Daydream Believers

In the middle of another catastrophic season, the Golden State Warriors refuse to face the probability that they're as bad as they seem

"Sometimes Dave just looks down the bench and starts laughing," Foyle said. "I mean, you just have to laugh."

Or cry.

Or transport yourself to an alternate reality.

Within the Warriors family, the main defense mechanism to the team's plague of injuries seems to be an unrealistic level of optimism, a belief that fate has somehow deprived them of a sure thing.

"We are a playoff team," Antawn Jamison says. "If we have our team together for 60 or 70 games, we're definitely a playoff team. And that's not just talking."

Jamison has good reason for personal optimism: Over the last two years, he has developed from a hesitant rookie with holes in his game into a budding superstar. Thinking back to an electric night at the Arena -- Dec. 6, when he outshined L.A. Lakers stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, pouring in 51 points and pushing the Warriors to a victory over the defending world champions, in overtime, in front of a sellout home crowd -- he shares a daydream.

"You know, you just imagine winning some games, because the fans have been really supportive every time we've played well. And with a few more wins, you get some more people in the house. And then, you know, just like that, people will be worried about coming into Oakland, with the hostile crowd, always on their feet and all that."

The cruelest aspect of these daydreams is that, every so often, they're indulged by reality. After a recent win against a Boston team still reeling from the firing (and the tenure) of coach Rick Pitino, the Warriors' second victory in as many nights, the mood just outside the locker room was downright giddy. St. Jean, the salty, red-faced general manager who is normally gregarious enough to get away with using "shit" as a friendly greeting, is beaming in the direction of Jamison, whose 31 points and five rebounds helped the team overcome his eight turnovers.

"You see? You see?" cackles St. Jean. "We're gonna get these guys back, and it's gonna be "March Madness.'"

"Right," Jamison replies, grinning, "and then we're gonna win the championship, right, coach?" The two men erupt into convulsions of laughter and back-patting before drifting off in opposite directions.

Jamison was kidding; St. Jean wasn't. "March Madness" is a term he and his salary-cap-savvy sidekick, Assistant General Manager Gary Fitzsimmons, tossed around throughout January, referring to doctors' projections that most of the team's wounded would be back in the lineup by March. (Of the injured Warriors, only Mills is projected to miss the remainder of the season.)

Because many of the team's losses have been by small margins, and because the Warriors have had what St. Jean calls their "hockey team" of wounded on the bench, the prospect of getting most of the roster back has enticed the team like a mirage in a desert."That's our goal, to hold it together," Larry Hughes says. "We'll get Danny back, Damp pretty soon. And then we should be rolling. I think we're ready for a breakthrough. We just need to hold things down until those guys get back."

Never mind that the team was 1-5 when "those guys" were healthy.

The most reasonable facet of the Warriors' optimism involves the prospect of playing the team's "young core" -- Jamison, Jackson, Fortson, and Hughes -- together. Hughes opened the team's "Just Wait Until Everyone Gets Back" era last February, when he was acquired from Philadelphia at the trade deadline. Because Jamison was already shelved for the season with a knee injury, the Warriors were left to imagine what it might be like to have two supremely talented young players on the court at once.

And Hughes certainly has physical talent. Even though his Philly coach, Larry Brown, said Hughes had a greater upside than superstar teammate Allen Iverson, the 21-year-old wasn't playing. He was trapped behind Iverson on the bench, and news reports about him moping through practices were beginning to surface. So the Sixers shipped him to Golden State in a three-way deal that involved the Chicago Bulls.

Hughes immediately gave Warriors fans some excitement, bringing quickness and athleticism the Warriors hadn't seen since -- well, since Sprewell and Webber. Let loose amongst the rotting Warriors, Hughes averaged better than 22 points and almost six rebounds per game.

And even though he'd gone from an emerging playoff team to the Pacific Division's doormat, Hughes was in hoop heaven.

"When I got here, the team was pretty much done," he recalls, his eyes lighting up a bit as he describes his game. "But, for me, it was a chance to break out, to do what I've been doing since I started playing basketball, and that's play with a free mind, free range to make plays and do things that help a team win."

But Hughes hasn't helped the Warriors in the winning department yet: They were 6-26 after acquiring him last year; his much-hyped union with Jamison has produced an 11-26 record when they've been on the court together. That record is at least partially linked to a reality that optimism alone cannot change: For all his other apparent gifts, Larry Hughes seems to be a shooting guard who cannot shoot.

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