Looney steps out of shadows into Warriors stardom


SAN FRANCISCO – Kevon Looney didn’t care to watch highlights from Warriors games, and he avoided peeking at his statistics. Win or lose, he knew what he had done, so his mind drifted toward the next game.

Besides, what was to savor? A solid screen to free Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson? An impeccable pin-down to create space for Kevin Durant or Andrew Wiggins? A smooth defensive switch with Draymond Green?

Why watch such tedium when 3-pointers are splashing down? Looney, who at 6-foot-9, 235 pounds might have been the biggest of the Warriors on the floor, was invisible.

Until last postseason.

“My friends always tried to show me highlights and I usually tell them to turn it off,” Looney told NBC Sports Bay Area. “But this time, I knew I did good, so I watched a little bit.”

The first legitimate moment of stardom in Looney’s career came last May 13, in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Warriors and Grizzlies. Needing a win to advance to the conference finals, Golden State took a 78-77 lead into the fourth quarter at Chase Center. Looney opened the quarter by snagging three offensive rebounds on the first possession, leading to a 3-pointer by Wiggins.

That was a foreshadowing. Looney played every minute of the quarter, submitting four assists and eight rebounds -- six on offense -- while the Grizzlies totaled seven boards. Golden State scored 13 second-chance points and won by 14, 110-96.

Looney, with a career-high 22 rebounds, carried the Warriors to a series-clinching win and became the first cult hero in the brief history of Chase Center.

Not only had he stepped into a space usually reserved for stars, but he had more brilliance to offer. Facing the Mavericks in the conference finals, Looney burned them for a career-high 21 points and 12 rebounds in a Game 2 victory and, an 18-rebound performance in series-clinching Game 5. His seven rebounds in the fourth quarter equaled that of Dallas.

Highlights and spotlights had been the domain of Looney’s All-Star teammates; his role was to make games easier for them by doing the “dirty work.” And now he was receiving the first standing ovations of his seven-year career.

This was a new experience, unlike anything Looney had felt since entering the NBA in 2015, when Golden State selected him in the first round, No. 28 overall. This was the stunt man stealing scenes from movie stars, a backup voice grabbing the mic and stealing the concert from the lead singer.

“It was an amazing feeling,” Looney said. “You work so hard to go out there and win for the fans and the city you represent. For them to show that love, show that they’re proud of what you’re doing, it keeps you motivated. Keeps you working hard.”

Looney’s remarkable postseason was years in the making. Never a full-time player when healthy and his catalog of injuries and surgeries and rehabilitations, listed end to end, would circle the bay. His career has been threatened not once, not twice, but three times.

And there he was last season, leading the NBA in total games played with 104 -- all 82 in the regular season and all 22 in a postseason that culminated in Golden State’s four championship in eight years. He is the unlikeliest iron man in American sports history.

And, boy, is he appreciated by Dub Nation. His jersey, like the man, has gone from invisible to fashionable. No, really. A Warriors fan named Andrew Beliveau persuaded a few friends join him in betting on the Warriors to win the 2022 NBA Finals, hoping the winnings would bankroll their trip to the British Open golf tournament.

After cashing in, they showed up at the Open Championship in Scotland with all seven posing for pictures – wearing Looney’s No. 5 jersey.

“My parents enjoyed all the love we’ve been getting,” Looney said. “They’ve seen all the dark days I had and all I had to go through to get back on the court and play the game that I love.

“So, for the fans to appreciate what I’m doing out there, it makes me think about those days when it was tough, but I was able to push through.”

When Looney showed up for his camp in Milwaukee carrying the Larry O’Brien championship trophy, he was peppered with questions. The lines of inquiry were different than they had been in the past.

“Instead of asking about everybody else on the team,” Looney recalled, “they were asking about what I was doing out there. It’s definitely a different feeling. A great feeling. I’ve been talking my stuff to them for a long time; we’ve been winning for a long time. But for me to have that big of an impact, that big of a role, it feels good.”

There may be no one outside Looney’s family – parents Doug and Victoria rarely miss a Warriors home game – more pleased with Looney’s journey than Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who openly urged ownership to re-sign Looney when he became a free agent in 2019.

Kerr made no such plea this time. When the Warriors, after affable negotiations, offered Looney a three-year contract worth $22.5 million, with another $3 million in incentives, he signed without hesitation.

“Didn’t really see this coming,” Kerr said of Looney’s strong postseason. “But it’s a great reminder of perseverance and professionalism and maturity. Loon has done such a great job of learning how to be a pro. And now he’s as good a pro as there is in the whole league.”

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes grunt work, maintenance matters big and small, that Looney must do to stay able after enduring surgeries on each hip and a core muscle injury, altering his diet to accommodate a sensitive stomach and, even now, trying to manage his neuropathy.

Kerr has gotten accustomed to the same sight each morning when he enters his office overlooking the practice floor at Chase Center: Looney, on the floor, in a corner, by himself, going through his yoga routine.

“He’s learned how to take care of his body,” Kerr said. “He’s learned how to deal with the adversity of different injuries and illnesses. He’s had to change his diet, change his routine. But he’s done all of that.

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“And he’s also learned how to play from Draymond, from Andre (Iguodala), learned how to play with Steph and Klay. And now he’s incredibly valuable to us.”

Looney always has been valuable, but mostly for his marvelous execution of the unsung activities that make the Warriors special. His value is now mainstream. He’s out of the shadows, completely visible and so greatly appreciated there might come a day when fans push for the retirement of his jersey.

We’ll all know when it started. The postseason of ’22.

“I was proud of myself,” Looney said of his work last postseason. “I’m not usually a big stats guy. I don’t have big stat games. So, when I do get those stats, that’s the feeling I used to get back in high school, when I would get a lot of points. You get a 20-point game or a 22-rebound game, that’s something I definitely cherish.

“I do all the dirty work, and I take pride in that. But every time I get a chance to put up stats, it’s always cool.”

How can it not be cool for Looney to finally have highlights of himself that he deems worthy of rewatching?

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