He Believed

Wong Returns to the Simple Life

    Paul Wong’s 15 minutes of fame are over.
    It was a wild ride this past spring, with his being a character in one of the greatest NBA stories ever. The creator of the “We Believe” mantra for the Golden State Warriors’ playoff run last season, Wong became a celebrity fan as the Warriors captured the attention of the country by upsetting top-seeded Dallas.
    But Golden State eventually lost in the second round to Utah. The television cameras stopped showing up at his restaurant, Hawaiian Drive Inn, at 2306 Encinal Ave. Reporters stopped calling his cell phone. People stopped talking about him so much. And no one is happier than Wong.
    He is now an ordinary fan. So don’t expect him to start another movement this season, which began Oct. 30. Not that Wong
is complaining; but it wasn’t all fun. His fanaticism was
sometimes met with ridicule, and he said he didn’t get to “settle down and absorb the ambiance” of the Warriors’ magical postseason.
    Rather than seek another 15 minutes, Wong will instead savor his discreet rewards: witnessing Oracle Arena turn into a den of basketball passion; having fans from around the country visit his restaurant to meet him and shake his hand; and, most important, getting his wife back.
    That was all he needed.
    “It was crazy,” Wong, 35, says. “I really paid a price. … I’m happy with being a regular fan. The whole celebrity thing was too much for me.”
    The campaign started in earnest on March 7, when the Warriors hosted the Denver Nuggets. But the motivation for it came earlier.
    Wong told everyone that the reason he started “We Believe” was to motivate Warriors fans to be zealous about the team again. He said the idea came from The Secret, a self-help book that focuses on positive reinforcement and made popular by Oprah Winfrey.
    What Wong didn’t tell everyone was that his wife of 10 years, Mai, 33, gave him the book. Their marriage was dying because, as Wong admitted, he was a workaholic and they grew apart. She suggested the book because she didn’t think he believed in them anymore.
    “We were going to get a divorce,” Wong acknowledged, his reluctance negated by the glee from his now-stronger marriage. “We had been trying to make it work, but we were headed for divorce.”
    Wong took his wife’s advice and read the book and then tested the theory on his favorite NBA squad. He had long since wanted his sons—Jordan, 17, and Tommy, 10—to experience the exciting version of Warriors basketball he remembered as a Warriors fan from the early ’90s.
    The Warriors’ impressive victory on March 5 over the host Detroit Pistons, one of the NBA’s best teams, didn’t stir up much hope in the Bay Area because Golden State was still just 27-35. So Wong, hoping to drum up conviction, printed out 150 yellow signs with the words “We Believe” and passed them out at the Denver game. The Warriors started winning, and people started believing.
    Before long, Golden State was on its way to making the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons, and Wong was printing out thousands of signs, plus T-shirts. He spent some $5,000 on his grassroots campaign, refusing to accept any help from the Warriors.
    “It was good and bad,” Mai says. “When I first heard of the campaign and the amount of money that went into it, I was furious. It was good because he actually applied something that he read in the book, and it was a testament that he believed that our marriage was going to work out.”
    With Wong’s blessing, the Warriors adopted “We Believe” as their slogan for the playoffs, and the 15-minute clock began ticking.
    The Contra Costa Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune all wrote articles on him. The local affiliates for NBC, FOX and CBS dedicated segments to his tale, and he made an appearance on NBA TV. He taped an interview with TNT, but the Warriors were eliminated before it aired.
    Wong could hardly watch the playoff games without being interrupted, by supporters and by critics. His restaurant was bustling with memorabilia seekers. He was now the “We Believe” guy.
    “I went upstairs [to the second deck], and everyone started screaming and hollering,” Wong says, recalling an ovation he got at a Warriors game. “I almost cried. I was shocked that so many people knew who Paul Wong was. They pulled out black markers and were like, ‘Can you sign this?’ They asked for pictures. I thought it was a joke.”
    People thought Wong was raking in the dough because he was on television and in the papers. But he said he barely broke even by peddling original “We Believe” T-shirts (not the ones the Warriors passed out during the playoffs) at his restaurant and on eBay.
    People thought he was some kind of honorary member of the Warriors’ organization, hanging with the players and loading up on free memorabilia. But he said he never got a single autograph, never got a chance to meet any players and still had to pay for his 2007-08 season tickets.
    All totaled, it was perhaps more frustration than fun, more exhausting than exhilarating.
    However, Wong is fine with that. He’s got friendships he wouldn’t have otherwise. He’s got mementos covering a wall at Hawaiian Drive Inn.
    And, best of all, he got a chance to prove to his wife and to himself that he could indeed believe enough to move
    On May 2, the day before the couple attended Game 6 against Dallas together, Wong took Mai on a ride down Interstate 880. When the time was right, he told her to look up to her left.
    There she saw a gigantic, yellow T-shirt-shaped banner pasted to the side of Oracle Arena, with “We Believe” emblazoned across the chest. She said she was wowed by the huge display of their secret.
    “I told her, ‘Look. I did that,’ ” Wong recalls. “I can do that for us.”
    That was all she needed.
—By Marcus W. Thompson II
—Photography by Craig Merrill

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