In the NBA, winning on the largest stage is the ultimate validation of a player’s legacy and losing the indelible proof of failure. The logic is so ingrained that it plays out in free-agency where players with championship pedigrees are paid richly to lead their new team to a deep playoff run, which only they are uniquely qualified for, with their iron wills and Sam Cassell-like rocks. NBA All-Star nods are also handed out with an eye on the team’s winning record. Stats come second to wins in some cases, which is saying quite a bit in an analytics-driven league. What’s lost in this discussion is that career validation, so heavily defined by the last game played in June, can equally be found in defeat. Look no further than the 2007 first-round series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Golden State Warriors for proof.
If ever there was an effective setup for validation through defeat, then Dirk Nowitzki set the gold standard. His 2006-7 season had all the benchmarks for greatness. Not only did his team amass a staggering 67 wins, but he was undoubtedly the catalyst for this success, and he had an MVP trophy to back it up. Dirk was also a member of the 50-40-90 club, which, depending on your view of George Dubya, is more impressive than membership to the Skull and Bones society. Going into the playoffs, the Mavericks were rightly figured to be serious contenders. However, hindsight is unforgiving in how it highlights the assumptions we make and the folly of expecting that events will unfold in historically determined ways. The Golden State Warriors disabused us of this sense of inevitability, proving that however improbable the case, an eighth-seeded team can topple the giant sitting atop the NBA’s leader board.
Reflecting back to the 2007 playoffs after nearly a decade, it’s easy to see how that Golden State team jumped the Mavericks like a broken BART turnstile and proceeded to capture the hearts of the NBA faithful. Baron Davis, after years of lingering injuries, strung together a playoff performance that highlighted his strength and passing and showcased an explosive style of play that pretty much no one in the league possessed at that time. On the flipside, it’s probably fair to say that everyone watching wanted to play like B-Dizzle. Baron played the way that either made it socially acceptable to stand directly below the TV at the bar and yooo until your throat gave out or provided enough self-conviction not to care about what your bar mates said about you between their mouthfuls of jalapeno poppers. Stephen Jackson, a.k.a. Captain Jack, brought his unique form of leadership to a team that, from an outsider’s perspective, cosmically deserved such a slick captain. The roster also had other excitement provided by the youthful slasher Monta Ellis and his running mate, Jason Richardson, the platonic ideal of a shooting guard. Between the Warriors’ style of play and the frenzied crowd, that series didn’t feel like the usual circumstance of an eighth seed destined to crumble against the conference leader. The Warriors oozed skill in that loose way that the supremely talented possess, like they could pick up tennis rackets or drumsticks after warm-ups and make you believe they’d been tennis champs and drummers all along, too. The Game 6 crowd knew exactly how lucky they were to witness their hometown team that night. The frenzied crowd at Oracle merited a decibel reader just to confirm to the fans at home that no superlatives were too great in describing the energy.
Still, that May 3rd evening game wasn’t supposed to play out like it did, not in the public’s eyes or Dirk’s, where first-round series for near-70 win teams are generally little more than glorified bye-weeks with light stretching. It took half a dozen games to overturn that sense of certainty, and the basketball equivalent of playoff fatalism gone awry in Oakland was too much for Dirk to bear. Moments after disappearing from the camera’s sight, Dirk picked up a trashcan found in the visitors’ hallway of Oracle Arena, and in a failed attempt to exorcise the burden of defeat that hung on his shoulders, hurled it against a sheetrock wall. The force left a hole where an unblemished wall once stood.
The hole found in Oracle Arena is the physical embodiment of the bitter disappointment and vertiginous highs that passed on May 3rd, 2007. There are many images of Dirk’s career, good and bad, but this site is by far the most evocative in how it shows that hopes, dreams, and ambitions don’t cease to exist once they leave the court. Players bring all that baggage with them. The void found in that wall of sheetrock attests to the level of dedication and devotion put into a craft, however fruitless the end result may be.
In 2015, 8 years after the fact, Scott Howard-Cooper mentioned the hole and how its legend grew as more and more visitors came to visit the site. From a few written lines it’s not difficult imagining how word of Dirk’s hole could’ve spread like an urban legend of days long-gone, before social media and instant access to stories prevented tales from slowly growing at each changing of hand until you had to see the damn thing to make sure that it did exist. It may seem strange to visit a wall’s trashcan-induced open wound, but the intrigue of the site is found in its immediacy: the hall as you see it is the same hall that Dirk saw when he left the court of May 3rd. There’s still a sense of lived history in that hallway, the Lascaux Caves of the NBA, a level of preservation uncommon in the sleek professionalism of the modern arena. The fact that it’s not overly fussed with–a We Believe t-shirt hangs near the Plexiglass-covered hole and Dirk was kind enough to autograph the wall below–is a part of its charm. The treatment of this site is reminiscent of visiting your in-laws for the fourth of July and having that weird uncle tell you all about how he trapped a pelican that snatched the ring right off of Winona Ryder’s finger. At first you don’t believe him or think of how epic the story is, then he waves you to the window where he points to the cyclone fence fastened with a net made out of Bud Light six-pack rings and shows you a thank you card written by Winona. You instinctively know the signature is legit and intuit the emotion felt when she wrote it. What she was doing in front of his Everglades home you may ask. Never mind that detail. What’s important is the immediacy, the link between the present and the ring-thieving pelican of the past.
Almost a decade later, the Golden State Warriors are packing up the famed drywall hole and re-installing it in the new San Francisco arena soon to be found in the Mission Bay neighborhood. The gesture feels important, both to the Warriors’ identity and to creating a sense of continuity between the old home and the new, but no matter where they put the hole, it won’t be in the same arena, much less the same town in which it was created. There are few current storytelling devices that connect the past to present more relatedly than walking in the same halls as Dirk did and directly placing yourself into the same spot where Dirk must’ve stood when he willed the trashcan rage-hole into existence. Dirk and the We Believe team feel more human and less abstract when thought of in this context.
Having a player sign a hole in the wall and covering it with Plexiglas is humble, workmanlike. The hole’s inevitable removal from this context and its future placement in an arena that Chase Bank has presciently deemed “the new pinnacle of sports & entertainment," presumably achieved at least partially by its “breathtaking design,” will run the risk of appraising the hole in such a way that it obscures the connection between Dirk’s emotional state that night and the Warriors’ historic path through the top-seeded Mavericks. The new location may preserve the physical reality of gypsum and void, but maybe not entirely honest in its resonance. It must surely try to make it more than it is, as if it wasn’t good enough to begin with.
Years after Dirk both lost and won championship opportunities and the Warriors won both as an underdog and a favorite, the hole stood there to bring us back to that time and place. That’s the issue with moving the hole to San Francisco, as they plan on doing and absolutely should. The Warriors know Dirk’s legacy, and so much of the present Warriors’ history depends on it. They’re going to hang a spotlight in the cave, and we’ll all see it better that way, but something, irrevocably, will be lost.