With the sweet sounds of Warriors basketball set to return, here are the new faces at the helm
New coach Seth Cooper and new general manager David Fatoki are veterans of the Warriors system and say they are up for the unique challenges presented by the NBA developmental league.
Seth Cooper takes the Kaiser Permanente Arena court alongside about 20 excited kids who have turned out for the youth clinic preceding the Santa Cruz Warriors’ Fan Fest 2021.
After warmups, the kids split off into groups dedicated to dribbling, passing, shooting, and conditioning — the squeak of hoops shoes and hardwood bouncing around the arena. Cooper cheers them on as they complete various passing and layup drills. He brings them into a huddle.
“All right, Santa Cruz Warriors on three! One, two, three...”
“Santa Cruz Warriors!” echoes across the building.
Diehard Sea Dubs fans who watched one of their favorite community activities become a pandemic casualty the past 18 months have drawn comfort knowing that the sounds of basketball would return this fall for minor league affiliate of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. They didn’t, however, know who would be the architects of the comeback season.
In September, David Fatoki and Cooper were officially named the Santa Cruz Warriors’ new general manager and head coach, respectively.
They replace Ryan Atkinson and Kris Weems, who are heading to the NBA with Golden State — Atkinson as director of team development and Weems as a player development coach.
In his first clinic in Santa Cruz, Cooper said he was thrilled to be on the court again.
“It’s so nice to be back after no games,” said Cooper. “Can’t wait to get as many fans in here as possible.”
Hoops action returns to Kaiser Permanente Arena
Friday, Nov. 5: Stockton Kings at Santa Cruz Warriors, 7 p.m.
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It’s clear from the picture they each paint of their early childhoods that Fatoki and Cooper belong in the sports world. They spent their youth dribbling up and down their driveways, shooting at hoops stationed in front of their homes. Between games of pickup organized by Cooper and his three younger brothers and Fatoki playing some one-on-one ball with his older brother using a Fisher-Price rim, a passion for the sport had been stoked in each.
“By the time I was around a sophomore, junior in high school, I knew I wanted to do something in basketball as long as I could,” said Cooper, 40, who grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. “Going into college and playing Division III, I got the idea that working in basketball is something I wanted to do.”
“I was fortunate enough to be, I guess you could say, kind of good at basketball. So I always played at a high level,” said Fatoki, 28, who grew up in Hazel Crest, Illinois. “I thought basketball would help me get to a college I wanted to go to and then I began thinking of what I can potentially do in sports.”
After a successful college career at Edgewood College, including a Lake Michigan Conference Player of the Year award for the 2004-05 season, Cooper got an offer to play professionally for a team in Germany. While he was undoubtedly intrigued, the offer came at the same time that he received one for a job as a video coordinator with the Los Angeles Clippers. Committed to a coaching career, the Clippers gig was simply too good for Cooper to refuse.
“As much as I wanted to play it was kind of like, why turn this opportunity down just to go play for a couple years and hope to come back and be able to get this opportunity,” he said. “That was a pretty easy decision for me.”
Fatoki, on the other hand, did not see substantial playing time until his junior and senior years at Washington University in St. Louis, where he broke out with impressive numbers at the end of his college career.
“I think that just rejuvenated the love of the sport and just made me want to be a fan at all times,” said Fatoki. “I was just so consumed with basketball.”
After college, Fatoki started a corporate management consulting job. It wasn’t long before he realized that he was entirely out of his element.
“Within the first few weeks, I could say that I knew that’s not what I was supposed to be doing,” said Fatoki. “At that point I was looking for outs.”
Luckily, his final season of college allowed him to put together his own highlight tape. He sent it to some agents, and eventually landed an opportunity to play for UCAM Murcia II in Spain. His manager at his consulting job was also a Washington University grad, and thankfully, a big basketball fan, too. He encouraged Fatoki to take the offer.
“Being able to play in the city with the ACB team and seeing all the high-level basketball coming through all kind of sparked the interest,” said Fatoki. “I thought maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe not playing, but being in basketball is definitely where the passion lies.”
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Both entered the Warriors organization within a few years of each other. Fatoki started a basketball operations and player development role with Santa Cruz in 2016, while Cooper got his Warriors start via a player development role at Golden State in 2019. They are determined to emulate what Golden State has achieved in recent years.
“What I’ve learned from watching Steve Kerr is that his selflessness, humbleness, and competitiveness are what rubs off on the Warriors team,” Cooper said of the three-time champion coach up the road in Oakland. “His ability to bring everyone together from the video coordinator to the star players has been amazing to watch.”
“I’ve had the privilege to work directly with Bob [Myers, Golden State’s general manager], Steve, and our entire coaching staff,” said Fatoki. “I think they gave me a whole new perspective on how we can do things in Santa Cruz and what we can do to improve.”
Although the parent and minor-league clubs are in the same organization, the G League and the NBA work very differently. In the NBA, a team will likely have a similar roster for an extended period of time. In the G League, turnover and change is a constant.
For various reasons, like players taking offers overseas or retiring, a roster can change rapidly. Cooper and Fatoki say they embrace that challenge.
“As a coach it gives you the ability to be creative, more than you would in most other coaching situations,” said Cooper. “It’s definitely challenging but it can also be really fun if you look at it with the right mindset.”
“There’s a very high likelihood that we only have two or three guys from the last roster,” said Fatoki. “Trying to consistently establish that culture and to make it be what you want it to be is tough.”
Along with creativity, Cooper and Fatoki strive for balance — balance between developing talent and winning games, and between training players and training coaches.
“Our biggest goals are obviously winning games and championships, but also to develop NBA players,” said Fatoki. “Another big one is to help my staff members continue to improve and develop themselves so they can make that jump into the NBA as well.”
“It’s important that we let these guys know we’re there to make them as good as they can be, if we do that the wins are going to come,” said Cooper. “That’s what the G League is all about to me.”
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The positions are demanding, but Warriors insiders say they have nothing but confidence in Cooper and Fatoki.
Former Santa Cruz general manager Ryan Atkinson praised their familiarity with the G League and their extensive experience.
“Even though they’re coming from the NBA, they started in the G League and they know what it takes to make the next step,” said Atkinson. “Seth knows what players need to add or eliminate from their game. David has been scouting and has been in the draft rooms and knows what Golden State and other NBA teams are looking for.”
Atkinson also trusts their desire for creativity.
“You can’t be afraid to try something even if it doesn’t work,” he said. “If you don’t try different things, you won’t have much success.”
Chris Murphy, president of the Santa Cruz Warriors, says neither needed more credibility among the players, but their experience within the organization has more than readied them to take the reins in Santa Cruz.
“They have a different lens and great insight into the pathways one can take to get to the next level,” said Murphy. “For some of these players, to know that Seth is coming here fully endorsed by Steve Kerr is really going to help them.”
Additionally, Murphy believes that they will build on the values formed by past regimes — and perhaps follow in the same footsteps.
“Kris Weems and Ryan Atkinson did great jobs and now they’ve grown into bigger roles at Golden State. Before that it was Aaron Miles and Kent Lacob,” said Murphy. “These guys are gonna be able to allow us to grow and get better.”