Becoming Independent’s Hopeful Sportscasters Get VIP Treatment at Warriors Game

After winning three of the last five NBA titles, the Golden State Warriors have sunk to the cellar this season. All the losing is taking a toll on Kerr, the head coach, whose features were creased and careworn at Friday’s pregame media briefing. But a question posed by a rookie reporter seemed to briefly lift his spirits.

“Soooo,” said 26-year-old Mauricio Stillman, after an attendant handed him a microphone, “when are Steph and Klay coming back?”

Kerr shared that Klay Thompson’s surgically repaired left knee would be reevaluated “at the All Star break” around February 18. The status of star guard Steph Curry, who broke a bone in his left hand in October, would be updated February 1.

“We’ll see how it goes,” the coach concluded.

“All right,” replied Stillman, whose bright smile was eclipsed, if possible, by the grin on the face of his crewcut friend, Austin Roach, seated beside him. Both are from Santa Rosa, both participate in programs offered by the nonprofit Becoming Independent, which helps adults with developmental disabilities lead meaningful lives.

After finding out about “Bay Area Sports Mornings,” a kind of sports roundup that runs most mornings on Stillman’s YouTube channel, the Warriors invited him and Roach to attend Friday’s game as members of the media. For the most part, they fit in, although their natty dress and excellent grooming indicated they were not print journalists.

Working with staff at Becoming Independent, Stillman learned in 2018 to channel his love of sports into this daily synopsis of what’s happening with the 49ers, Raiders, A’s, Giants and Warriors. Since then, he’s posted some 250 shows, and is often joined by his wingman, Roach, who shares his passion for sports, but has fewer qualms about taking those teams to task, if they deserve it.

After noting in a recent broadcast that they had the league’s worst record, Roach informed the Warriors that they needed “to step up on defense.” After a pause, he added, “And on offense.”

Other than that, the team looked great.

Undeterred by that criticism, or perhaps unaware of it, the Warriors invited the YouTube duo to the game against the Indiana Pacers. After picking up their media credentials, Roach and Stillman were given a tour of the gleaming new Chase Center by Lisa Goodwin, the team’s vice president of corporate communications, and an ex-Novato High School hoops star.

On their way to Kerr’s pregame press conference, they were introduced to Kerith Burke, the courtside reporter for NBC Sports Bay Area. Before posing for a picture, she asked each of them, “May I put my arm around you?” The guys were fine with that, as it turned out.

Following Stillman’s triumphant moment in the Kerr press conference, he and Roach were sitting courtside, watching warmups, when a giant strode over and introduced himself. This was 6-foot-11 ex-Warrior Zaza Pachulia, who now works in the team’s front office. Asked by Pachulia to name his three favorite players, Roach ticked off a trio of Warriors: Draymond Green, Thompson and Curry.

“We have the same taste,” said Pachulia, who high-fived Roach and told both VIPs to “Enjoy the game.”

Stillman, 26, is on the autism spectrum. Roach, 23, has Down syndrome. They were able to enjoy the game because Becoming Independent saw which way the wind was blowing, about a decade ago.

When it opened in 1967, Becoming Independent offered participants what its CEO, Luana Vaetoe, describes as a “system-driven approach.”

Around 10 years ago, that system started feeling outdated. Young adults with developmental disabilities were graduating from high schools where they’d been mainstreamed and included. It felt wrong for them to them to be relegated to a campus where minders dictated a schedule to them.

“They said to us, ‘I actually just graduated from El Molino High School, my friends are all going to the junior college,” recalled Vaetoe, who joined the nonprofit in 2013. “I’m not getting on your bus, I’m not going to your campus. I want you to help me at the JC.”

Slowly — “like turning a cruise ship,” said Vaetoe — Becoming Independent shifted to a more “person-centered” model.

Two years ago, Stillman took part in the nonprofit’s Passport To Independence Program, sharing with staff that he really liked sports, and wanted to start his own social media channel. They taught him how to record video, and post his broadcasts on YouTube. Befitting his enthusiasm for the topics he discusses, he begins each show with a single, loud clap.

Stillman lives at home with his parents. When he was growing up, his father Dave confessed, “I brainwashed him into being a Raiders fan.”

Each is the other’s best friend, said Dave Stillman, who spends hours with his son listening to sports talk radio. That could explain why Stillman and Roach have such good on-air chemistry. Stillman is the straight man, giving Roach ample rein, but also reeling him when necessary. Roach’s father, Gerald, likens them to the Fox NFL broadcast team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.

Like Buck, “Mauricio sets the boundaries,” he said. Like Aikman, “Austin will talk between those lines.”

After going to ninth grade in Fort Bragg, Austin Roach attended Cloverdale High School for his final three years of high school. In addition to playing junior varsity baseball — he scored a run in the final game of his senior season — he was a manager on the Clovers football team. He was also voted Homecoming King that year.

Gerald Roach is especially proud of his son’s encyclopedic sports knowledge. “You can ask him about Jerry Rice, and No. 85, who was it, Michael Crabtree.”

“Crabtree was 15,” Austin corrected. “Vernon Davis was 85.”

After arriving at Becoming Independent last June, Roach took part in its Discovery Project. Staff members asked him what he hoped to get out of his experience at that nonprofit. Roach told them he wanted to improve his speech: like many with Down syndrome, he contends with a stammer.

Like Stillman, he lived for sports. It didn’t take long for instructors to realize the two of them would make ideal broadcast partners.

Before taking their seats at Friday’s game, the Santa Rosans were reminded of press box etiquette: No cheering allowed. When D’Angelo Russell opened the scoring with a 30-foot three-pointer, Stillman lifted his arms — about to clap — but caught himself just in time.

The game was still close, the Warriors trailing 26-22 in the first quarter, when Roach and Stillman were surprised by the team employee who gave them each a blue bag filled with Warriors schwag: a tee shirt, a bobblehead doll — Green for Stillman, Kevon Looney for Roach — and a Warriors towel.

It wasn’t until he got home, well after midnight, that Roach emptied his bag and discovered that it also included a replica championship ring.

“I can’t wait to wear this on Monday,” said Roach, already looking forward to his next broadcast.