Kevon Looney is not a card player, so when Stephen Curry and Draymond Green pulled out a deck on the Warriors team plane and invited him to play, Looney chose instead to unwind with a movie and some shut-eye.
Meanwhile, 38,000 feet above home, business and basketball, Curry and Green settled into their same seats around the same table in the same section on the plane and dealt ‘em. The name of the game is poker, and Curry and Green take it very, very seriously.
“They’re pretty good,” Looney said. “I always stayed away.”
On the court, these decorated teammates have a different way of showing their competitive side. Curry with skill, scowls and shimmies, and Green through open-mouthed verbal heat — usually directed at the other team. But it’s during these traditional poker games that Curry and Green take aim at each other. All teammates are invited. Few accept.
“I’m probably the wrong person to talk to because I was never a part of those games,” said Shaun Livingston, who played for the Warriors from 2014 to 2019. “I pay taxes, so I didn’t really feel like paying another tax on top of the ones I already pay.”
The game is on hold these days, because of pandemic protocol, but it all started nearly a decade ago. In 2012, Draymond Green, then a brazen rookie, jumped into a game of Bourré (a common card game in NBA circles) with David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Curry, then a fourth-year guard on the brink of a breakout season.
Quickly, these games became the life of the travel party. Music played, wine was poured and dollar bills flew. To be dealt a hand meant giving up valuable hours of sleep and some scratch.
“I never once sat at that table or even thought about sitting at that table,” said Kent Bazemore, a rookie with Golden State that season. “It was open invitation. The thing is, once you get in, you can’t get out. So I didn’t even want to flirt with that kind of stuff.”
Especially, Bazemore added, as an undrafted rookie on a non-guaranteed, minimum contract.
“You don’t want to be throwing away money,” he said.
The card-players would deal and draw for entire flights. While their teammates got off and grabbed their luggage, Curry, Green, Lee and Bogut would still be on the plane finishing up a game.
As the years went on and the roster changed, so did the game. In addition to Bourré, Curry and Green picked up poker and were sometimes joined by director of basketball operations Jonnie West and Klay Thompson.
“Klay lost a lot,” Livingston recalled.
But the spot in the cabin never changed: A section in the middle between the coaches in the back and other players in the front. There are two seats facing two more on the other side of a large, square table. A prime card-playing location.
“Draymond and Steph, since I’ve been here, have sat in the same exact seats and play cards,” said assistant coach Bruce Fraser. “You can tell by that alone that those guys like each other. Then if you were to hear some of the laughter that comes from that area, it would make you say these guys really enjoy being together.”
Most of the time, the games were laid-back and part of a scene completed by hip-hop and post-game vino. But teammates knew when the intensity ratcheted up because hats spun backwards, hoodies came off and the checkbooks came out.
“I don’t think they would even tell you who wins more often — they like each other too much,” Fraser said. “By the end of the season, the money usually evens out.”
Over the years, the cast around Curry and Green has varied. Thompson, out this season with an Achilles tear, hasn’t been able to join since 2019. When Lee and Bogut left, Zaza Pachulia jumped in. Guys such as Omri Casspi and Jonas Jerebko made cameos. But always, it was Curry and Green, refining their card-playing craft.
“When you have that kind of chemistry, camaraderie, sort of enjoying the whole process, that really helps set the tone for the culture,” Fraser said. “It doesn’t just set the tone for the plane.”
Back on the ground, poker has permeated the Warriors organization. Each January, the Warriors Community Foundation hosts a poker tournament at The St. Regis hotel in San Francisco. Players and coaches go head-to-head with big wigs and high rollers who purchase seats for thousands of dollars. In the past, 15-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth emceed the event and prizes for the top-three winners included a ritzy trip to Napa and a cruise.
Because it’s for charity, it’s the one time of year Looney allows himself to play. He inevitably bows out early. But with all of their practice, Looney said, Curry and Green usually make it to the final table.
“Those guys really look forward to it and show out,” Looney said. “They were pretty close to winning it a few times.”
Having honed their own partnership through playing cards, Curry and Green are now elder statesmen on a team in the midst of a rebuild. After winning just 15 games last season, the 5-4 Warriors must make the playoffs with an expensive roster that has hardly played together.Curry and Green are tasked with shepherding this new-look group trying to jell — a process made more difficult in these uncertain times.
“Those games, whether it’s poker or Bourré, it brings guys closer together,” Livingston said. “It’s the team building, it’s the camaraderie. You’re building that chemistry off the court which carries onto the court.”
But now that cards can’t be dealt, that chemistry must be built solely in practice.
During film sessions, Green isn’t shy to point out a missed defensive rotation to rookie center James Wiseman or call out Eric Paschall for a lazy closeout.
In scrimmages, Curry carefully instructs Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. — young players hoping to have breakout seasons like Curry did eight years ago — how to best contribute to Golden State’s offense.
“It can kind of be a good-cop/bad-cop,” Green said.
Like in their card games, Curry and Green don’t clash because of their contrasting personalities, but rather play off each other.
“We always used to say it would be a lot harder to have a team full of Draymonds or a team full of Stephs,” Livingston said. “You have that fire and ice. Both of those are needed in order to help the group become who they can become.”