49ers’ Ronnie Lott fulfills his NBA dream at Golden State

SAN FRANCISCO — When Ronnie Lott watches the Golden State Warriors play basketball, he might analyze old All-22 movies of his time as an all-pro safety and cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers.

He watched how Andrew Wiggins positioned his rebounds. He watches how defenders handle screens. He watches how Stephen Curry shoots his jumper freely, he watches how teams thread the needle with the pass.

“It’s an art, really,” Lott said. “In football, you probably have a guy who can do that. In today’s game of basketball, everybody has to be a good passer.”

For Lott, 63, the experience has an analytical side. But there is also an emotional one. As a Warriors season ticket holder since the mid-1980s, Lott has seen it all. Now, he’s back on his feet again as the Golden State Warriors look to clinch another NBA title Thursday night against the Celtics in Boston. The Golden State Warriors lead the series 3-2.

“I know what that means to those people,” Lott said.

It may come as a surprise to fans to learn that Lott’s first love was basketball. He’s good enough to play a season in the Division I as a walking point guard in Southern California.

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

Lott said he learned a lot about teamwork and winning that season, which gave him a valuable opportunity to improve his speed. But after he picked up four points while picking up 10 personal fouls in limited minutes, he knew his future was in football.

When he won four Super Bowls with the 49ers, he found another outlet for his passion: At the start of the Chris Mullin era, he bought season tickets to Golden State Warriors home games.

“It’s my favorite sport,” Lott said. “It’s probably my most dream sport.”

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

In addition to savoring the vicarious pleasures and coping with occasional sadness of watching Golden State Warriors games over the years, Lott also noticed how much overlap between basketball and football — and the overlap was especially pronounced in the Finals.

“The players are in good physical shape,” he said. “You see someone grabbing a jersey and I’m like, ‘Man, if they’re playing football, they’re going to be thrown a couple of yellow flags.'”

Lott compared defensive 3-point shooters like Curry to football’s “bump and run” coverage, where defensive backs obstruct a wide receiver’s path off the line of scrimmage. In fact, Marcus Smart, one of the Celtics who tried to chase Curry in the Finals, grew up playing free and safe.

“It helped me learn how to change direction and how to use my hips,” said Defensive Player of the Year Smart this season.

Victory is common, too, and Lott sees the 49ers’ championship DNA in the way Golden State has run its business. Lott recalled seasons in which quarterback Joe Montana and receiver Jerry Rice were beaten and exhausted but still found a way to design a Super Bowl game.

Lott said that in recent weeks, the Golden State Warriors have won games that may not have been a business win. In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, the team reversed the Dallas Mavericks by 19 points. In its own way, Golden State’s Game 5 win over Boston on Monday night was another oddball: Curry missed nine 3-point attempts. But experience is built upon itself.

“What makes a great team a great team,” Lott said, “you can go back and say, ‘Oh, we’ve been in this situation before and we know what it takes. ‘”

Lott, meanwhile, was particularly impressed by Wiggins, who led the Golden State Warriors with 26 points and 13 rebounds on Monday. Lott recalled 2020, when Wiggins joined the team in a midseason trade with Minnesota, and no one knew if he would make much of an impact. But sometimes changing the environment can turn a good player into an indispensable player.

“I’m playing basketball, I’m playing hard, and I think people respect that,” Wiggins said, adding: “There’s a lot of great people here — they challenge you and hold you accountable.”

Lott has seen it happen. In 1981, Lott’s rookie year, when the 49ers had a tepid start to the season, defensive end Fred Dean joined them after a contract dispute with the San Diego Chargers. The 49ers went on to win their first Super Bowl as Dean wreaked havoc as a passing specialist.

“Everything got better when we got Fred Dean,” Lott said. He drew an analogy with Wiggins: “He upped his game and his effort. When you find someone like that, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life, in this environment , on this stage.'”

Although he’s been a regular in the Golden State Warriors’ playoff rounds this season, Lott hasn’t played in the Finals since 2016. It was 2016, of course, when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first championship with a 3-1 loss to the Golden State Warriors on the road in Game 7. The loss seemed to sting Lott almost as much as when he was in uniform.

Since then, he and his wife, Karen, have watched various Golden State Warriors Finals games in the safety and relative seclusion of what he calls his “man cave.” It’s better for everyone involved, he said. He knew it might sound weird, but nothing he did, said or felt in the basement would affect the game.

“I don’t want them to lose,” he said, “so I feel like I’m over and they’ve lost — I just don’t like that feeling. And you don’t want to feel like you’re preventing them from doing anything.”

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