SAN FRANCISCO -- Klay Thompson purposefully sprinted down the court after swishing a 3-pointer -- something he's done innumerable times in his life -- but this was different. As he approached the crowd on the opposite baseline, the look on his face was almost indescribable, a messy combination of all the emotions swirling through his mind and body for the past 941 days.
Anger. Sadness. Fear. Joy. Love.
One look at him and the Chase Center crowd felt immediate, overpowering empathy. That very same piecemeal mosaic of feelings, both recognized and unrecognized, have permeated our collective consciousness since COVID-19 forcefully and violently commenced obfuscating our lives nearly two years ago. The latest omicron variant has led to yet another surge in cases, along with postponements of countless events, including NBA games. In the current climate, sporting events have often been viewed as an unnecessary risk rather than a welcome luxury.
When Thompson was introduced before the Warriors' 96-82 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, however, not one person in the building was worried about N95 masks, or social distancing, or whether they should get tested after the game. For a moment, no matter how brief, we could all experience the joy and familiarity of a genuine comeback story involving a player with an uncanny, inexplicable kinship with his fan base.
"That moment delivered, for sure. I got goosebumps on the other side of the court just watching," Warriors guard Stephen Curry said of Thompson's pregame introduction. "He's earned that welcome-back-to-the-court moment, and that was special."
The past couple of years have made the relative insignificance of sports all too apparent. With death, injustice and sickness enveloping our emotional centers, concerning ourselves with basketball games seems trivial, even borderline offensive. But while Thompson ran up and down the court in his Jackie Moon headband, firing 3-pointers and throwing down a vicious dunk, it was impossible not to crack a smile -- maybe even shed a tear.
Warriors center Kevon Looney likened Thompson's return to the moment in a sports movie when the seemingly defeated protagonist boxers gets up off the mat for one more round. We've all been through dark moments that made it difficult to see through to the other side. We've all struggled, and suffered, and -- if we're fortunate -- we've endured.
"Rehab is difficult, and it's lonely, and it's monotonous," Curry said. "That's why tonight was so special, because you recognize two years of that. It's crazy."
Watching Thompson score 17 points in 20 minutes in his first game since the 2019 NBA Finals, going 3-for-8 from the 3-point arc, was thrilling, but honestly it wouldn't have mattered if he didn't score a single point. Warriors coach Steve Kerr did all he could before the game to keep himself from saying the outcome didn't really matter. This was about more than basketball, and everyone knew it. The fact that Thompson played well was icing on an already delicious cake.
"I'll never forget this night," Thompson said after the game. "Gosh it was fun, and it was worth every single day of being away and in that squat rack or on that shuttle board, and all the conditioning days. It was worth every single moment. I'm so grateful to just compete again. ... I'm not gonna say equivalent to winning the championship, but, man, it was pretty freaking close."
Thompson's connection to the Bay Area is one of the most unique in sports. Whether he's live streaming a boat ride, posting a photo with his dog, Rocco, or discussing the intricacies of scaffolding on the streets of New York, Thompson can do no wrong with his fans. He and Curry are perhaps the most likely of all current NBA players to finish their careers playing for a single franchise, and that's part of the reason why Sunday night delivered after so much anticipation.
Klay's joy was felt deep in the souls of Warriors fans because he's one of their own. He is a Warrior in the truest sense of the word, and the past couple of years have forced all of us to become warriors in some manner.
"He's provided some of the biggest thrills for these fans over the last decade that they've ever experienced. He sort of feels like one of them," Kerr said of Thompson after the game. "Everybody connects with him because he's just authentic. He's just Klay."
That's why, for now at least, we're putting the analysis to the side. We can talk about how he fits in the starting lineup, or whether his defense will ever get back to what it was, or what the rotations will look like in the playoffs.
Tonight we take the small victory as it comes, and enjoy the unique, uplifting moment for what it is. Without judgment. Without skepticism.
In the grand scheme of things, is Klay Thompson playing basketball again the most important triumph in our lives? Likely not. But it makes us feel good. And after recent events, we should know better than to suffer shame for feeling good.
"There's always light at the end of the tunnel. That's what I learned," Thompson said. "No one's self-made. I had a lot of help. A lot of help. Just lean on your loved ones and lean on those who care about you most. Tough times don't last. Tough people do."