SAN FRANCISCO — When Ronnie Lott watches Golden State play basketball, he might as well be reviewing an old All-22 movie of himself from his days as an All-Pro safety and cornerback with the San Francisco 49ers.
See how Andrew Wiggins positions himself for rebounds. Watch how the defenders take on the screens. Watch as Stephen Curry breaks free for jump shots and watch as the team threads the needle with their passes.
“It’s an art, really,” Lott said. “In football, there may be a person who can do that. In today’s basketball game, everyone has to be quite capable of making great passes.”
For Lott, 63, the experience has an analytical side. But there is also an emotional one. As a Warriors season ticket holder since the mid-1980s, Lott has seen a bit of everything. Now, with Golden State looking to clinch another NBA championship, in Boston on Thursday night against the Celtics, he’s gearing up once again. Golden State leads the series, 3-2.
“I know how much it means to those guys,” Lott said.
It may come as a surprise to football fans to learn that Lott’s first love was basketball. He was good enough to play in Division I for one season as a point guard in Southern California.
“I wanted to be Magic Johnson,” he said.
Lott said he learned a lot that season about teamwork and winning, and it gave him an invaluable opportunity to work on his quickness. But after scoring a total of 4 points and committing 10 personal fouls in limited minutes, he knew his future lay in soccer.
He was in the midst of winning four Super Bowls with the 49ers when he found an outlet for his other passion: buying season tickets to Golden State home games at the start of the Chris Mullin era.
“It’s my favorite sport,” Lott said. “It’s probably the sport I dream of more than anything.”
He last played in the NFL in 1994 and announced his retirement in 1996. He was inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
In addition to savoring the vicarious joy and coping with the occasional sadness that has come from watching Golden State play over the years, Lott has noted how much overlap there is between basketball and football, an overlap that has been especially apparent. in the finals.
“The players are very physical,” he said. “You see guys grabbing jerseys, and I’m like, ‘Man, they’d throw a couple yellow flags at them if they were playing football.’ ”
Lott compared defending 3-point shooters like Curry to football’s “hit-and-run” coverage, in which defensive backs obstruct the path of wide receivers coming off the line of scrimmage. In fact, Marcus Smart, one of the Celtics who has tried to chase Curry in the Finals, grew up playing free safety.
“He helped me learn how to change direction and how to use my hips,” said Smart, this season’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Winning is also universal, and Lott has seen shadows of the 49ers’ championship DNA in the way Golden State has gone about its business. Lott recalled seasons when quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice were beaten and tired but still found ways to engineer Super Bowl runs.
In recent weeks, Lott said, Golden State has won games it probably didn’t have to win. There was the team’s comeback from a 19-point deficit against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. And in his own way, Golden State’s win over Boston in Game 5 on Monday night was another weird one: Curry missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. But the experience builds itself.
“What makes a great team a great team,” Lott said, “is that you can go back to moments and say, ‘Oh, we’ve been in this situation before and we know what it takes.'”
At the same time, Lott was particularly impressed by Wiggins, who had 26 points and 13 rebounds to lead Golden State on Monday. Lott thought back to 2020, when Wiggins joined the team via a midseason trade from Minnesota, and no one knew if he would make much of an impact. But sometimes a change of scenery can make good players indispensable.
“I’m playing basketball, and I’m playing hard, and I feel like people respect that,” Wiggins said, adding, “There are a lot of great people here, great people who challenge you and hold you accountable.”
Lott has seen it happen. In 1981, Lott’s rookie year, the 49ers were coming off a tepid start to the season when defensive end Fred Dean joined them after a contract dispute with the San Diego Chargers. With Dean wreaking havoc as a passing specialist, the 49ers won their first Super Bowl.
“When we got Fred Dean, everything got better,” Lott said. He drew a parallel with Wiggins: “He has elevated his game and his effort. When you find a guy like that, you get the feeling, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life, to be in this environment, to be on this stage.’”
Although he was a regular in Golden State’s first-round playoff games this season, Lott hasn’t attended a finals game since 2016. It was in 2016, of course, that LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers stunned Golden State in Game 7 of the finals to win the franchise’s first championship, after losing the series 3-1. The loss seemed to hurt Lott almost as much as if he had been in uniform.
Since then, he has watched Golden State’s various final appearances with his wife, Karen, from the safety and relative seclusion of his self-described “man cave.” It’s better for everyone involved, he said. He knows it may sound strange, but nothing he does, says or feels in his basement can affect the game.
“I don’t want them to lose,” he said, “so I feel like the times I’ve gone and they’ve lost, I just don’t like that feeling. And you don’t want to feel like you’re holding them back from something.”