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Victory Vantage: Ex-Cal Star Shares New Life on Warriors Coaching Staff

April 27, 2016
by Ron Kroichick
Theo on basketball court

It is April 12, one day before the Golden State Warriors will barge into NBA history with their 73rd victory of the season, and practice is winding down at the team’s downtown Oakland headquarters.

Stephen Curry lofts majestic three-point shots at one basket, as usual. Klay Thompson sharpens his silky-smooth release nearby. And on an adjacent court, backup point guard Shaun Livingston unleashes a stream of friendly trash talk in a spirited one-on-one game against…who, exactly?

The 6-foot-6 man leaning on Livingston, planting a firm forearm in his back, might look familiar to Cal basketball fans. Theo Robertson not only played for the Golden Bears, he helped them win their first Pac-10 regular-season championship in 50 years.

That happened in 2010. Now Robertson wears a gold, sweat-drenched Warriors T-shirt with the team’s familiar slogan, “Strength in Numbers,” scrawled across the chest. He doesn’t flinch when Livingston rises above him, buries a short jump shot and tauntingly, if good-naturedly, shouts, “All day!”

Theo Robertson carrying Warriors' championship trophy
Theo Robertson with the Warriors’ championship trophy.

On the next possession, Livingston—who always plays offense in this frequent, post-practice game—misses his shot. Robertson, who earns a point for each miss, barks right back at Livingston, drawing a thin smile.

The scene highlights Robertson’s expanding role with the reigning NBA champions. Six years removed from his final game at Cal, and less than two years after starting with the Warriors as a low-level video intern, Robertson, 29, is part of the fabric of the sleekest outfit in professional basketball.

“He’s part of the strand in the DNA that keeps the chemistry, keeps everything positive and live,” Livingston says. “There’s just good energy and good vibes when he’s around.”

Today, as the Warriors look to knock off the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, they must do so without the newly injured MVP, Stephen Curry. Having commanded most of the public attention throughout the season, Curry has emerged as one of the world’s most popular and captivating athletes, and all Warriors conversations begin and/or end with him.

Still, as Livingston suggests, the DNA of a championship team includes more than one strand. Steve Kerr must steer the ship. Thompson must assert himself in Curry’s absence, as he did when Curry missed Game 2 and the second half of Game 4 of Golden State’s series against Houston. Livingston must rise to the occasion, as he did when replacing Curry in the starting lineup.

And to a lesser extent, away from the limelight, staff members such as Robertson must play their part. His title this season is video coordinator/player development, which means just what it sounds like—he prepares videos for coaches and players to review, and also works with those players on the court.

The promotion from last season allows Robertson to sit on the bench during games, in the second row alongside fellow player-development coach Bruce Fraser. That alone counts as exhilarating for Robertson, who estimates he had attended only five NBA games in his life before he joined the Warriors’ staff in 2014.

“Now I’m watching the greatest basketball in the world every day,” he says. “That’s something I don’t take for granted.”

“At the White House, we had a chance to kind of sit back and reflect and share each other’s journeys. It was pretty special.”

Robertson’s job gives him a unique vantage point on what makes the Warriors tick. He knows a thing or two about successful programs, after playing at powerhouse De La Salle High in Concord (he grew up in nearby Pittsburg) and then leading Cal into the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2010.

The Warriors, though, operate in a realm all their own. They are 140-24 in the past two regular seasons, a feat Robertson traces to Kerr’s leadership and the way he empowers employees to contribute any way they can.

One example: Late in the summer of 2014, less than two weeks after he was hired, Robertson joined Livingston one night at the practice facility. Livingston was returning from an injury and not yet cleared to join his teammates in training camp, but he asked Robertson to help him work on his game.

As they ran pick-and-roll plays and shot jumpers, Robertson pushing and encouraging Livingston all the way, Kerr walked into the gym.

“Steve kind of looked at the work we were doing, gave us a nod of approval and went on his way,” Robertson says. “That was cool because I was an intern, just trying to find my way in the league.…It validated what Steve preaches in terms of our staff being extremely collaborative. It’s really all hands on deck. Everyone can get their hands dirty, which is great.”

The video staff, which now consists of Robertson and two interns he supervises, puts together clips to help Warriors players and coaches prepare for upcoming games. In the playoffs, especially, the clips are tailored to specific situations, so players can study opponents’ tendencies.

During last year’s NBA Finals, for instance, Robertson found video of all of LeBron James’ turnaround jump shots from the “left block” (one side of the lane). He also compiled clips showing all of one Warriors player’s minutes at power forward in Golden State’s two regular-season games against Cleveland.

At that time, Robertson mostly worked behind the scenes. This season, he finds himself in front of the coaches and players more often—on the spot, expected to know his stuff and answer questions as they arise.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase your work, be in front of the group and give a presentation,” he says.

The question Robertson fields frequently from family and friends: What’s it like working for the Warriors? They’ve become a national fascination in the past 10 months, after winning the franchise’s first NBA title in 40 years and then zooming to the best regular-season record in league history.

Sure, the equation begins with Curry’s extraordinary ball-handling and shooting skills. Robertson also sees the camaraderie and chemistry that help explain this team’s wild success.

“It’s really been surreal,” he says. “I played at a pretty strong high school program in De La Salle, and we went into games expecting to win. In the summer, we’d play 35 to 40 games and lose one. This (with the Warriors) has that type of feel. The challenge is always continuing to prepare the same way and not cheat the process. That’s something we do a great job of. The camaraderie among the guys, the interaction, the time spent with each other—nothing’s ever forced.

“I think that’s what makes the group special, and I’m sure it’s one of the reasons we’ve been as successful as we’ve been. I’m not sure many other locker rooms are like that.”

Robertson allowed himself one day to grieve the loss of his pro basketball aspirations. It happened on Dec. 16, 2010, on his 24th birthday. He and a buddy went to 24-Hour Fitness in Pittsburg, and there Robertson realized his body wouldn’t let him become the player he needed to be to make it professionally.

He cried. And then he moved on.

Robertson was a terrific player at Cal, a second-team all-Pac-10 selection in 2010. He averaged 13.1 points as a junior, shooting a Curry-like 48.7 percent from three-point range, and then 14.2 points as a senior (shooting 45.3 percent on threes). Robertson, Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle formed a dynamic trio.

But Robertson also coped with lingering hip problems. He endured three surgeries, one each after the 2008, ’09 and ’10 seasons. Two on his left hip, one on his right. Robertson had a legitimate chance to play professionally, overseas if not in the NBA, but his body betrayed him.

So he began to experiment with potential careers in sports. He worked at the Pac-12 office, then on the basketball staff at Cal. Finally, an informational interview with the Warriors led to a job, a below-the-radar role and, ultimately, a spot at the table when the team gathered at Morton’s Steakhouse in Cleveland late on the night of June 16, 2015, celebrating an NBA championship.

That was memorable, obviously, but Robertson especially cherished his chance to join Warriors players, coaches and staff in February at the White House, where they were honored by President Obama. Robertson met the President and posed with colleagues under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Theo Robertson on the basketball court
Theo Robertson working with Warrior Festus Ezeli

He also ended up, by chance, walking around the White House with Livingston. They reflected on their paths to that moment; Livingston coming back from a devastating knee injury that nearly ended his NBA career, Robertson trying to find his way after hip injuries did, in fact, end his playing career.

“I think Shaun is a little more reserved than most of the guys, but he’s opened up so much this season,” Robertson says. “He’s one of the great guys on our team. I enjoy being around him.…At the White House, we had a chance to kind of sit back and reflect and share each other’s journeys. It was pretty special.”

Not special enough to diminish Robertson’s competitive drive. He prides himself on making Warriors players work hard during their post-practice sessions, whether it’s Livingston, Festus Ezeli or James Michael McAdoo.

So when Robertson picks up a rare victory in these one-on-one games—as he did on April 12—he gently chides his vanquished opponent.

“I usually win,” Livingston says, forcing a smile, “but Theo got me today.”

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