the Golden State Warriors will forever be etched in Bay Area lore.

“He is one of the pillars of the dynasty,” Kerr said. “He’s such a unique personality within that, and I think along with Steph and Draymond and Andre [Iguodala], I think those are the four guys on the Mount Rushmore of the Warriors dynasty.”

One day next season, Thompson will return to Chase Center in a Mavericks uniform, preparing for battle in a different locker room, looking to beat the team that raised him. Whenever that moment comes, Thompson should expect nothing less than a hero’s welcome, even if those left behind are still trying to reconcile his absence.

“I can’t see it being anything but a standing ovation anytime he’s seen anywhere in the Bay Area, in the long term,” Esfandiari said. “Maybe in the short term, it’s a little weird, though. The visual of seeing him in another team’s jersey, I just feel like that’s strange.”

An earlier version of this piece misstated when Thompson’s 37-point quarter occurred.

Klay Thompson Made the Warriors Human (2024)


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