An N.F.L. Champion Lives His N.B.A. Dream Through Golden State

SAN FRANCISCO — When Ronnie Lott watches Golden State play basketball, he might as well be analyzing old All-22 film 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 defenders deal with screens. He watches how Stephen Curry wriggles free for jump shots, and he watches how the team threads the needle with its passes.

“It’s an art, really,” Lott said. “In football, you might have one person who can do that. In today’s basketball game, everybody’s got to be pretty capable of making great passes.”

For Lott, 63, there is an analytical side to the experience. 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 N.B.A. championship, in Boston on Thursday night against the Celtics, he is bracing himself once more. Golden State leads the series, 3-2.

“I know how much it means to those guys,” Lott said.

It might 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 a season as a walk-on point guard at Southern California.

“I wanted to be Magic Johnson,” he said.

Lott was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. Credit…REUTERS/Ron Schwane

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 he scored a total of 4 points while collecting 10 personal fouls in limited minutes, he knew his future was in football.

He was in the midst of winning four Super Bowls with the 49ers when he found an outlet for his other passion: He bought season tickets to Golden State’s home games at the start of the Chris Mullin era.

“It’s my favorite sport,” Lott said. “It’s probably the one sport I dream about more than anything.”

He last played in the N.F.L. in 1994, and announced his retirement in 1996. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

Aside from savoring the vicarious joy, and coping with the occasional sadness, that has come with watching Golden State play over the years, Lott has noticed how much overlap there is between basketball and football — overlap that has been especially evident the finals.

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

Lott compared defending 3-point shooters like Curry to football’s “bump and run” coverage, in which defensive backs impede 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 around in the finals, grew up playing free safety.

“It helped me learn how to change directions and how to use my hips,” said Smart, this season’s defensive player of the year.

Winning, too, is universal, and Lott has seen shades of the 49ers’ championship D.N.A. in the way Golden State has gone about its business. Lott recalled seasons when quarterback Joe Montana and receiver Jerry Rice were beat up and tired but still found ways to engineer Super Bowl runs.

In recent weeks, Lott said, Golden State has won games that it probably had no business winning. 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 its 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 experience builds on 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 through a midseason trade with Minnesota and no one knew whether he would have much of an impact. But sometimes a change of scenery can turn good players into indispensable ones.

“I’m playing basketball, and I’m playing hard, and I feel like people respect that,” Wiggins said, adding: “There are just 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 lukewarm start to the season when the defensive end Fred Dean joined them following a contract dispute with the San Diego Chargers. With Dean wreaking havoc as a pass-rush specialist, the 49ers went on to win their first Super Bowl.

Running back Walt Easley, left, and Lott, right, hugged 49ers Coach Bill Walsh after beating the Giants at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in November 1981.Credit…Carl Viti/Associated Press

“When we got Fred Dean, everything got better,” Lott said. He drew a parallel to Wiggins: “He’s elevated his game and his effort. When you find a guy like that, you get the sense that, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for all my life, to be in this environment, to be on this stage.’”

Though he was a regular at Golden State’s early-round playoff games this season, Lott has not 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 having trailed the series 3-1. The loss seemed to sting Lott nearly as much as it would have had he been in uniform.

Since then, he has watched Golden State’s various finals appearances with his wife, Karen, from the safety and relative seclusion of his self-described “man cave.” It is better for everyone involved, he said. He knows it might sound strange, but nothing he does or 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 that 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 anything.”

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