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In the media room just outside the Golden State Warriors' locker room, head coach Dave Cowens is sitting alone behind a table on a raised platform, waiting as reporters file in to ask him questions about his team's 26th loss in 37 games. His eyes, drooping into the large bags surrounding them, are fixated on the empty red plastic cup he holds in his oversized hands. He's turning the cup over, twirling it around, spinning it slowly.
A glance at Cowens suggests the obvious: He's not used to this. During his Hall of Fame, 11-year playing career, spent mostly with the then-dynastic Boston Celtics, he went to the playoffs seven times and won two NBA championships. In his two full seasons as an NBA head coach, he led the Charlotte Hornets to the playoffs twice.
He will not be going there this season.
Warriors coach Dave Cowens isn't used to losing.
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Answering questions, he does not look up once.
"I don't know," he says, head shaking, his voice a plodding monotone. "I just thought we should have won the game."
The Cleveland Cavaliers came into the Arena in Oakland having lost 10 of their previous 13 games. In tonight's game, the Warriors led by as many as 12 points in the second half. And they were up by six, more than halfway through the fourth quarter. But then they fell into the kind of basketball doldrums that have been their signature for the better part of seven seasons. For five solid minutes, the team missed every shot it took -- all four of them -- and turned the ball over four times.
While Cowens watched this remarkable display of futility from the bench -- standing silently slack-jawed with his hands on his sides for most of it; sitting with his head in his hands once it became apparent that collapse was irreversible -- he looked down his bench a few times, probably for help. He saw six injured players, wearing street clothes.
"All you can do," he says now, both the monotone and the fixation with the red cup unbroken, "is run plays and get guys open. I don't know; I just thought we should have won that ballgame."
In professional sports, teams that crumble in the final moments generally expect to exit their arenas to choruses of boos. But the Warriors have crumbled so regularly, for so long, that late-game incompetence plays into a different dynamic. With his team trailing 107-99 with 4.8 seconds left -- that is, at a point when there was absolutely no chance for his team to win the game -- guard Mookie Blaylock hit a layup, snapping a five-minute, 11-second stretch without a Warriors basket, and, more important, pushing the Warriors' total past 100 points.
Hitting the century mark meant fans could claim coupons for free Taco Bell chalupas. Those remaining of the original crowd (a healthy 15,289) erupted with chalupa glee and exited smiling and laughing; the Warriors walked off the court tormented by yet another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
While a despondent Cowens mopes through his news conference, Larry Hughes -- who watched the game from the bench, his injured right thumb in a splint, his rail-thin 6-foot-5-inch frame swimming in baggy clothing instead of a Warriors uniform -- peeks through the doorway. A year ago, Hughes was acquired via a three-way deal from Philadelphia, where the talented 21-year-old was sulking on the bench behind Allen Iverson. When they traded for him in the wake of a season-ending knee injury to the team's other much-marketed young star, Antawn Jamison, Hughes was everything the remaining Warriors weren't: gifted, athletic, excited, exciting.
But the team finished 19-63, and -- one year later -- is still enduring post-game palls like this one.
"That's the hardest thing, just seeing the faces," says the reserved guard, whose assortment of tattoos and hip-hop clothing projects a persona that's far louder than he seems to be. "I mean, coach was in there, just sitting up there by himself. And he just looked ... well, I mean, you don't ever want to see your coach look like that."
Any franchise that goes 125-277 over a seven-year period is in for its share of agonizing moments. But for this batch of Golden State Warriors, losing has been even worse. In their minds, you see, the Warriors are a playoff team. Just ask them. Never mind that the standings say they're 15-33. Or that their season-opening starting lineup -- the one that supposedly would have taken them to the playoffs, or at least close to the playoffs, but for an unprecedented plague of injuries -- won just one out of six games before the injuries started. Or that nearly all of their supposedly promising core players have at least one major deficiency in their games. Those things? Details.
What matters, the Warriors insist, is that this team comes so close before losing games. What's obvious, they will tell you again and again, is that some of the team's best players have been turned into an Armani-clad set of M*A*S*H patients glued to the end of the bench. What's clear, they believe, is that, except for an extraordinary string of bad luck that has to end sometime, everything would be different.