The Many Faces of the AT&T Center
I am by now what you would call a "Nouveau Fan" - we are like the "Nouveau Riche", only even more of a stain in society. After decades of experiencing the NBA though narrow windows and low-quality feeds in my desktop computer, I have been lucky enough to be able to watch the Spurs live regularly. When I walk into the AT&T Center, I feel like I know the place: I have a general idea of where my seats will be, where to find the better fast food, and in what corner of the arena Matthew Tynan will be curled over his laptop, tweeting his youth away. Even in the midst of a lonely "DEE-fense" chant, I feel like I belong. (And I'm sure that at the same time ninety per cent of the people surrounding me feel I'm obnoxious.)
Maybe that is the reason than seeing the AT&T transformed seems so completely alien to me nowadays. I have already talked about one such experience: when I attended my first ever (and probably last) San Antonio Rampage game, and enjoyed a halfway-empty arena in which a few thousand people kept track of the action with glazed eyes. Only when a skirmish erupted between two or more of the gladiatorial-type brutes down below would the attendants perk up, and I spent most of my time trying to piece together how a professional sport could evolve into this state of institutionalized violence. The zambonis were still puttering through the ice when I left.
Still, that night's metamorphosis was minor when compared to the one I saw two weeks ago, when I attended my first ever (and again, probably last) rodeo night. What first struck me as I walked outside the Coliseum stadium was the stench: Being an Argentine, I'm no stranger to the bouquet of cow dung, but its pungency still caught me off guard. As I looked at the beautiful, massive cows that ambled around the place I wondered how in hell the AT&T Center employees managed to detox the place in only a few days. I walked around with my girlfriend, munching on a buttery, diabetical (diabetic + diabolical, get it? Get it?!) monstrosity called "funnel cake", pondering out loud on the similarities between gauchos during dressage and folk music festivals back home and the ranchers and cowboys milling about. Yerba mate certainly is not beef jerky, and bombachas are not blue jeans - but a squint of the eyes, a tilt of the head and the right soundtrack could have easily transported me back to Cosquín, Argentina.
I didn't have good seats. From my perch at retired-jersey level, though, it was impressive to see the new look of the Spurs' beloved home. Gone were the first few rows where announcers and corporate moguls rub elbows with photographers and Ime Udoka - and the gleaming hardwood floor was now all dirt and pens on different sizes. As a priest walked in and asked us to stand up for a communal prayer, though, I noticed that the differences ran deeper. As a transplanted foreigner, the practice of singing the anthem before sporting events always struck me as affected - but hey, when in Rome... This new wrinkle, though, reflected the change in the audience's expectations, and a glimpse into this new slice of the local culture pie.
Now, before I move forward, I want to clarify something: I am perfectly aware that any racial commentary from an Argentine will be next to worthless and potentially offensive, but I wouldn't serve my role as opinionated disembodied eyes-of-PTR if I didn't point out that there were literally no Hispanics on sight that were not part of the arena staff - and the only African American was the (apparently famous) rodeo clown. Anyone who has come to a Spurs game will know what a jarring change this is from the normal crowd that fills the stadium, especially since San Antonio is largely multiracial and the arena is located deep on the East Side of the city. This might be ultimately meaningless - but at least for me, an admittedly racially tone-deaf outsider, it represented the most noticeable difference. (But the WASPs all looked very nice!, blurted the writer, deftly dodging the awful faux pas.)
The show itself was quick and efficient. Horses bucked, steers were knocked to the ground and burly cowboys held onto angry bulls for an average six seconds before they were unceremoniously sent flying. It was a display that walked the line between animal abuse and animal love with the aplomb expected of people who make a living of nurturing said animals until it is time for the slaughter. Entertaining, but a display of skill probably more enjoyable for those who have held a lasso at least once in their lives. (Although I must say that the guys who lassoed the hind legs of a steer from their horses were absolute wizards.)
As a dabbler in the art of blogging (cue Pop-like sardonic smirk) I am often guilty of seeking literary symmetry to a fault. I feel like I should finish with some sort of conclusion that frames this fish-out-of-water racconto and gives it a reason to exist on Pounding the Rock as opposed to simply on my personal diary. There is none, really. But if you force my hand, this is all I have to say: For all I complain about the unnecessary music and the vapid cheerleaders and the fans leaving early and being too passive and everything else I have moaned about through the years... thank God for the NBA.
Blow Up And Rebuild - And Other Shenanigans
I am moving back to Argentina later this year, so my ongoing plan is to watch as many Spurs games as I can before I go back. Unfortunately, both my studies and my busy social agenda (insert self-deprecating denial here) are limiting my opportunities, so I jump at every single one. Cheap tickets for Spurs-Phoenix right after the rodeo? Yes please! Even if it is against a lousy team like the Suns and we get ahead by a lot of points early on and it will not be much of a challenge and... Tied? How...? Manu did what? ...Oh. Oh.
The Internet shitstorm that followed our one-point overtime devolution proves once and for all that the prototypical Spurs fan is as thin-skinned and prone to overreaction as anyone. The ramifications proposed were as varied as absurd: Tim? Done. Manu? Done. Popovich? Overrated. Tony? Incapable of leading a team. Chances for a championship? Vanished. I believe that the problem stems from two sources: the continued excellence of our team and the difficulty of putting the phrase "82 games in five and a half months" in meaningful perspective.
Let's give the latter a try. The Spurs play an average 3.5 games per week, often on weekends and half of the time on the road, after taking a flight across the country. More often that not these athletes are asked to be at peak condition at a time when most of us sit in front of the TV with a beer on our hands and a sharp tongue ready to cut down these young millionaires jumping around in baggy shorts. Back-to-backs are a known foe for our beloved fogies, and four games in five nights are so common that they were immortalized by our PTR ancestors with the best of our in-house acronyms. Worst of all, every single one of our four best players and several of our secondary contributors have gone through a myriad of injuries of varied severity, forcing Popovich to keep our rotations fluid. Through all that, the Spurs have managed to win exactly 77% of our games, on pace for 63 games and good for number one in the league. Not only have they won games, but they have also done it well enough to be second in Hollinger's automated stats-based power rankings, in my experience not a bad indicator of playoffs potentiality. As Russell Crowe would say: Are you not entertained?
We lost to the Suns, and Manu missed a key free throw. Get over it. (Please refer panicking fans to the last sentence after the next meaningless loss of this regular season. Thanks.)
Oh, one more thing. Racm posed a curious question the other day: "Was the Spurs reinvention worth it?" It was what the Powers That Be have classified as a "discussion starter", and basically it comprised a series of well thought-out reasons to doubt the current incarnation of the Spurs team, still after all these years built around three well-known factors: Tim, Manu and Tony. The main evidence to support this thought experiment is the lack of championships in the last 5 years, and the short remaining shelf life of our stars. This is actually something that I ponder sometimes, but for slightly different reasons. It never ceases to amaze me just how interchangeable players appear to be within the Spurs' system. Manu's gone? No worries, Green will hit some threes and Kawhi will score a few key layups. Tony out for a month? Manu's there to pick up the slack. Diaw? Of course he fits. Jackson? No worries. In my most unguarded moments I find myself thinking: I can't wait until the Big Three retire, so I can see a purer form of this system that Gregg Popovich and company have created. How far can it be pushed? What would it look like, in the hands of less gifted players?
Sometimes I think that - and then I slap my face hard and tell myself not to be so freaking stupid. We are currently fans of one of the four or five teams with a realistic, non-zero chance of winning a title, the apparent be-all end-all in NBA basketball. Even in our worst seasons we have entered the playoffs with a chance of winning. Maybe not a great one, but a chance nevertheless. Hold that close to your chest, guys. Cherish it. It's almost gone.
A Short Ode to Kawhi
Sometimes I feel the urge to write about something else other than the Spurs. The Lin bug bites, the LeBron versus Durant exhausting peroration from the newest blogger incites a nervous itch in my two mighty indices (the same I use to type at blinding speeds, a two-finger machine that blurs over keyboards), ready join in the fray if only to propose alternatives. Balding alternatives, boring alternatives, even -gasp- French alternatives.
I like to squish that urge into a soggy pulp. Push down with my mental thumb until it is nothing but a smear on the farthest corner of my mind. The cacophony of voices that cover each and every one of those megatopics is deafening, stupefying, and if I care to I can always find my position well-represented by mildly-apathetic, terribly-jaded bloggers. Meanwhile, my Spurs are dissected by a handful of blogs and three or four beat writers, usually too busy with the day-to-day meat-and-bones of this insane schedule. If I entertain the Kyrie Irvings and Derrick Roses, then when will I find the time to delve into the minutiae of what makes Kawhi Leonard tick?
Someday I will have the time to write about Kawhi in depth, as he deserves, but after last night's high-flying, plus-minus dominating performance, he deserves a few paragraphs. It is very simple to make a list of the thing Kawhi Leonard is: Explosive. Built in chunks, with clusters of muscles connected with sinewy threads and owner of hands right out of a B-movie alien. Generous with the ball. Deceptively phlegmatic. He is an energetic rebounder and an increasingly competent contributor from beyond the arc, despite taking more triples than ever. Disruptive on help defense and our best one-on-one defender. Versatile enough that his limited time at the 4-spot says quite a lot about Popovich's respect for Tiago Splitter this season. First and foremost, he is undoubtedly our third best perimeter player and our best chance to at least slow down the basketball monsters waiting for us in May and June.
Yet Kawhi is one of those rare players for whom what he doesn't do is just as important as what he does: He doesn't turn the ball over. He doesn't commit unnecessary fouls, averaging less than two per game despite being as I said our first choice when it comes to lock-down defense. He doesn't receive technicals and he isn't rattled by players or tense situations. This is far less common in the NBA than people may think, and an undervalued trait in players than join the league. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy Kawhi's rattling dunks and timely steals just as much as any other Spurs fan, but in my mind what separates him from the dozens of other young, talented players in the league is that steadiness of mind and body.
Leonard once said that he would like to be a "throwback type of player, [like] James Worthy. Versatile, [able to] do a lot of stuff on the court".
Please, Kawhi. Don't be silly. James Worthy wishes he had your long-distance jumper.