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Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena

Tuesday’s season opener of the Golden State Warriors was one long, inexorable crescendo, a game of attrition for the eardrums. The spectacle began with the thump of open air drums and ended with a shock-and-awe aural attack that rained down on the invaders, the Oklahoma City Thunder. In spite of their totem, the visitors did not do the thundering. Instead, they were thundered upon by mega-speakers worthy of a Waco-style siege, an assault basked in by fans eager for blood that might augur another championship season for the hometown squad. Aided by these acoustical reinforcements, the Warriors won sloppily, but handily. Auditorily, it was a Pyrrhic victory: the first win came with heavy losses for the hearing.

Darkness had already fallen by the time I arrived at the Coliseum BART station in Oakland. The train doors opened to the sound of distant rhythms echoing off the concrete. The stations of the East Bay have been sites of extreme violence: at the next stop to the north, Fruitvale, through which we had just passed, a young black man, Oscar Grant, was shot dead by police while face down on the platform in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.  In July of this year, three passengers were murdered on BART trains in the span of five days. With such history looming, the drumming couldn’t help but sound restive, discontented, downright ominous.

After moving through the turnstiles and up the stairs to an elevated walkway leading in the direction of the arena, ticketholders, many in Warrior blue, were greeted by men hawking water and sodas and eager to buy tickets that they could then flog off for something of a profit. But tickets were in short supply.  The season was not starting auspiciously for the scalpers, and there was more bad news ahead.

The crowd filtered through the night above a dimly-lit parking lot stretching to the east where a ragged drum corps let loose its tattoo. To the west a dark swath of disused industrial flatland stretched towards the freeway and the invisible Bay beyond. Weathered white chemical tanks caught snatches of weak light falling from the green and yellow Oakland A’s logo hanging from the side of the Coliseum.  This is where the A’s play baseball and the Raiders football, though the latter will desert their long-suffering fans yet again as soon as their new stadium in Las Vegas is finished, probably for the 2019 NFL season. If the City of Oakland makes good on its threat to sue the team, the Raiders say they will leave town even earlier than planned.

Around the curve of the Coliseum, the orange neon letters announcing Oracle Arena, home to the Warriors, hove into view. The pilgrimage towards this brutalist temple of sport moved, at last, past the nearest source of the drumming—a single, polyrhythmic virtuoso of the five-gallon plastic bucket crouched against the concrete balustrade. The scant contents of his busker’s jar would not have paid for an ice cube at the game.

Inside Oracle, the third championship banner won in the space of four years unveiled before tipoff. This came after a lavish ring-giving ceremony of gaudy light shows and ear-splitting sound effects that worked in devastating contrast to the darkness beyond the arena and the complaints of hide drums and plastic buckets. The celebratory mood struck a crushingly dissonant chord. Next season the Warriors, too, will leave Oakland for a new glass-encased venue now under construction on the San Francisco side of the Bay.  The Oracle of Oakland has made this much clear: the end is nigh. The flight of the franchise and their already-absentee billionaire owners has sealed the fate of the East Bay’s concrete monstrosities: soon enough they will be erased by wrecking ball or earthquake—or both.

The surroundings of the arena are like the post-post-industrial Wild West—an open range of parking lots, freeways, and devastated wetlands. The interior is a high-tech, sado-masochistic torture chamber whose implements are meant, bizarrely, to increase the pleasure of viewing incredible feats of athletic prowess down on the basketball court.

After the bestowing of the gaudy, tennis-ball-sized “rings”—the first of them going to the limelight loving team owners, Peter Gruber and Joe Lacob—and the unveiling of the banner, it was time for the national anthem, sung by thirteen-year-old Nayah Damasen.  She has been performing the Star Spangled Banner at Warrior’s games from the tender age of ten, and the evolution of her style and tremendous vocal gifts can be traced on YouTube. She has preternaturally mastered the slides, ornaments, and ululations of the bigtime pop stars who have for so long been bending the banner to their wills at Super Bowls and state visits.

On Tuesday night, the young singer burst through to literally disquieting adulthood. Experts have claimed that the noise level inside Oracle can reach that of a jet engine. And so it was with young Ms. Damasen—even without a Blue Angels flyover.

As if this rite weren’t savage enough, deafening fireworks hot enough to be felt throughout the arena exploded with the “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” Real warriors best stay clear of Warriors games. In spite of the ubiquitous insignia of patriotism in and around the arena, veterans with PTSD are not welcome: the national anthem alone is enough to frighten even the sturdiest. George Orwell once wrote that “serious sport … is war minus the shooting.” In Oracle Arena you get the shooting, too—from t-shirt canons to backboard flares.

Even before a three-pointer had been launched or one of the few passes of the evening made, I was reminded of the old joke about going to a fight and having a hockey game break out. On Tuesday I went to a floor show intermittently interrupted by basketball.

It is as if the idea of talking to your friends or commenting on the ongoing game are quaint practices of yore.  Sport is not enough to justify the outlandish ticket price. This is Entertainment with a capital E. Stupefaction is required.

There were dance numbers by Warriors Girls; a junior troupe did its bumping and grinding and crotch-grabbing, somehow thought appropriate in this Roman orgy of sport and sex; limber, booty-wagging seniors called the Hardwood Classics strutted their stuff. There were platoons of men with t-shirt launchers; merch dropped from the rafters in a parachute maneuver reminiscent of D-Day—more fodder for flashbacks.

There was a cash cage in which a man grabbed at fluttering fifty-dollar bills, each one just maybe equal to the cash value of a single dribble on Warriors captain, Steph Curry’s $200 million contract.

The best of these attractions came at halftime with the appearance of the local soul group, En Vogue, founded in Oakland thirty years ago.  The elegant trio, inexplicably mobbed by the Warrior girls, trotted out their hits beneath the racing spotlights. But most in the arena had left their seats to get a beer and/or take a leak.

Their starters on the bench, the Warriors squandered a ten-point lead in the third quarter.  Acoustic cover was called in: sonbic-saturation bombing commenced. The Pentagon has been developing sound warfare for years now. The U.S. army’s infamous LRAD has many police and crowd control applications. A kindred roar filled Oracle. The Thunder point guard, a German named Schröter whose jersey boasts a rare, perhaps the first and only, NBA umlaut, must not have been able to hear the ball bounce at his feet as the barrage crashed over him. Even Nayah Damasen wouldn’t have been heard above the bombardment. A violation of health and safety standards and probably the Geneva Convention to boot, the grossly unfair tactic worked. The Thunder went out like a damp squib.

But there were countless casualties of this friendly acoustic fire, and the losses will be counted for years to come.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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