The Spurs, the Heat, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great

Stephen Dunn

A fan's eye view of the Spurs franchise, and a look at whether they more resemble Aristotle, or Alexander the Great, and what that has to do with their current matchup against the Miami Heat.

I have been a San Antonio Spurs fan since 1987. I have seen more than my fair share of failure and, truth be told, more than my fair share of success. If you had asked me back in the mid-90s if I had had my fair share of success I wouldn't have said "no" but "hell no!" But that was only because I didn't realize we would end up winning four titles in nine years. My point is that I didn't come up with this title in haste...I've been thinking about this for a LONG time.

Speaking of that, for a very long time the Spurs were a good team that couldn't seem to make it out of the playoffs, every year in the Admiral's reign we would make the playoffs only to be denied. We were always good, just not quite good enough. After a while we came to be known as a "soft" team. I absolutely abhorred this label. But the fact was I wasn't really thinking about the team as we performed on the floor so much as I thought about what good guys we had playing for us...David and Sean and Avery-nice doesn't equate to soft-how dare you!

Then we got Tim and Pop promoted himself and we won it all in '99. It was amazing and I still have a certain reverence for this year in Spurs history. We won it not just with defense but with a defense so stifling that I still get a little choked thinking about how we absolutely refused to allow other teams to score late in games. While it's true that this team finished number one in a strike-shortened year it's also true that this team went 15-2 in the playoffs and won a record-tying 12-games-in-a-row at one point. If the game was close near the end...game over...Spurs win. We simply wouldn't allow you to score.

So...yeah...the "soft" thing went away. But it was replaced with something nearly as repugnant..."boring". We still haven't shaken that one, have we? Want to know why?

Well, you've probably heard of a couple of fellas named Aristotle and Alexander the Great, right? Aristotle tutored Alexander until Alexander was 16. Aristotle is one of the greatest thinkers in world history (his very name means "the best purpose") and is still, to this day, credited with basically inventing logic as we know it. On the other hand, Alexander was completely undefeated in battle, and conquered most of the known world before he was 33-years-old.

Which do you think most directly resembles a dominating NBA champion?

Let me go further. Alexander was born to king Philip of Macedon, and to Olympias, the daughter of a king. He was born into success. He founded some twenty cities that bore his name which suggests that humility was not a trait he was too familiar with. He had several relatives killed shortly after becoming king so as not to threaten his ascendency. When he came across the famous Gordian Knot he didn't hesitate, he didn't try to untie it, he just cleaved it apart with his sword saying, basically, that it didn't matter how the knot was undone. Perhaps the first example of linear thinking in existence.

Several years ago the NBA decided that, unlike the NFL, they were happy to have their large-market teams (born into royalty, let's say) be able to buy a team to win a championship right away. It worked for the 2008 Celtics and it worked for the 2012 Heat. Rather than "think" their way through untangling the knot they were allowed to basically hack it in two.

Let's not stop there. Alexander, great general though he was, could also be ruthless when things didn't go his way. Most famous is the siege of Tyre in 332 BC, which, after a long, protracted engagement which only served to infuriate him, caused him to have the entire city razed and all the men of military age executed.

My rather long-winded point is that, since 300+ years before the birth of Christ, we have been conditioned to expect certain traits from our conquerors and when they don't adhere to those norms we feel a need to classify them as "less" or "unworthy" or "soft" or "boring". I remember after the Spurs failed to defend their title in 2000 that there were a number of articles reminding everybody that the Spurs were the first team since the 1986 Celtics to not defend their title. And the fact was that even those Celtics had a pretty good reason for not defending...the Lakers. The Lakers beat them in 1985 and again in 1987 and were in the Finals 8 times in 10 years and 9 times out of12.

Then the Spurs didn't defend in '04, '06, or ‘08 despite all the major sports publications predicting that they would. After '99 the Lakers went on a three-peat string of dominance which included sweeping us once and defeating us 4-1 on another occasion. Heck, there for a while it seemed like even the losers would at least make back-to-back finals-the '02-03 Nets, the '04-05 Pistons, etc. I remember an article that ran on Fox Sports after the Pistons traded Billups to the Nuggets that was titled: And Another Dynasty Bites The Dust. Wait, let me get this straight, the Pistons make two straight finals, win one and lose one, and they're a dynasty? But the Spurs win three titles in five years and Sports Illustrated runs a cover of Tim and Tony and Manu under the title: The Quiet Dynasty which most definitely made the point that it was still in dispute whether or not the Spurs were really a dynasty?

Yeah. This is what happens.

It's been conditioned in us for a very long time. Since 300+ years before the birth of Christ winners look like Alexander and not like Aristotle. Since before 1999 the Spurs have looked less like Alexander and more like Aristotle.

If you want to win a Trivial Pursuit contest or a spelling bee then Aristotle is who you want to resemble, but if you want to win anything where physical attributes have anything to do with anything, you want to be Alexander. You want a long string of victories and scorched earth and unflinching attitude in the face of adversity.

For years I have been unable to forgive Bill Simmons for writing this particular piece of filth after the Pistons forced Game 7 in 2005:

The Spurs just lost three of the past four games (completely inexcusable under any circumstances), were blown out four times this spring (once against Denver, once against Seattle, twice against Detroit) and failed to finish off a team just 48 hours removed from one of most crushing losses in the history of the league (and at home, no less). Would the '86 Celtics have lost Game 6 at home last night? What about the '92 Bulls? Or the '82 Lakers? Come on. Any team worth its salt takes care of business last night. If the Spurs prevail Thursday, they're still the flimsiest champ since the '94 Rockets. I take back every nice thing I ever said about them.

At the time this seemed so over-the-top. Was he really saying that because we lost one game, a game to the defending champs, a team that everybody, at the time, was writing about like they'd invented team basketball for defeating that all-hall-of-fame Lakers team in '04, that we were a bunch of chumps? Yeah, that's what he was saying. At the time I couldn't believe it and I haven't read a single Bill Simmons article since 2005. Only...here's the thing...maybe he was right. Please, please, please understand that writing this feels like disowning my own whole family and changing my last name. It's that awful.

I wrote the preview to Game One of these Finals and, in that, I wrote that we'd win this thing in six games. I thought we'd win the first game (we did), lose the second one (we did), win two of three at home (so far it's 1-1) and finish it in Miami. I still believe that's what will happen.

But that's not the way Alexander would have done it. It's not the way the 80s Lakers, the Bad Boy Pistons, the 90s Bulls, the Aughts Lakers, or the Kobe-led Lakers would have done it. It's not the way that John McClane or Indiana Jones or James Bond would have done it, and maybe that's good and maybe that's bad but I know one thing for certain...this is the reason we get no respect.

Aristotle is not only a man, he's one of the greatest men ever. But he's not who we think of when we think of a man's man. We think of Alexander. For three days, ever since Game Three, all we've heard is how much more aggressive we could expect LeBron and Wade to be...and in this game it looked like the Spurs were COMPLETELY unprepared for it.

Alexander would have crushed his opponent or lured them into an ingenious trap, and yet all the Spurs could muster was capitulation to exactly what EVERYBODY knew was coming. In game three, when our home crowd started mockingly humming the White Stripes tune that the Heat use as their theme music, I swelled with pride, but, on the other hand, I knew somewhere deep inside me that the reason I was so elated by that turn of events is because the Spurs themselves would never, ever stoop to that kind of gamesmanship, and we, as fans, had to do it for them. I simultaneously loved and hated that moment.

Listen, I have loved the Spurs for a very long time. I love them for their class, their intelligence, their ability to win in spite of the fact that history says they really shouldn't win in this particular arena in the first place, and yet there is a part of me, a part I can only assume has been around since 300 years before the birth of Christ that wants...just once...to see the Spurs stomp their opponents into oblivion.

And not the '99 Knicks or the '07 Cavs...I want to see us stomp the teams that they, them, the other guys think of as "formidable opponents". The more I think on it, the more I think we finally beat the Lakers of the early 21st Century because Shaq and Kobe couldn't get along and not because we finally manned up and beat-hell out of them.

Will I be satisfied if the Spurs finish this series with exactly as many championships as they started it with? I suppose, but I'll always have a place inside me that knows that if we'd been just a little manlier, we would have won a lot more.

* * *

I love our brains. I love our class. I love our dignity. Maybe we don't need to leave a pile of dead bodies in our wake to a fifth championship. But just between you and me and several thousand historians since 323 BC...I really wouldn't mind finding out what that looks like.

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