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Life and Death in Sugar Ditch Alley

We Believe?

Is Oakland, a city with some of the most passionate fans in sports, destined to lose its professional teams?

The threat was there in April, on the night Steph Curry shot his way to superstardom, when, for a few moments, Oracle Arena seemed to levitate by the force of fans’ screams. It was there last October, when the A’s crowd stunned the visiting Tigers by standing and cheering for 20 minutes, all to celebrate a season that had just ended with a loss. And it was there again this September, when the parking lot outside O.co Coliseum filled before 7 a.m. with football’s most degenerate tailgaters, there for their terrible Raiders’ game against the even-more-terrible Jaguars.

The threat is constant in Oakland. So much so that petitions have been signed, activist groups formed, and mayoral speeches given. “If we don’t do something,” says Chris Dobbins, a 41-year-old season-ticket holder for the A’s, Raiders, and Warriors, “if we don’t get the political will to really fight for this, then all of this will be over. It’ll be gone.”

He says this while sitting at a bar that overlooks the field at O.co Coliseum, where the first-place A’s are playing the third-place Angels in front of a crowd fit for a last-place team. By this he means the A’s, along with their cotenants the Raiders, as well as the next-door neighbor Warriors. He means that this crowd, paltry as it may be, will no longer come together. Some will drive to see the San Jose A’s in their new park; others will just stay home. He means that this piece of land, long a gathering point for loyal masochists in green-and-gold or silver-and-black or shirts that say We Believe, will be no more than a parking lot. He means that this city, San Francisco’s long-tougher and now-hipper little sister, will cease to be a big-league town.

The threat is simple. Today, Oakland has three teams. Within five years, it could have none.

It’s nice to think that all of that matters.

It’s nice to think that sports are important, that we’re rooting for more than a jersey. “The teams are a fabric of the community,” says Dobbins, and when he says it he’s speaking for millions, not just those around Oakland, but anyone whose allegiance is based on geography. It’s nice to think that sports contribute to civic life. They bring people together. It’s nice to say that, regardless of race or class, we all throw our hands skyward and scream the same way. “It gives a sense that you’re a part of this world,” says Dobbins. “These teams, especially ones that have Oakland across the jersey — they say that this city matters.”

But what happens when you take that away? What happens when you take a city — one more famous for its violence than for anything else — and you eliminate those pieces of laundry that announce its existence to the world? What happens when economics and politics and demographics all conspire, moving franchises to cities deemed more important, to fans deemed more fit to support a team? If you do that to a city — if you strip it not just of one team but of every team — then what do you have left? In Oakland, we might soon find out.

In Arena before the Golden State Warriors host the Dallas Mavericks in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2007 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on May 3, 2007 in Oakland, California.

Jean Quan thinks this is important. She’s Oakland’s mayor, the first woman and the first Asian American to hold that office, and she’s walking into the back room of a sports bar on this Wednesday night to update constituents on their teams.

The room is awash in green-and-gold and silver-and-black. Scattered throughout are splashes of Warriors blue. It’s the monthly meeting of Save Oakland Sports, a group started by Dobbins and now in the process of applying for nonprofit status. There are more than 40 people in attendance — a cross section of race and class, about 90 percent male. Dobbins stands up front, addressing the fans in a blue shirt and tie, and as he watches Quan walk in, the sound of his voice is swallowed by cheers.

Quan is 63 years old, too radical for most cities but in Oakland not quite radical enough. She is shaped like a thumbtack and has the voice of an alto racetrack announcer. She is followed into the room by her husband, Floyd Huen, who wears an A’s cap and jacket. They’ve come to update the group on each team’s status in Oakland, to explain how and why, they believe, all three will remain in town. When she reaches the podium, Quan grabs the hat off the top of Huen’s head. “I’m waving this in San Francisco’s face!” she yells, because in Oakland, Giants fans’ suffering is nearly as important as A’s fans’ joy. “This is our year, not theirs!”

For now, that’s true. But if the A’s keep winning, future years could belong to San Jose. That’s where owner Lew Wolff wants to move the team. San Jose is an hour south of Oakland and the capital of Silicon Valley, a fast-growing sprawl of new transplants and newer money. Wolff wants those transplants to fill his seats and their dollars to go toward his luxury boxes, and he wants all of this to happen in a pristine downtown ballpark, one that would render the Coliseum obsolete.

The Raiders, likewise, want to see the Coliseum destroyed, but unlike Wolff, Raiders owner Mark Davis has said he wants to remain in Oakland. Still, the team’s lease with the Coliseum expires at the end of this year, and though Davis wants a new stadium nearby, he also looks 400 miles south and sees Los Angeles, a city with nearly 10 times as many people and zero NFL teams. “I’m like a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth,” Quan tells the crowd. Previous mayors, she says, could have helped the Raiders make a deal for a new stadium, but they didn’t. Now, time has almost run out.

And then there are the Warriors. The only team that doesn’t even claim Oakland in its name — “Most people around the country don’t even know where ‘Golden State’ is,” says Dobbins — is also eager for a new home. Owner Joe Lacob looks across the San Francisco Bay and sees a world-class city with plenty of basketball tradition but no basketball team, and he envisions a waterfront arena and high-priced free agents and courtside season tickets for the tech industry’s newly rich. That move is a done deal, according to popular wisdom. But not according to Quan. “The Warriors will be here as long as I’m mayor,” she says. “And I expect to win a second term.”

At this, they all clap. Moments later Quan’s husband asks how many in the room are Oakland voters. And in a moment that says at least something about the fight to keep Oakland’s sports, only four people raise their hands.

Here’s what you’ve got to understand,” Maurice Greer says, but before he continues he turns and looks away. We’re in the left-field bleachers at the Coliseum. The A’s are losing to the Angels 8-1, and throughout the stadium, fans, of which there were never very many, have started to go home.

Except in the outfield. In both left and right fields, there are signs and drumbeats and screams, reminders that, yes, in fact, this is a September home game for a first-place team. Any pitch could spark a comeback, Greer says, so he’s not going to miss one just so he can talk to me. He jumps up into the aisle, where he stands and screams while C.J. Wilson settles into his stretch.

Wilson throws a strike. Greer returns. “What you’ve got to understand is that the Oakland A’s are tied to the social movements of the city,” he says. “The Black Panthers, the Free Speech Movement, the A’s, the Raiders, all of that — it’s all bound up together.” Wilson winds up again and Greer steps away. “Hold up,” he says.

After another strike, he returns. “You take the team away, you’re taking away something that represents that piece of the history.”

Oakland emerged as a port city in the late 19th century. Because San Francisco sits on a peninsula, ships sailed right past it and into the bay, where they dropped off cargo in Oakland, whose location made it well equipped to transfer goods from the ships to trains. It grew into one of America’s most diverse cities over the course of the 20th century. African Americans from the South came to work at the port. They joined immigrants from Asia and Latin America in making Oakland their new home.

Between 1900 and 1930, Oakland quadrupled in size. Growth slowed in the following decades, but when the American Football League began play in 1960, it deemed Oakland fit for a team. And so the Raiders were born. In 1968, the Athletics moved to Oakland from Kansas City, and in 1971 the local basketball team moved across the bay, changing its name from the San Francisco Warriors to the vague but more inclusive Golden State.

All the while, Oakland and Alameda County became home to the fringes of leftist political movements that were gaining traction throughout the United States. In 1964, nearby Berkeley hosted the Free Speech Movement, a series of student-led protests that led to reforms allowing political activity on campus. The Movement turned Berkeley into Berkeley. Huey P. Newton started the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966, and while the civil rights movement gained momentum in the South, the Panthers’ militant strain of black activism gained traction out west.

Much of this — the concurrent rise of Oakland sports and Oakland radicalism — is coincidence. But on occasion the two worlds overlapped. In 1965, the Raiders were scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Jets in Mobile, Alabama. Four Raiders, however, refused to play. The problem: Mobile’s Ladd Stadium segregated black and white spectators. Rather than continue amid a player-led protest, the teams moved the game.

The A’s launched a dynasty in the early 1970s, winning three consecutive championships from 1972 to 1974 — just as the Black Panther Party was rising to power in city politics. One piece of the Panthers’ strategy was the launch of a sports section in their propaganda-filled newspaper, The Black Panther. Readers picked up the paper for news about Ken Stabler and Reggie Jackson, but when they kept reading, they found op-eds advocating overthrow of the capitalist system.

Still, talk of the intertwining of Oakland’s teams with its political movements is, more than anything, talk of nostalgia. The ’60s and ’70s were great because the Raiders and A’s were winning and Oakland, in the national conversation, mattered.

But today, the people of Oakland have noticed a coincidence. The A’s are good. The Warriors are good. And it just so happens that, right now, Oakland matters again.

Quan likes to use the term “renaissance.” We’re back at the sports bar, and the mayor is nestled in a corner booth with her husband and Dobbins and Save Oakland Sports vice-president Bryan Cauwels, rattling off Oakland’s attributes like she spent the past week trapped inside the visitors’ bureau.

“We have the best weather in the country … We’re the hottest place in the country for food … One of the greenest cities in the country … Most walkable, most bikeable … “

She says this in between bites of onion rings, occasionally interrupted by bites of a grilled crab sandwich, pausing once to cut off a piece of her husband’s steak. After a pause to chew, she mentions the big one, courtesy of real estate company Movoto: “We’re the most exciting city in America — it’s true.”

It is true. Oakland is having a moment. Long considered the Brooklyn to San Francisco’s Manhattan, Oakland has absorbed the members of the creative class who’ve been driven across the bay by soaring rents. But as much as experimental cuisine and modernist galleries have helped to revitalize downtown, the restaurateurs aren’t the ones putting Oakland in the headlines. Activists are.

Occupy Wall Street may have started in New York, but the movement found its truest home in Oakland. Never mind that there are no major banks headquartered here. Never mind, either, that the only Fortune 500 company within a five-mile radius is Clorox. Oakland’s tradition of radical protest (and, perhaps just as importantly, its yearlong good weather) made it hospitable in 2011 and 2012 to Occupy protesters.

Except, that is, when it wasn’t. Police raided the protesters’ encampment twice in the fall of 2011, both times on Quan’s watch. The protests continued, attracting activists from San Francisco and across the region, prompting a New York Times Magazine article: “Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America.”

So what does this have to do with pro sports? Nothing, really, and that’s the point: Oakland’s most recent turn in the spotlight can be attributed to its activists and its creatives and not, in any way, to its teams. In fact, one notable protest in the area was decidedly anti-sports. Up in Berkeley, when Cal wanted to build a new athletic training center, construction was hindered because activists took up residence in soon-to-be-cut-down trees.

Yet whatever the relationship between Oakland’s renaissance and its teams, Quan insists the franchises matter. “Oakland is so used to being dissed,” she says. “We’re treated like San Francisco’s ugly stepsister. When the media talks about Oakland, they malign it. But we’re a tough city, a blue-collar city that has this chip on our shoulder, and that’s represented by these teams — teams we stuck with even when they were losing.”

Between Quan and Cauwels, talk turns to a potential conflict if and when the A’s clinch the division. The team wants to host a downtown rally on October 1, the same day the Chinese community will be celebrating a national holiday.

“We’ll work it out to do both,” says Quan.

“Imagine that,” says Cauwels, thinking through the mascots used in each community’s celebrations. “We could have a lion, a dragon, and an elephant all in the same place at the same time.”

“That,” Quan says, “is Oakland for you.”

Oakland Raiders fans dress up for the game against the San Diego Chargers on December 30, 2012 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.

On September 15, the Oakland Raiders played the Jacksonville Jaguars at O.co Coliseum.

That, when describing the scene at a Raiders home game, is all that needs to be said, right? The Raiders played a football game. As for the rest of the scene — you can fill in the blanks. You know, for example, that because the Raiders played a football game, there was a caravan rolling into the Coliseum parking lot around 6:45 a.m., dozens of cars, half of which seemed to be blasting 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love.” And you know that, because the Raiders played a football game, the parking lot smelled like sweat and weed and brisket, that some fans had the team logo tattooed on their arms and others had “Raiders” scrawled in Sharpie across their bald heads. You know that a few wore jerseys with prison inmate numbers and that one or two had T-shirts that read “Occupy the NFL.”

At this point, if you follow sports at all, the setting is implied. The Raiders played. An octogenarian in a wheelchair smoked a cigarette while pointing at the picture of Al Davis on her shirt. One implies the other. No more needs to be said.

Amid all this — all these passionate fans, here despite the general mediocrity of their team — I met 25-year-old Ray Perez. Perez is a college student from West Sacramento, and he moonlights as a server at Joe’s Crab Shack, and he was dressed, as you have no doubt already inferred, in prison pants and a Raiders jersey and fake dreadlocks and a helmet covered in protruding knives. His face was painted black, except for the parts of his face that were painted silver. On the back of his jersey was written the name by which he is most often called: Dr. Death.

Though he became Dr. Death, one of dozens of self-made Raiders fan characters, only three years ago, Perez has been attending Raiders games since he was 7. He can barely remember the days when the Raiders played in Los Angeles (the team moved back to Oakland in 1995 after 13 seasons away), but Perez still cringes anytime he sees an L.A. Raiders logo. Someday, he thinks, the L.A.-adorned gear will make for a nice collector’s item, a relic of a long-forgotten time, but not yet. “When the stadium deal gets done, then, maybe, yeah,” he says. “But not until then.”

Mark Davis, the team’s owner and Al’s son, has said repeatedly that he wants to stay. But the Coliseum is one of the oldest and most dilapidated venues in the NFL — a concrete husk with few amenities and zero charm, a place most famous this year for the overflowing of its dugout toilets. So L.A. beckons, as it does to most every cash-strapped team, but “Oakland,” Davis recently told ESPN.com, “is absolutely where we would prefer to get something done.”

Right now, the Coliseum and Oracle Arena sit surrounded by a giant parking lot, which is surrounded by still more parking lots, which are surrounded by low-income neighborhoods. This disconnects the venues from city life, but it allows for tailgating and for ease of transport — it’s all right off the freeway. It also enables the longstanding Oakland tradition of postgame white flight. Dobbins is a lifelong Oaklander and a member of the city’s school board, but he says bluntly, “People from the suburbs want to be able to come to Oakland for a game without feeling like they have to spend any time actually in Oakland.” Talk of pro sports’ importance is often talk of economics. People come from out of town for a game, the thinking goes, but they stay in town for dinner or drinks or a stroll around town. In Oakland, because of the venues’ isolation, this effect is virtually nonexistent.

Oakland has proposed a plan for what it calls “Coliseum City,” a development effort around the stadium modeled after Los Angeles’s L.A. Live. It would include new venues — one for the Raiders (definitely), one for the Warriors (ideally), and one for the A’s (perhaps, but we’ll get to that soon). It would also include shopping and entertainment, as well as a business park and housing developments.

The Raiders, Davis has said, would like to build the NFL’s smallest stadium, with 58,000 seats, on this land. Quan insists that minimal (if any) public financing would be needed to get it done. The Raiders declined to make anyone available to be interviewed for this story, but team spokesman Mike Taylor issued a statement: “Both sides are conducting studies to determine the financial viability of the project. There is a real sense of urgency for both parties.”

The hope among fans is that the same crowds will come out for games, with their same eccentricities and same derelict charms. Inside the Coliseum, just minutes before kickoff against the Jags, a man stood in the front row, leaning over the divider that separates fan from field, smacking its surface and screaming at Jags third-year lineman Cameron Bradfield. “Seventy-eight!” he yelled. “Get the fuck over here! Come here so I can fuck you up!”

His name was Frank. He was sitting with a friend, who explained that Frank had just been released from prison. And no matter what comes of Coliseum City, for the Raiders to be the Raiders, home games will need to remain hospitable to ex-cons.

Let’s go back to the A’s game. Same venue, different day, different crowd. As in: The Raiders actually had a crowd. The A’s had a smattering of people who happened to be wearing green and sitting inside a baseball stadium. Any resemblance to a crowd seemed coincidental.

Wolff, the owner, noticed. “There is something wrong here,” he told USA Today. “You would think that with our lead, people would want to come out, count down the magic numbers, and all that stuff. Even if you’re not a loyal fan, you would think this time of year, where the teams are in the standings, and where every game means something, people would come out.”

They would, explained Dobbins — if it wasn’t for Wolff. “You’re not going to commit to a team unless that team commits to you,” he said. “There’s still passion and energy — just look at the playoff games last year — but to come out on a Monday night, to commit like that, a lot of people don’t want to do it when the ownership doesn’t want the team to be here.”

In 1990, under previous ownership, the A’s drew nearly 36,000 fans a game. This year, despite the team’s success, they’ve averaged a little more than 22,000, which ranks 23rd in Major League Baseball. But in the right-field bleachers, the diehards remained, chanting and clapping and beating drums, even in the middle of a blowout.

“Lew Wolff wants us to stay home,” says Jorge Leon, 28, a season-ticket holder and lifelong fan. “He wants to be able to say, ‘Look how empty this place is.’ He wants that excuse.”

Oakland fans like Mark Davis, if for no other reason than that he’s Al’s son. Feelings toward Warriors owner Joe Lacob are more complicated. Yes, he wants to move the team to San Francisco, but the Warriors have always felt like they belonged to the entire Bay Area as much as to Oakland. Besides, fans think, at least the team is finally winning.

There is no ambivalence toward Wolff. Quan sums up her constituents’ feelings: “I don’t think he even loves the game,” she says. “He doesn’t care.” Wolff has been open for years about his lust for San Jose. Financially, his motives make sense. “Oakland is very clearly an inadequate market,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. Money flows to teams from corporations, Zimbalist explains, whether through stadium ads or box suites or corporate season-ticket packages. San Jose has Facebook and Google. Oakland has Clorox and Ask.com. “From a corporate standpoint,” says Zimbalist, “Oakland is one of the weakest markets in baseball.”

Save Oakland Sports is organizing an East Bay business summit, scheduled for November 7, with invitations sent to business leaders around the area. The idea is to show the teams that corporate money is available in Oakland — there just needs to be more dialogue between companies and teams. They’ve invited Mark Davis to be the keynote speaker. So far, he has yet to respond.

It’s difficult to isolate Oakland as a market unto itself. For television, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose are grouped together, combining to make the sixth-largest market in the country.1 “Historically, Oakland was thought of as just a piece of the Bay Area marketplace,” says Zimbalist. “But the dynamics there are changing.” San Jose has boomed, while Oakland’s population and economy have stagnated. And the Giants and 49ers have a broader footprint regionally. “San Francisco is just a more familiar city,” says Dobbins. “If you live in some random Northern California town, you’re probably a Giants fan.”

But Dobbins counters Zimbalist’s thinking. “It’s probably true that in San Jose they could get more corporate money, and there would be a state-of-the-art stadium, and that place would probably be packed,” he says. “But if there’s an ownership group that is committed to Oakland, the same thing can happen here. The same thing has happened here.”

For now, A’s fans can thank their cross-bay rival for keeping the team from moving to San Jose. MLB rules give each team a local monopoly. As a franchise, you’re granted geographic territory, and once that has been established, no other team can move in. The Giants control the rights to the San Jose market.2 They don’t want the A’s infringing on their territory. So, for now, the A’s will remain in Oakland. But the city of San Jose has filed a lawsuit against MLB that could pave the way for a move and forever change the league’s exemption from antitrust laws.

Meanwhile, Oakland is offering its own plans for potential ballparks. There’s the Coliseum City option, which would keep the A’s at their current site but in a new stadium. And then there’s the possibility of following baseball’s recent trend by building a stadium downtown. The city owns land at Howard Terminal, a site that sits on the bay near a number of restaurants and bars. Quan wants to build there. “You put it right there and it changes downtown,” she says. “The Asian Americans will go to Chinatown for dinner before the game. The white guys will go straight from the game to the music clubs. The whole downtown is going to be energized.” Yet logistical and environmental issues remain. For his part, Wolff has expressed doubt that a stadium can be built in downtown Oakland with only private money.

Back in the Coliseum, Leon continued to harp on his A’s attendance as an act of defiance toward Wolff. “I’m not going to let him win,” he said. “I’m not going to let him say these fans aren’t passionate.” Leon used to scrawl messages on bedsheets and bring them to the games, giant signs announcing his distaste for his team’s owner. “Lew Wolff Hates Oakland,” said one. And another, referring to Wolff’s comments that he has attempted to make the franchise viable without leaving town: “Wolff Lied. He Never Tried.”

After hanging that one, in April 2010, Leon was escorted out of the stadium by security. But as he was led away, the fans around him started chanting. “Lew Wolff sucks!” they yelled. “Lew Wolff sucks!”

Across Oakland there is talk of identity and pride, of a rallying point that unites classes, of all the warm and fuzzy themes that emerge whenever sports are discussed. But there is also, inevitably, talk of economics. If Oakland loses one or more of its teams, it will lose the jobs that come with them. It will also lose the suburban dollars that flow into the city on game days. Right now, that effect is minimal, but if the Coliseum City and Howard Terminal projects come through, it should increase.

Zimbalist, the economist, doesn’t buy it. “You’re talking about a drop in the bucket,” he says. “It will hardly affect the economy. In fact, when the teams are gone, those resources will be freed up. That land will be free for other uses. City planners can find much better ways to use all of that, and it can even be good for the economy.”

You can’t tell that to Maggie Gibson. She’s a member of the union Unite Here Local 2850, and she’s been working concessions at the Coliseum and Oracle for 26 years. She’s “deeply concerned,” she says, about the fact that her job could soon be kaput. Oakland has a worker retention law, which means that when a team is sold to a new owner or hires a new catering company to prepare stadium food, the workers stay. Yet if the teams move, that changes. Then, she says, “You would have a lot of people who have been doing this for a long time who would be put in a very difficult situation.”

She’s saying this in Oracle’s Plaza Club, a bar that sits just off the lower section of the arena, minutes after a meeting of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority. This arena, and the suddenly ascendant NBA team that comes with it, represents the most immediate threat to Oakland’s sports landscape. The Warriors want to move to San Francisco in 2017. To do so, they would build an arena along the pier. “It’s a done deal,” says Zimbalist. “The Warriors are gone.” Only it turns out that it’s more difficult to build an arena on a San Francisco pier than originally thought. Since the Warriors announced their plans, projected costs have gone up. Environmental groups have been alarmed. Some San Francisco residents whose views of the Bay would be blocked have grown defiant. “It is virtually impossible to get something built on that site,” says Quan. “It’s going to be incredibly difficult for them to get something done.”

Says Warriors owner Joe Lacob: “We’re going. No matter what you write, we’re gonna get this done.” Lacob emphasizes that he sees the Warriors as the Bay Area’s team, not just Oakland’s. “There is a little bit of a concern,” he says, that the Warriors may lose some of the fans that make Oracle one of the NBA’s loudest arenas, “but we think we’ll retain those fans — they’ll come across the bay for games.”

A new arena for the Warriors is included in the plans for Coliseum City. There may also be room to build an arena near the proposed new A’s stadium at Howard Terminal. Public funds are unlikely to be used for either site. “That’s a nonstarter in Oakland,” says Quan. Adds Dobbins: “If it were up to people like me, yeah, I’d vote for using public money.”

But, Dobbins admits, “This is Oakland. This is a city with a lot of challenges. Financing a stadium isn’t high on the list. There are too many other issues in this city for that.”

Just ask Wanda Sanford. She doesn’t care much about the Raiders, nor about the Warriors or the A’s. Her team is the Oakland Dynamites, a youth football program that runs from ages 5 to 15. She’s a former team mom and now the organization’s president, and she’d rather not talk about a new stadium for billionaire owners, millionaire players, and suburban commuter fans. “Look at this field,” she says, gesturing toward a couple hundred children running around a nondescript swath of grass. “We need to get this thing renovated.” What she needs more than anything, she says, are new lights.

In all the conversations about Oakland — about its fans and restaurateurs, its artists and activists — one slice of the population is underrepresented. Oakland’s black community has been shrinking, both in numbers and in power, for years. Between 2000 and 2010, Oakland lost about 33,000 African American residents. As of the last census, blacks still represent the largest ethnic group in the city,3 but in a city long known for the influence of its African American culture, the decline is stark. And when you talk to the fans most passionate about keeping the teams in town, you’ll notice a theme. Some live in the suburbs, like Dublin or Clayton Valley. Others live in nearby cities like El Cerrito or Richmond. Perez, better known as Dr. Death, lives 90 minutes away in West Sacramento. Most are white or Latino. Only a few are black.

“I don’t really see much of a connection between the teams and the community,” says Jeff Cotton, one of the Oakland Dynamites coaches, almost all of whom, like almost all of their players, are African American. “I mean, look at this” — he points to the field — “there should be Raiders and A’s coming out once a year or so to talk to kids, show them what they could be. They should be willing to help out with facilities, entry fees, just something.”

Adds Diesel Sutherland, another coach: “Back in the ’70s? Those cats represented Oakland. Kenny Stabler, Vida Blue. They put in their time with the community. These cats today don’t represent Oakland. They represent the Bay Area. It’s a whole different thing.”

This field is still filled with Raiders fans, though a few have hopped aboard the Niners’ bandwagon, and a few others pledge loyalty to the Cowboys, geography be damned. Still, Cotton says: “As long as those teams have Oakland on the jersey, it says we’re on the map. You take those teams away, then the Coliseum is just a parking lot. Then it says we don’t deserve to have something to cheer for.”

Yet the coaches would rather not talk about the pro teams for too long. Instead they’re focused on academic progress reports — they require each player to get one every week — and they’re focused on finding and helping kids who can’t pay entry fees, on making sure none of the equipment gets lost. And they’re focused on lights.

It is nice, yes, to think that pro franchises matter; and to season-ticket holder Chris Dobbins and Dr. Death Ray Perez and concession worker Maggie Gibson and to countless others they certainly do. But “those owners are gonna do what they’re gonna do,” says Dynamites coach Marquis Ransom Sr. “It’s not going to change this right here, not really. We’re still gonna be out here.”

A moment later he points at the lights. “Just wait a minute,” he says. “You’ll see.” And soon enough the sun goes down and the lights flick on, only they’re so dim you would never know it, and 200 kids are still passing and catching and hitting, five miles from the Coliseum, playing football in the dark.

Filed Under: Sports, Teams

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn

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