SANTA CRUZ, CALIF. — Casey Hill stood atop the Warriors logo at center court, flanked by his 13 players and their championship trophy, laughed and said to a cheering crowd, “I guess the third time’s a charm.”
The scene after Santa Cruz’s NBA D-League Finals victory played out in stark contrast to the previous two Aprils, when coach Hill and then-general manager Kirk Lacob intentionally stuck around to watch the opponent celebrate following Finals losses.
And it was made possible by a scene two summers ago, when Hill was en route to an interview for the Sacramento Kings’ NBA D-League head coaching position. “You’re gonna have to turn that car around and say sorry,” Lacob told Hill that day, “because you’re gonna take our job and I’m not taking no for an answer. You’re born to coach this team.”
Lacob, now assistant GM in Golden State, smiled, too, as he recalled the story hours after the final buzzer had sounded Sunday night. Hill’s growth mirrored the organization’s as he climbed from assistant coach with the then-Dakota Wizards to Santa Cruz when the team moved in 2011 to head coach in 2013.
“I’m so proud of Casey,” Lacob said. “His development these last four years has been terrific, and I’m so excited to see what’s in store for him in the future.”
Among all of the parallels between Santa Cruz and Golden State, Hill was the glue that held the NBA D-League Warriors together in Steve Kerr-like fashion – affable and humble yet fiercely competitive on the court.
“I was thinking on the ride over, ‘If we win it’s the right thing,’ because of the way I feel about our guys.” Hill said after clinching the title. “[After] everything they’ve been through and the fight that they’ve put forth and all of those great things, they deserve this title.”
Hill was not the only Warrior in search of championship redemption in this year’s Finals. Five Santa Cruz players had tasted defeated with either of the previous two runner-up teams.
“We’ve been to the Finals twice and failed,” said Darington Hobson, who shot a combined 3-for-11 in the two-game sweep at the hands of the RGV Vipers in 2013. “As I walked off the floor, I just kissed the floor to let the crowd know that this win was for them.”
This time, Hobson seized the moment, delivering his signature game as a pro with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists to lift the Warriors in the clinching game. It was no accident that he sunk a career-high four three-pointers on six attempts.
“I actually came and shot real late last night before the game,” he said. “I came at like 10 or 11 o’clock at night. I had been doing that all year, but that’s just my way of staying mentally focused and staying ready.”
The former Milwaukee Bucks second-round pick out of New Mexico stated his case once again for a return trip to the NBA.
A versatile threat offensively with the length to make an impact on both ends, Hobson averaged 19.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.3 assists over his final 12 games of the regular season, including back-to-back triple-doubles in March.
Good Run for Fair.
By the mid-second round of the 2014 NBA Draft, C.J. Fair began to feel the nerves. “I lost a little hope,” he recalled. “Maybe it won’t go the way I hoped it would go.”
By pick 59 out of 60, he got up from his seat in the first level of the Barclays Center, to the right of the stage where many of his peers had heard their names called, and left.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Fair said, looking back on that bitter June night from the stands of the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Dozens of standout college players go undrafted every year, and many never sniff the NBA. Fair worked out for 15 teams before the Draft and felt like 12 of them went well. “I guess I was everyone’s second option,” he said.
The Baltimore native and former Syracuse standout did not expect to call Indiana home during his first year as a pro. But he felt strongly enough about his training camp stint with the Pacers that he wanted to stay a step away from the Association, and earned his spot as an affiliate player with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants 125 miles northeast of Indianapolis.
Fair was admittedly slow out of the gates once he arrived in the Development League. But he finished strong, peaking during the stretch run and averaging 22.2 points per game in the playoffs, which ranked sixth in the league.
As fellow Syracuse alum and Pacers camp participant Arinze Onuaku, a four-year NBA D-League vet, told him, “You’re not playing with your friends. You’re playing with grown men.”
“It was an adjustment,” Fair said.
Back on the Map
Remember Jordan Crawford?
A year ago, the former Xavier star dropped a career-high 41 points in the Golden State Warriors’ final regular-season game. Over the weekend, he was back in the Bay Area under very different circumstances, starring for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants against the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Crawford – a 26-year-old with 257 NBA games and a 12.2 PPG career scoring average under his belt – opted to accept a one-year deal with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in November over free agent offers from NBA teams, yet played just five games in China before an eye injury forced him to return stateside.
“I was definitely expecting to hear something from NBA teams,” he said in Santa Cruz. “But I think I was out of sight, out of mind with them.
“I came to the Development League to show teams that I’m ready to be back in the NBA. I didn’t think that we’d be in the D-League Championship right away.”
Though the Mad Ants fell short, it was mission accomplished for Crawford, who lifted Fort Wayne to a 10-4 record during his 14 games and averaged 26.7 points in the playoffs.
MORE NOTES: Nine-year vet Maurice Baker’s NBA D-League career is now book-ended by title runs. His last championship? With the Dakota Wizards — the team the Warriors bought in 2011 and moved to Santa Cruz — in 2007, a team coached by now-Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger. … Santa Cruz Warriors president Jim Weyermann is used to minor-league success; during his six seasons with the San Jose Sharks (2005-11), Single-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, the Sharks won Cal League titles and 15 of the 25 players on the World Series champion 2010 Giants had played in San Jose. … Four of the players participating in this year’s Finals had already found homes in the NBA. Warriors big men James Michael McAdoo and Ognjen Kuzmic were assigned from Golden State, Mad Ants center Shayne Whittington was assigned from the Pacers, and Mad Ants guard Xavier Thames joined Fort Wayne as a Draft Rights player of the Brooklyn Nets.