Thompson: Klay Thompson had to leave the Warriors, but the legend will last forever (2024)

An evening in November of 2012 revealed one of Klay Thompson’s most classic moments and early insight into the ingredients that would make him a Golden State Warriors legend. He stepped to the free throw line at Oracle Arena in Oakland, the Warriors up by two with 13 seconds remaining in overtime. He missed both. Golden State still had a chance for the win, needing only a stop. But Klay made a costly defensive mistake, letting Denver’s Danilo Gallinari free for a game-tying dunk. The Warriors lost in double overtime.

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By the time media was allowed in the locker room to ask about the collapse, which then-coach Mark Jackson said was the worst he felt after a game, Klay was gone. His clothes were still hanging in the locker. But he’d already left Oracle — in full uniform.

Unorthodox behavior, for sure. No postgame shower. No cooling off. He just bounced. That’s how mad he was, at himself, because that’s how much he cared. His competitive fire yet controlled. He wasn’t afraid to completely lose himself in what he loved at whatever price. He was cool, but never too cool to be fully invested.

A lesson from Klay.

That same spirit has led to the end of one of the NBA’s greatest trios. After 13 seasons, Klay Thompson is now a Dallas Maverick. And the Warriors’ championship triangle is now a chevron. Klay exited the house he helped build, the only franchise he’s known. This time, he left his uniform behind.

Players leave teams all the time. But this is different. This is an icon throwing up the deuces, altering the DNA of a franchise in the process.

It’ll be jarring to witness, the Warriors’ rock star in another band. Paired with Luka Dončić and not Steph Curry.

But as the old adage goes, loving something means letting it go. Love’s hardest and yet most necessary gesture is liberation, the sacrifice required to accept absence in the name of freedom. Klay’s gift to the Bay Area, outside of his most beautiful shooting form and the indelible moments he created, was his sovereignty.

He moved as a free spirit in an industry of concocted personalities within an era of trends and conformity. His ability and willingness to choose his path, veering away from the box of his profession, in some way granted permission for his fans to do the same. Riding with Klay meant being yourself. Klay Thompson was his own man.

That’s why he had to go. Because for the last five years, Klay hasn’t been free. He with the liberated aura had become imprisoned. His determination to recapture his past, to reach the Hall of Fame bar he set for himself, seemed so consuming as to entrap him.

It’s a plot twist for Klay to end up the one too aggrieved to stay. Five years ago, it would have been crazy to imagine Klay being so hurt by gestures, or the absence thereof, and perceptions of appreciation. He clearly always valued his respect and legacy, judging by his play. But even when he did have a gripe about his respect, it felt more fun banter than bruised feelings, like when he didn’t make the NBA75 list of the league’s greatest players and changed to No. 77 for practice. His public facade was one of indifference to typical social thirsts. He was too locked in on being Klay. You don’t show up as Jackie Moon because you care about perceptions.

Klay after scoring 52 points on Monday: "I looked like Jackie Moon out there."

Klay tonight:

🎥 @NBCSAuthenticpic.twitter.com/1pYz5OLImU

— SB Nation (@SBNation) November 1, 2018

But as one former player recently reminded, getting older is brutal on an athlete. Greatness exits the body faster than the mind. What Klay experienced only seems to exponentiate the brutality. His wasn’t a gradual departure. It was snatched from him. Twice. In the middle of his prime. With major injuries in consecutive years.

He’s not the first player to endure such. But his status and his natural proclivity for authenticity gave us a window into this athlete’s journey. He didn’t show everything, but enough to know his happiness was dissipating. As Draymond Green said on his podcast, it’s better to keep the inventory stocked with good memories than to create new bad ones. And he was compiling the bad ones. Not just his blight performances in elimination games the past two seasons. But the moments where his frustration and hurt manifested in ways unbecoming of him.

Klay deserves this new start. He’s earned a refresh. As much as it might hurt for him to go, he’s accrued the grace and understanding from a fan base he’s so endowed.

“I think last year was a very trying year for him,” Green said. “It was very hard on Klay. As a brother, to see someone going through that, it was hard on me to watch. … So it’s probably better this way. But it sucks.”

GO DEEPERKawakami: The perfect and poetic timing of Klay Thompson's 13 seasons of splash

Klay was still stewing just outside the visiting locker room in Phoenix in October of 2022, following his ejection after getting into it with Devin Booker. It can be hard to tell when Klay doesn’t want to talk. Occasionally, it will look and feel like a bad time to interview him and he’ll end up his most verbose. Dropping memorable gems and honest insight. So I risked it and asked him about his shooting after he’d gone 1-for-8 from the field. He missed all five 3-pointers, making 2 of his last 12, and totaled 10 points in two games. My question was about whether his issue was technique or shot selection.

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He stopped, shot me a look of exasperation, and answered.

“Why would I stop believing now, Marcus?”

That wasn’t my question, but his answer was insight into what he was thinking and how he was processing. Sometimes with Klay, questions about his shooting, especially after off nights, he seemed to hear as indictments. As if the mere inquiry is a request for him to stop shooting. Because in his mind, and for great reason, just about every shot he takes is inherently justified by his excellence at the craft. Questioning the outcome is akin to questioning the decision to let it fly.

And why would he EVER stop shooting? Why would he EVER stop doing the thing he was born to do? Why would he EVER abandon the confidence his work and talent have concocted to brew?

A lesson from Klay.

Thompson: Klay Thompson had to leave the Warriors, but the legend will last forever (2)

Klay Thompson celebrates during the 2022 NBA Finals. The Warriors beat the Celtics in six games to win their fourth title in eight seasons. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)

His peace in life is on the court, plying his craft. Yeah, it’s also on the boat, and in the water, and lounging with his dog, Rocco. But nothing seems to fill him like basketball. Putting a ball with a 29.5-inch circumference into a hoop measuring 56.55 inches around. It’s a simple pleasure he’s mastered. And his mastery has brought so much pleasure.

Klay is still convinced he can play at the level of his heart. More important, that he’s worthy of the space and opportunity to do so.

“Changed the whole Bay Area,” Curry wrote on Instagram. “Changed the way the game is played. Killa Klay at the center of it all. Thank you for everything. Go enjoy playing basketball and doing what you do.”

Klay hasn’t stopped believing. And it is clear he contends the Warriors stopped believing in him — not giving him a monster extension, putting his contract on the backburner, envisioning a role for him off the bench, sitting him at the end of games despite all the magic he’s made.

That’s why his journey to peace was clearly tougher in the Bay. The home where he can’t escape reminders of his former glory and where the reverence, and in some cases its decline, is evidence of what he lost. The ultimate competitor in him gave it a valiant effort, and still does. He helped deliver a fourth championship in 2022. He battled. Against the restrictions of his body. Against the reality being forced upon him.

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That’s why, to love Klay, in this moment, means to let him go. It’s not a word for the departing, but the remaining. It means not allowing the loss of Klay to overpower the gains he delivered. It means valuing what Klay’s given over what he’s taking with him. It means to feel this with him.

Just like when he dropped 37 in a quarter against Sacramento in a 2015 game. Just like when he stunned Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals and had Joe Lacob bow before him. Just like when he scored 60 points in 29 minutes in 2016. Just like when he tore his ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals. Just like when he cried on the Warriors bench after a game in 2021. Just like when he dunked in his first game back in two years. Just like when he was on the last of the championship floats in 2022, in his sailor’s hat, and the streets filled with fans following him.

Klay gave all he had. He was genuine enough to be in a relationship with the fans. Let people in. Bare his soul. Because of that, the Bay was with him strong. An adopted son. If that was ever true, so should it remain, even with him gone.

A lesson from Klay.

The choice to leave the Warriors is among the most Klay things he’s ever done. The captain of his own boat. The commander of his own bike. The engineer and pilot of his own paper planes. If Klay wants to leave, Klay will leave. And he left.

But there is another part to this famous adage. The first part — if you love something, let it go — is followed by a hopeful conclusion: if it comes back, it will be yours. Forever, in some versions.

Klay will be back, presuming time will heal any wounds. Not as an opponent but as family. Not as a Maverick, but as a Warrior. Not as the one who left, but as the legend you love.

When he returns, he will be your Klay. Forever.

GO DEEPERHow Klay Thompson's 13-year run with the Warriors splintered so unceremoniously

(Top photo of Klay Thompson celebrating a series-clinching win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2022 playoffs: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Thompson: Klay Thompson had to leave the Warriors, but the legend will last forever (4)Thompson: Klay Thompson had to leave the Warriors, but the legend will last forever (5)

Marcus Thompson II is a lead columnist at The Athletic. He is a prominent voice in the Bay Area sports scene after 18 years with Bay Area News Group, including 10 seasons covering the Warriors and four as a columnist. Marcus is also the author of the best-selling biography "GOLDEN: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry." Follow Marcus on Twitter @thompsonscribe

Thompson: Klay Thompson had to leave the Warriors, but the legend will last forever (2024)

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