August 11, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO — When Ronnie Lott watches Golden State play basketball, he might as well analyze an old All-22 movie of himself from his days as an All-Pro safety and cornerback with the San Francisco 49ers.

He watches how Andrew Wiggins positions himself for rebounds. He watches how the defenders manage the screens. He watches how Stephen Curry squirms freely for jump shots, and he watches how the team threads the needle with their passes.

“It’s an art, really,” Lott said. “In football you might have a person who can do that. In today’s basketball game, everyone has to be capable enough to make good passes.

For Lott, 63, there is an analytical side to the experience. But there is also an emotional dimension. As a season ticket holder for the Warriors since the mid-1980s, Lott has seen a bit of everything. Now, as Golden State seeks to clinch another NBA championship, in Boston on Thursday night against the Celtics, it is preparing once again. Golden State leads the series, 3-2.

“I know how much that means to these guys,” Lott said.

It might surprise 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 this season about teamwork and winning, and it gave him an invaluable opportunity to work on his speed. But after scoring a total of 4 points while picking up 10 personal fouls within minutes, he knew his future was in football.

He was in the process of winning four Super Bowls with the 49ers when he found an outlet for his other passion: buying Golden State home game season tickets early in 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 the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

Along with savoring the vicarious joy and dealing with the occasional sadness that comes with watching Golden State play over the years, Lott has noticed how much of an overlap there is between basketball and football — an overlap that was particularly evident during the finals.

“The players are so physical,” he said. “You see guys grabbing shirts, and I’m like, ‘Man, they’d have a few yellow flags thrown at them if they were playing football. “”

Lott compared defensive 3-point shooters like Curry to football’s “bump and run” coverage, in which defensive backs get in the way of wide receivers coming off the line of scrimmage. In fact, Marcus Smart, one of the Celtics who tried to chase Curry in the Finals, grew up playing it safe.

“It helped me learn to change direction and use my hips,” said Smart, Defensive Player of the Year this season.

Winning, too, is universal, and Lott has seen nuances of the 49ers’ championship DNA in the way Golden State has conducted business. Lott recalled the seasons when quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice were battered and tired, but still found ways to create Super Bowl runs.

Over the past few 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 to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. And in its own way, Golden State’s win over Boston in Monday Night’s Game 5 was another odd one: Curry missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. But the experience builds on itself.

“What makes a great team a great team,” Lott said, “is that you can look back on moments and say, ‘Oh, we’ve been in this before and we know what it takes. . “”

At the same time, Lott was particularly impressed with 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 mid-season trade from Minnesota and no one knew if he would have much of an impact. But sometimes a change of scenery can turn good players into indispensable players.

“I play basketball, and I play hard, and I feel like people respect that,” Wiggins said, adding, “There’s just a lot of great people here – great people who challenge you and you. hold responsible.”

Lott saw it coming. In 1981, Lott’s rookie year, the 49ers were off to a lukewarm start to the season when defensive end Fred Dean joined following a contract dispute with the San Diego Chargers. As Dean wreaked 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 elevated his game and his effort. When you find a guy like that, you feel like, “Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for all my life, to be in this environment, to be on this stage.”

Although he’s been a regular in Golden State’s 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 on the road in Game 7 of the Finals to win the franchise’s first championship, after leading the series 3-1. The loss seemed to sting Lott almost as much as it would have had he been in uniform.

Since then, he’s watched Golden State’s various final appearances with his wife, Karen, from the safety and relative seclusion of his self-proclaimed “man cave.” It’s better for everyone involved, he said. He knows it might 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, “and so I feel like the times I walked away and they lost — I just don’t like that feeling And you don’t want to feel like you’re holding them back from anything.