The 2013 NBA Finals left me in a conundrum of all sorts. I vowed to hate the Heat and everything they represent: winning through free agency, joining forces instead of competing against the best players in the league, and fans that represent money and "look what I can afford!" instead of loyalty. As I have documented on the site in the past, even though I was born in San Antonio, I have zero allegiance to our only major sports franchise. This was due to me being a sports snob since an early age, and all I saw from Spurs' fans growing up was GO SPURS GO! and a general lack of knowledge about the actual game. This slowly morphed into a fan base that became self-entitled ("We need one for the thumb!"); if you don't pick them to win a series, it meant you hate San Antonio and you should be fired from your job. To top it off, I grew up twenty minutes from the downtown area and felt no connection to the city, the Alamo, or the San Antonio Spurs. I lived with 1604 as an elison (Ed. note: I had to look that one up) between me and the city most tourists know it as. Where I lived could have been any other suburb in America with any clichéd name like Fountain Escape or Whispering Valley. Instead of bleeding gray and silver, I fell in love with the beautiful basketball in Sacramento that felt like an entire universe away from my segregated nothing-to-do home.
When it came to Heat versus Spurs, I wished neither team would be chewing on confetti in the middle of June. Since most championships involve none of the crappy teams I love, most playoffs see my rooting interest turn into which team I dislike the least. This is not a healthy way to live or enjoy sports. Then Game 1 happened. Tony Parker hit his carousel shot and I quickly became immersed in a series of beautiful basketball. I became an apostate to my leading cause of trying to figure out which team I hated the most and attempted to just enjoy a series no matter who won or lost. I finally had a chance to fall in love with Duncan's jab step/jab step/fundamental bank shot, Parker's ability to slide around the paint like a serpent and Ginobli's mad scientist ways. And I joined the rest of the world critiquing LeBron James' game, waiting for him to finally take the ball to the hoop and play the game the way he can.
It took me fourteen years, but I finally learned how to separate San Antonio from the Spurs and become a proselyte and join the Church of Duncan.
After Game 1, I decided to do the unthinkable: if San Antonio got to three wins, I was going down to the River Walk and see what actually happened when the Spurs win it all. My 12-year-old self would be disgusted with my action, but I wanted to personally see the stories I heard seven years ago when my adolescent hoodlum friends went downtown and took part in the sins that come along with the South Padre atmosphere. So when San Antonio went up 3-2 after a 114-104 victory in what might have been Ginobli's last great game, it was settled that I would join the hoopla downtown for Game 6.
Last Tuesday, we split the men and women up and drove two separate cars from San Marcos to San Antonio to meet up with some friends to watch the first half. The restaurant was filled with Silver and Gray, Bud Lights, and the occasional scatter of neon and teal snap-back hats. One did not even have to look at the screen to know when LeBron touched the ball. Every time he did so, the place exploded in boos that could be heard from San Antonio to South Beach. At halftime, we left with the score 50-44, closed our tabs and walked to my car. We had my twenty-year-old brother, a year away from joining the festivities, act as our professional driver for the night. The women joined the men and we all climbed, clawed and lap-sat to fit seven of us into my Honda Accord.
The drive down, we listened to WOAI 1200's halftime show while everyone else mocked me like a gorilla hiding behind the glass at the zoo. The car hopped on 1604 West, then took the newly built overpass extension onto 281 South and exited 141/The Alamo and pulled underneath the overpass to park. We exited the car like a horde of clowns at the Barnum and Bailey's circus, and I swiped my card to pay the $2.50 parking fee. Then we scurried like rats toward the electric atmosphere at the river. Everyone took a right at the Crocket Hotel; we enjoyed the free smells of human sewage, wandered past the Alamo, went through a canyon of "Ripley's Believe it or Not" Tourist Traps and finally arrived at one of the many entrances of the River Walk. We could hear cheers once we reached the steps and quickly decided to find the first place with a table where the underager could get in. Some Irish pub was stuffed, and the County Line had no room, so we went back to street level.
Then we saw her in all of her glory, a bar without an ID man guarding the front like a Minotaur guarding his labyrinth on the island of Crete. We entered the dramshop with our mission accomplished, 5:30 left in the third quarter. The place was painted with Pepto Bismol pink vomit projectiled from a bumbling drunk pinata. TMZ pictures of probation celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen adorned the walls. The bartender stood on his pulpit behind the bar surrounded by reliquary of different flavored vodkas, whiskey, rum and other intoxicating beverages. He mistook the attention towards the game as attention for him and juggled mixers and pranced around with his soul patch and sunglasses worn like Alice's headband. The TVs were two thirty-inch flat screens that sat above the bar on opposite sides; each one was the same model, but different. The one on the right had the saturation setting where everyone looked Jersey Shore-orange and the other had the brightness up higher than levels intended for human use. The bar was unable to play the television through the speakers, so instead of listening to Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, we listened to the Gorgon gurgling of Lil Wayne, Drake and 2 Chainz instead. The girls quickly left and went someplace cooler while the guys stayed to watch. I paid for a $5 drink,sat down with my eyes glued to the martian television, and proceeded to watch the game.
San Antonio erupted on a 12-2 run right after we perched in our seats, like crows on a telephone wire, and led 71-58 until a Shane Battier three cut the lead to ten. Then LeBron's headband was knocked off like Harry's Cloak of Invisibility, replacing the fraudulent James with the MVP who everyone knows. The Heat fed off his desperation and turned a ten point deficit into a 89-86 lead with 1:47 left after a missed Ginobli 3, a Danny Green offensive rebound and a Pop timeout. At this point our party had scattered. My brother and I pushed our chairs closer to the screen, my friend the size of a goblin stood to watch on the stage to the right of the bar, and my roommate watched from outside where he bummed Menthols off passersby and bar inhabitants.
I looked at my brother next to me and exclaimed, "I don't want this series to end. I hope it goes into OT." I had not seen a basketball game this well played in years. Even the refs were excellent.
The jumping for joy and GO SPURS GO chants had turned into the classic "hands behind the head looking in disbelief" feeling that Spurs fans have rarely felt. Then Parker tied the game with a straight away stepback three from a spot he had only attempted three times all season. The next possession Parker squirmed his way with a two hand shot off his pivot foot while the entire city turned from a patient getting his tests results back into a birthday party. 91-89, San Antonio. With a chance to tie the game, LeBron is stripped by Kawhi Lenoard and Ray Allen fouled Ginboli in the act of shooting. He knocks both down and SA is up 93-89 with 37.2 left. The entire bar is back on the verge of climax. If SA hits their free throws, the Drive for Five pulls into its destination and LeBron becomes the choke artist everyone hoped he was.
Instead, Ginobli and Leonard each miss one free throw in their respective trips to the line, LeBron makes one three sandwiched between the free throw sequence, and with 7.9 seconds left, the unthinkable happens. LeBron missed his three in the exact same spot he made his last one. Chris Bosh grabs the rebound while Ray Allen backpedals to the corner and unleashes a bolt of lightning to tie it up. 95-95. Like Lazarus himself, the Heat were resurrected by the luck of the bounce, missed free throws, and clutch shooting. The big drunken birthday party turned back into a funeral for a family member. The Spurs would then lose in OT after Bosh blocked Danny Green in the corner.
When the clock reached 0:00, the River Walk's inhabitants scattered around the streets of downtown like roaches surprised by the site of a bathroom light. They were all in a haze and had no idea what just occurred as they dragged their feet underneath the purple San Antonio sky. It was as if they were abducted out of their slumbering beds by aliens in order to be probed and plodded. Their Finals sucker punch finally arrived after years of avoiding it. It was a Texas Rangers-esque Game 6 loss; the one strike away from winning twice closely resembled the two Miami three pointers. My friends finally knew the pain I felt two years ago, the only difference being Texas had not won a championship in our 40 years of existence.
Tired, cranky and emotionally drained, we met back up with the people who carried two X chromosomes and dragged our feet to the car. During our journey, I talked to my goblin friend and told him we had to come back Thursday. He wistfully agreed. The rest of the way, I was not allowed to utter a word without being berated with deserved insults. We piled back in, went back to the bar where the other car was, and headed back to the oasis that is San Marcos, Texas.
Thursday I again made the 40 minute drive down I-35, this time all by myself. I climbed the stairs entered my friend's room with a six pack of Modelos in hand and we discussed Game 7.
"There's no chance we win tonight," he stated with a furrowed brow.
"Hey man, it's not that bad. When Texas lost Game 6, I knew we stood zero chance of winning Game 7, but if any team could come back from a horrific loss like that, it would be the wily veterans from San Antonio. If ya'll do pull this one off tonight, it will be because Parker has a huge game and LeBron plays like he did in Game 2 and not Game 6," I replied. My words did not carry much weight. My friend had already made up his mind.
We drove down to the River Walk with two minutes left in the first half so we would miss less of the third quarter this time. We parked at the same place, for the same $2.50, and walked the same route. It was Game 6 all over again, except with more room in the car and a different bar at the end of our destination. If Game 7was a party, Game 7 was a desperate plea to the gods. Spurs fans feigned confidence, cheered after every bucket, but the GO SPURS GO chants seemed forced and had lost their luster. The Heat and Spurs battled in a game that would not be separated by more than six points until the free throw extravaganza that ends every NBA game. LeBron played like he did at the end of Game 6. Shane Battier knocked down big three after big three. It was the best game I saw the Heat play the entire series, but the Spurs matched them blow for blow.
At the 2:00 mark, with SA down by 5, Kawhi Leonard nailed a three to cut the deficit to two. No shots would be made until tragedy struck with 46.9 seconds left. Tim Duncan posted up on Battier, pushed to the right and unleashed a hook shot he has made thousands of times in his NBA career, only to see it hit the back right of the rim. He continued to move towards the basket and went to tip in his prior miss, only for it to miss the rim entirely. As Duncan ran back to play defense, he slammed the ground in anger. Then LeBron hit the dagger, making the game 92-88 with 27.9 seconds left. Unlike the Spurs in Game 6, the Heat would make their free throws and the celebration would move from San Antonio to South Beach.
My friend and I walked back to the car as furious black SAPD sirens flashed red, white, and blue throughout the area. We could either head home early and avoid the traffic or wander the city and maybe see a fool wearing a #6 Heat jersey get the punishment he deserved. While we sat by the car to come up with a plan, the city quickly turned into a ruckus of cheers, screams, and celebratory howls. Spurs fans started to come out of the sewers in various vehicles while blasting their car horns BEEP, BEEP, BEEP to the tune of their war chant. Each car that stopped by the stoplight wailed on the horns until they became hoarse or until the light turned green. We quickly decided we had to go downtown to witness the commotion.
We made the walk again down to the center of the attention, but this time we stuck solely to the street level. The River Walk had quickly turned into a ghost town. We followed the noise trail and others who had the same idea as us until we came to a throng of black and gray at the corner of Presa and W. Market St. This part of downtown had turned into a barbaric parade. Cars would drive down Presa honk their horns and the surrounding crowd would hoot and holler back. The crowd was filled of all sorts of creatures, white girls from Alamo Heights, gangbangers with head tattoos speaking sign language, older couples, tourists, and my giant Hawaiian Shirt wearing self sticking out like a lemon in the lime bin at the grocery store. The vehicles that drove through were of every make and model. Most were adorned with chevrons made from shoe polish representing their favorite player, respective number, and whatever goodwill slogans they could come up with. I even witnessed one white F-150 that had used spray paint to graffiti their car with Parker #19, Neal #14 , and Duncan #21. People hung from every opening the car had and threw half of their bodies out of sun roofs, beds of trucks, and windows. My favorite character was a solemn fan who muttered not a word. He had a bowling ball under the white shirt of his Spurs jersey, sandals with white socks that ran up to the middle of his calf and a pair of eyeglasses sat upon his nose. All he did was raise his pale arms as high as he could and wave the Spurs flag that he bought from Academy years ago.
The wild ruckus continued for a hour or so as fans chanted and beat the metal Via bus route marker sign with delight. If you had not watched the game or checked your iPhone, you would have zero idea the Spurs lost a heartbreaking championship. I don't believe there is a city in America that would react like they did last week. Their chants continued and swerved with their moods as they changed from GO SPURS GO to ____ THE HEAT to ____ THE POLICE. The men in black and tan did nothing but watch cautiously like a parent watching his offspring at the pool. Eventually you could feel the intensity start to drip and people start to slip off the pile like leaves falling off a tree. We headed back to the car for the second time that night and stopped to take a picture in front of the Alamo.
"What do you think?" I asked my friend.
"Go Spurs Go," he replied. "It sucked, but worse things have happened and we will be back again next year."
That I am doubtful of. This entire Spurs season (I watched numerous games because of my friends) felt like a last ride. One last chance to raise a banner, one more finger to be covered by a ring. Even though the Thunder left the door wide open after trading Harden to give San Antonio another chance to win one. As long as they have Pop, the Spurs will still compete, and I believe Leonard will soon be a top ten player. Parker and maybe some big free agent they can convince to come to San Antonio could keep them in the running. They always surprise me, but I believe this will be the last run for the original Big Three of Parker, Ginobli, and Duncan.
Really that is the shame of this loss. It's not just losing a championship in the most devastating way possible, but an end of an era. An end of all the great moments that won't occur again and will now simply be movies known as memories. Most twenty-somethings in San Antonio have seen and remember every title San Antonio has been a part of. They remember the days of going to the Alamodome, where half of the stadium was blocked off by a hulking purple shower curtain. They remember the old logo and parades at the River Walk and every summer is one they can relate to a Spurs playoff run. 2005 was when they broke their arm trying to make a jump off that scooter and watched them to lose to the Mavs in the West Finals with their arm in a cast. 2007 was when they swept a young LeBron-led Cavs team and snuck into their parents' liquor cabinet to celebrate. Now most who remember all of the Duncan era have walked the stage and are near or at the age where they are pressured to reproduce, improve the country's GDP and chase this idea of success. To stop wearing Nike 6.0s and start wearing dress shoes. To become mature and turn into a modern man. To become independent and grow up. It's more than just a loss. It is the end of youth, the end of an era.
I am also embarrassed for spending all of my time hating the Spurs, hating them for winning year after year, hating their ability to pick up unknown guys and watch them succeed, hating them for beating the Kings in their last playoff appearance in 2006. From now on, I will try not to spend most of my sports watching time hating the lesser of two evils. I will try to enjoy the game for what it really is, a game. Unless it is Tom Brady and the Patriots, of course.
I know 90% of the readership here at BRB hates the San Antonio Spurs. Even among the rubble of hatred, there are pieces of knowledge to gain from their destruction. They are still a franchise worth admiring for all they have accomplished. They have won 4 titles, made 15 straight playoffs, have a winning percentage greater than .700, and have 15 appearances on the first or second All-NBA team.
Whatever somebody is best at, you can learn something from them. My writing has increased dramatically as I started reading more American Literature and learning new words to appease the ears. NFL GMs could learn from CEOs about how to retain talent and build a great culture. Athletes take ballet to improve their footwork. Artists listen to music to inspire masterpieces made by pastels. The Houston Texans, or any NFL team for that matter, could learn an infinite amount watching the Spurs play about how to run a successful organization.
Build Around an All-Time Great on Both Sides of the Ball.
In 1996, San Antonio was mired in a lost season, thanks to injuries to David Robinson and Sean Elliot, winning only 20 games. As a result, they were awarded 157 ping pong balls and a 21.6% chance to win the Tim Duncan Sweepstakes. Luckily, they beat out Boston's 27.51% chance of winning the lottery and promptly rushed to the podium to select Tim Duncan over the illustrious Keith Van Horn. The rest is history.
The Spurs have arguably the best scouting department in the NBA, but without Duncan, they would have been a team that would have been knocked out of the second round of the playoffs year after year like the Atlanta Hawks. To win a championship, a team has to be led by a great player that can control the pace of the game and lead his team. This is also the hardest part of the Spurs' equation to copy. It takes luck, not skill, to fall into a player like this most of the time. The ping pong balls have to fall right or someone else has to make a mistake and pass on him.
In the NFL, most teams follow the same approach by building their team around a QB. However, it is extremely difficult way to build a team like this. There are roughly 6-7 quarterbacks that can be described as great. The rest of the league gets to fight for the scraps. Other teams have built on the defensive side around a MLB, like the newly retired Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher. If you have one Hall of Fame caliber player, you can win if the rest of the guys can fall into their roles.
Houston has set themselves up well under this model. On defense, they are built on stars inside-out: J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and the Joseph/Jackson tandem. Offensively, they have Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, and Duane Brown, all of whom are in the top three at their respective positions. Even though they do not have one of the those top tier QBs, the Texans can still win because of the great players they built around. Matt Schaub does not have to be great; he has to be merely good for Houston to win football games since he can be the Bruce Bowen on a team littered with possible future Hall of Famers. The only problem is that Duncan is arguably the best player of the first post Michael Jordan wave. Better than Shaq, better than Kobe, better than Dirk, better than Kidd. Houston does not have a once in a lifetime player, unless J.J. Watt keeps up his ridiculous pace.
It is About What You Can Do and Not What You Can't Do.
When teams evaluate talent, I imagine they compose a list of strengths and weaknesses and try to find which ones fit their system. However, most teams focus too much on what a player can't do instead of what they can do. For example, a wide receiver that runs a 4.4 40 but can't catch, or a tackle that can maul guys in the run game but can't pass block to save his life. Most teams would have a hard time giving these players a chance to make the roster. Each of these have special skill sets can still be used even if they lack another aspect to their game. The tackle could move down to guard and excel against slower defensive tackles. The WR could still be valuable in the return game.
San Antonio has been the master of digging through other team's garbage cans and finding players that can do the jobs that they need done. For example, Bruce Bowen was drafted by the Heat, cut, signed by the Heat again, then played for Boston, Philadelphia and Miami again before settling into his role with San Antonio. Most teams want a small forward that can create his own shot and put points on the board; it's a bonus if he can play defense. They let go of what would be the best perimeter defender in the league because he could not score aside from a wide a open corner 3. Bowen thrived in San Antonio and made eight All-NBA defensive first or second teams while winning three championships. He was put in a position to succeed. Danny Green, Steve Kerr, Stephen Jackson, Malik Rose, Derek Anderson, Avery Johnson and others are guys that bounced around the league and finally found success when they were put in a perfect role. Remember, it is not about what you can't do, but what you can do.
The Spurs have been able to play beautiful, selfless basketball because of the organizational culture they have developed over the years. It all started in 1988 when Larry Brown became the coach of the Spurs. When he was hired, he brought along assistant coaches Gregg Popovich and R.C Buford, the team's current GM. Their culture is now a three layer cake of Buford, Pop and Duncan. They all communicate the same message of what it means to be a "Spur". They all play for each other, not their own stats, and are not only a team, but a family as well. After the Spurs' loss in Game 7, Popovich said his message to the team after the game was, "I just told them I loved them."
Postgame: Gregg Popovich | Spurs vs Heat | June 20, 2013 | Game 7 | NBA Finals 2013 (via NBAshowtimeHD2)
This press conference conveys that message of love throughout it. You can see it on the court as well, such as when Duncan palmed Danny Green's head and hugged him after he made seven threes earlier in the series. It really is amazing to see in a league filled with selfish teams and players. With their culture, there are zero distractions involved. They can focus on one thing--win basketball games.
The Texans have developed a culture like San Antonio's. However, their culture starts with owner Bob McNair, who does not like to give contracts to players that may have character issues. I have never seen a team give back and focus on the community as much as the Texans have these past couple of the years. Every week, there is some type of fundraiser or a J.J. Watt visit that makes a fanbase proud of their team, on and off the field. Because of their culture, they have been able to attract free agents and retain the players they draft. Vonta Leach wants to come back to Houston, Cushing wants to stay a Texan, and Andre Johnson never left a team that was putrid for many years. The team has done a great job building an environment players want to work in.
Find Talent From Untapped Pools.
Two of the three members of San Antonio's Big Three were not born in the greatest country on earth. Parker was born in France and Ginobli in Argentina. Parker was taken at the end of the first round and Ginobli was picked 55th, passed over by every team in the league. Both of these players allowed the Spurs to continue their success even though they had to draft late in the first round year after year. They were still able to get incredible, cheap talent without the easiest opportunity because they scouted and looked where others didn't. Fabricio Oberto, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Nando De Colo, Aron Baynes are all overseas, low-risk talent drafted that contributed to San Antonio's success.
In the NFL, this is more difficult to do. Even though football is growing in popularity, it is still a national, not a global, game. Most of this is due to the fact that the equipment is expensive and it takes numerous players to play. Anybody can pick up a basketball and go shoot hoops, but not everybody can put pads on and do 1 v. 1 pass protection drills. However, there are still opportunities to find talent in places others usually do not look. There are numerous guys who succeed in the NFL that come from D-II or D-1AA backgrounds, forced to play at smaller schools because of a myriad of circumstances. There are also chances to sign players like Cameron Wake, cut in the NFL before heading to Canada to develop the rest of their game. If you don't get to pick in the top ten year after year, you can be creative and find talent in other places.
Despite the fact basketball and football go together like peanut butter and tuna fish, there is a plethora of information to learn from the two unrelated sources. Especially if you are learning from anyone that is the best in his or her field. I will continue to hate the Bud Light and Pitbull that go hand in hand with every San Antonio Spurs game and I will never cheer or hope for San Antonio to win a game. However, I now respect them for what they are--a great basketball team.