Newest Dubs folk hero Looney proves team's belief in roster


SAN FRANCISCO – As the Warriors were stumbling through January, vandalizing a substantial portion of their fabulous start, curiosity escalated, grumbling got louder and there was considerable questioning of coach Steve Kerr’s faith in his players.

With so much uncertainty about James Wiseman’s return, does the team need to look for a veteran center before the trade deadline?

Not really, Kerr would say.

The Warriors were clobbered on the glass last night, so might a big man help you in that area?

I think we’ll be OK, Kerr would say. The league is getting smaller.

What if Kevon Looney is injured? Should Bob Myers, your general manager, explore the trade market for a big man? Or, failing that, perhaps the buyout market?

That’s not necessary, Kerr would say.

“Generally speaking, if a guy that good is out there, he’s not on the buyout market,” Kerr said as the trade deadline passed in February. “Somebody would’ve already snapped him up, via trade, or somebody wouldn’t have let him go in the first place.”

So, Kerr, with the blessing of veteran leaders Stephen Curry and Draymond “I think I’m a pretty good center” Green, rolled with the roster he had. Center by committee: Nemanja Bjelica, Kevon Looney, Otto Porter Jr. and Green.

Four months later, the Warriors are barreling toward the NBA Finals after dispatching three Western Conference playoff teams in 16 games. One of those teams, the Denver Nuggets, has a back-to-back MVP, Nikola Jokic, at center. Another, Memphis, came with rising star Jaren Jackson Jr. and rugged Steven Adams, conceivably the strongest man in the league.

The Warriors flourished with Draymond shuttling between power forward and center, while Looney materialized as the big man of their dreams.

“We already knew Loon could switch and stay in front of guys and set screens and how solid he was,” Kerr told NBC Sports Bay Area over the weekend. “Every time I put him out there, I would trust that we would do fine. But he took a leap as a rebounder. He became an elite rebounder. That changed things.  Now he’s a different level of player.”

Though his 6-foot-9, 240-pound body moves in sections that probably squeak with each pivot, Looney has become the latest in the line of cult heroes dotting franchise history. Larry Smith, aka Mr. Mean, was a voracious rebounder who had a dedicated rooting section in the upper bowl wearing hard hats in the 1980s. There were, among others, Sarunas Marciulionis, Keith “Mr.” Jennings, Earl Boykins and Nate Robinson. There was, for a fraction of the 2003-04 season, modestly skilled but fervently dedicated Brian Cardinal, nicknamed “The Janitor.”

What they all have in common is a visceral and very visible desire to throw themselves into the game. An eagerness to do grunt work. They relied on effort to compensate for what they lacked in other areas because it was the only way to get playing time in the NBA.

Except Looney has reached heights none of them ever knew. He’s a two-time NBA champion who in recent weeks has blossomed from subtly appreciated asset to fan favorite.

“Being here a while, they’ve seen me grow,” he said of fans at Chase Center. “They’ve seen the work I put in. They kind of know my story, the ups and downs I’ve had. For me to be here and be able to play on this stage and do well, they feel like they’re with me, like they’ve been through the journey with me. I love the respect that they give me.”

Looney’s journey is inspirational, the stuff of fantasy movies. Drafted in 2015, lasting until 30th overall largely because of serious hip concerns. Surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip two months after the draft. Surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip in 2016. A neuropathy diagnosis in 2019. Surgery to repair a core muscle in 2020.

The grit required to persevere through all of that and still be a valuable member of an NBA team, being one of five players to take the court for all 82 games this season – deserves admiration. A “badge of honor,” Looney calls it.

But becoming a postseason star is mind-blowing. Looney earned the love of Dub Nation with epic performances in consecutive home games to close out Memphis and Dallas. He posted a career-high 22 rebounds in a career-high 35 minutes in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals sent the recalcitrant Grizzlies home for the summer, and then came back in the conference finals with 18 rebounds in 31 minutes in Game 5 to help oust the Mavericks.

And now, every offensive rebound is followed by a serenade: “Loooooon . . . Looooon . . . Loooooon” cascading through Chase Center.

“It's pretty cool,” Looney said. “It took me, what, seven years and I finally got a little chant. I feel accomplished. It’s always cool to get recognized by the crowd. When they’re calling your name in that moment it’s always special.”

Looney is why the Warriors withstood the absence of Wiseman, whose 7-foot-1 height provides a dimension none of his teammates have.

On a per-36-minute basis, Loon’s 13.9 rebounds was tops among regulars on the four teams in the respective conference finals. The leaders among Boston’s rotation players, Al Horford and Daniel Theis are averaging 9.4 per 36 minutes this postseason.

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“I found that I could have a niche in the league doing that, and I found it would help our team win games,” Looney said. “That’s my best way to make an impact on the offensive end, by getting us extra possessions.”

Looney has stayed healthy. He has been effective, even critical, on both ends. There was never a moment when Kerr or anybody in the front office was ready to panic over the “lack of size” issue and give up assets for a big who was available because he was unwanted.

“Two-way bigs generally aren’t a thing,” Kerr said. “Any good bigs are already in the league and they’re a hard commodity to find. James’ injury changed that discussion. We were able to survive his injury only because Loon was able to play 82 and do it so well.”

And as the Warriors go deeper into the postseason, Loon is only getting better.

The curiosity is gone, the grumbling is silenced and no longer is anyone questioning the wisdom of the Warriors for declining to go shopping for what might have felt like an area of need.

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