(Originally posted on my blog: www.betweenthesynapse.com)
I planned to write a similar article (did not involve furniture) after the San Antonio Spurs won their fifth NBA title. As close as that came to happening, it was not to be.
I can’t deny I took the loss hard. Probably out of perspective with life in general, "It’s just a game right?"
True, I guess, but I’ll save that question for another day. Sort of.
Sports has to be about more than just the game. People don’t develop life-long links to teams just because they enjoy hockey or baseball. There’s always a backstory, often filled with many chapters. The longer the book, the harder it is to put down.
In 1973, when I was 11, an ABA franchise moved from Dallas to become San Antonio’s first professional sports franchise. My dad took me to the first preseason game at the Hemisphere arena, 5 years removed from the Hemisphere ’68 debut. Tickets were easy to get and we sat right behind the Spurs bench. I don’t remember much of the game, but recall Spurs coach Tom Nassakle speaking colorful phrases with words I didn’t know went together. A basketball goal soon appeared in my backyard and a charter membership in the "Go Spurs Go" Club arrived in the mail.
Spurs’ fans quickly learned both the exhilaration and frustration of supporting one of the ABA’s best teams. Paul Silas, Swen Nater, Allan Bristow, Billy Paultz, George Karl, Larry Kenon, and George Gervin himself, the Iceman. The Spurs played in a filled and raucous arena late into each ABA season followed by disappointing losses in 6 or 7 games in the Semi-Finals.
Fortunately, the Spurs leveraged those sellout crowds and solid court performances into joining the NBA as part of the 1976 merger. Playoff success remained elusive, however, despite Gervin leading the league in scoring from ’77 to ’80. But nothing prepared us for the heartbreak of the ’79 Eastern Conference Finals.
First true heartbreak
San Antonio led the series 3 games to 1 when Washington Bullet coach Dick Motta revised Dan Cook's line, "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings," and made it famous. A high school sophomore by this time, I recall the sick feeling in my stomach when a shaky, seldom used bench player missed two free throws towards the end of Game 7 followed by a Bob Dandridge jumper with 8 seconds remaining to give Washington a 107 to 105 victory. For years to come, the Bullets (now Wizards) comeback was referenced in any 3 to 1 series. "Only 3 teams have ever erased a three to one deficit," followed by graphics listing the details and the color guy saying something like, "But I see the fat lady warming up."
For San Antonio (a city living not only in the shadows of the New Yorks and LAs nationally, but also of Houston and Dallas locally) the Spurs brought attention to our hometown known nationally only for the Alamo and Air Force basic training. We wanted to show we belonged, as a major city and an ABA team playing in the NBA. It would take Sean Elliott’s Memorial Day Miracle 20 years later to erase this and future near-misses to lead the Spurs to the Promised Land.
The Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals for two consecutive seasons in the early 80’s after All-Star Artis Gilmore's genius was added to Gervin’s indefensible finger roll. But San Antonio lost both times to the Showtime Lakers. Once Ice declined, the team played its only continual stretch of bad basketball until the first of two lucky bounces transformed the team, the city of San Antonio, and Spurs fans forever.
An admiral changes everything
On Sunday May 17, 1987, I’d just arrived at my parent’s home in San Antonio after completing my second year of law school finals. Sitting in the swivel recliner nearest the TV, I watched the NBA Draft Lottery with my dad, who was six feet away on the couch. The most anticipated NBA lottery since 1985 featured a Naval Academy franchise player unavailable to the lucky team until 1989. The Spurs had finished the ‘86-‘87 season with a dismal record of 28-54. Though playoff success had been elusive, the city was unaccustomed to loosing and Robinson, regardless of the odds and wait, represented the way back.
When NBA Commissioner David Stern revealed Phoenix as the number 2 pick, my dad and I leaped from our chairs grasping hands like we had won the lottery. It was perhaps our most impromptu emotional display that didn't involve grief.
Indeed, the Spurs saw the biggest one-season turnaround in NBA history during the Admiral’s 1989-90 rookie season. But true to Spurs playoff form, the Larry Brown coached team squandered an opportunity to defeat the Portland Trailblazers at the end of Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Four seasons of early, disappointing playoff exits followed until Robinson’s mammoth, MVP ’94-’95 season. Bob Hill coached the team to 62 wins after replacing John Lucas who had replaced Jerry Tarkanian who had replaced Bob Bass who had replaced Larry Brown. Now playing in the Alamodome in front of 35,000 fans, Robinson finally had the help he needed to win it all. Not to mention that the only basketball played by MJ that year, was on a Gameboy while riding a bus in between minor league baseball games.
Dennis Rodman, winner of two rings at Detroit, joined the Spurs as an unlikely but necessary complement to Robinson. His unique rebounding ability freed David’s offensive game, and with Sean Elliot, Avery Johnson, J.R. Reid, Chuck Person, Vinnie Del Negro and Terry Cummings, the Spurs were tough. The previous year’s champion, the Houston Rockets, limped into the playoffs as the sixth seed while Nick Van Excel was the biggest name on the Lakers. For the first time, fans clearly thought, "This is our year."
Rodman torpedos the '95 season
Living in Houston, I’m a diehard fan of the Astros (that’s an article for Modern Psychology) as well as of the Houston Texans. On the rare occasions the Rockets remain in the playoff after the Spurs, I happily support them. But despite living in Houston for almost 25 years and, until the team moved downtown to the Toyota Center, working next door to the Compaq Center arena, the Rockets appear distant. Sure I cheered the season before when they won the city’s first major sports championship, but I knew it wasn’t mine. I helped celebrate, and was happy for my friends and my city; kind of like you’re happy for other parents when their kids do well.
Most people, when discussing the Rockets 4 – 2 win in the ’95 Western Conference Finals, focus on Olajuwon’s dominance over MVP Robinson. Though Hakeem’s brilliance played a significant role, I focus instead on how Rodman’s changing hair color and increasingly contemptible behavior broke down team chemistry, distracting the team when it needed its utmost concentration. From taking his shoes off while on the bench to refusing to join team huddles, Rodman played below his talent and negatively affected the Spurs overall mentality. Still, for years to come, all I heard on sports radio and from Rockets fans, is how Dream beat down Robinson. It would take the Spurs third championship before this talk finally calmed down.
One positive outcome from this series. Never again would the Spurs keep, or acquire, a player who damaged team chemistry, regardless of on-court value or prospects for winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Next season’s 59 wins turned into another disappointment with the loss to the Utah Jazz in the Western Semis followed by the disastrous ’96-’97 season when Robinson missed the first six weeks with a back injury, returned for six games, broke his foot, and sat the remainder of season on the inactive list. With only 20 wins, San Antonio punched its first ticket to the Draft Lottery since 1987.
Falling into place
Luck plays a part in any championship run, but it’s also true that you make your own luck. The NBA’s Draft Lottery is the exception to that rule. That the Spurs would win the lottery (after their one down year in the midst of eight straight playoff appearances) due almost entirely to the injury of its franchise player, at the very moment when another franchise player was the clear number pick -- that's either luck, divine intervention or destiny.
I can’t recall my whereabouts when the Spurs landed Tim Duncan. Perhaps the routine of caring for our nine month old daughter clouded my memory. I also didn’t make much of General Manager Gregg Popovich firing Bob Hill and appointing himself coach. All I know is, to coin a phrase from the Daryl Royal Story, "This is where the story began."
On May 30th, 1999, the Spurs were up 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals over the Portland Trail Blazers. Given past playoff disappointments and humiliations, this meant nothing. The ‘99 playoffs were only the second time San Antonio won two rounds in a single playoff. Pre-1999, the team was 0 -14 when trailing by even one game in a playoff series and just 9-4 when leading by a game. Down 18 in Game 2, the Spurs appeared true to form.
The miracle's aftermath
A furious comeback ensued however, led by Avery Johnson, Robinson and Duncan. Portland continued to lead 84 to 78 with 1:06 remaining in the 4th when Sean Elliot hit his fifth trey of the game to pull the Spurs within 3. After a defensive stop, Mario Elie hit 2 foul shots to close the gap to 1. Another defensive stop went for naught when San Antonio failed to rebound resulting in an intentional foul on Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire at the 12.6 second mark. A Spurs timeout followed the point guard’s 1 of 2 shooting leaving Portland up by 2 when Mario Elle slung the half court inbounds pass past a lunging Stacey Augmon to Sean Elliott standing deep in the opposite corner. On his tip-toes, Elliot took a dribble to steady himself and fired a three-pointer over the long and leaping 6’10" Rasheed Wallace with his shoes only touching just inside the line. The Memorial Day Miracle erased decades of playoff futility, propelled San Antonio to its first championship against the New York Knicks and set a course for a new standard in performance and accountability.
If playing word association pre-1999 with "Spurs", results would feature Iceman, The Admiral, and playoff futility. Today? Team, defense, under-the-radar, consistency, role players, passing, Pop, coaching tree, the Big Fundamental, the Big Three, championships and the best franchise in sports.
Missing? Terms like; contract disputes, arrests, selfishness, endorsements, lack of effort and uncoachable.
All the right ingredients
Since drafting Duncan in 1997, the Spurs have appeared in 16 consecutive playoffs, won four championships and possess the best winning percentage of any team in the four major sports leagues in this country. (San Antonio has made the playoffs in 22 of the last 23 years and since joining the NBA in the 1976-77 season, has missed the playoffs only four times.)
Adding 19 year old French point guard Tony Parker at the end of the 2001 draft and Argentinian guard Manu Ginóbili in 2002 after his selection as the 57th overall pick in ’99, were like finding diamonds in a coal mine. With Duncan, they formed the "Big Three" at the heart of the Spurs lineup. As important as their skills was their chemistry, coachability, and team mentality. Focused on stingy defense and the easy layups instead of fancy dunks and spectacular blocks, each makes the extra pass if that means a better shot. They don’t rest on defense, so no one else even considers it.
The Spurs way hits home
San Antonio’s legacy developed just as my children grew into young athletes. Playing a variety of sports, I always hope they learn both skill and sportsmanship. Of course sportsmanship means treating opposing players respectfully, but also means understanding commitment, working hard at practice, not taking plays off in games, supporting teammates, accepting coaching, respecting coaches and officials, and the willingness to "make the extra pass." And just as important, rejecting actions and plays that don’t contribute to the win.
For inspiration I look no further than my hometown Spurs. Each season Duncan, Parker and Ginóbili, along with varying lineups of talented but like-minded players demonstrated this level of sportsmanship. Though just as the Spurs don’t win it all every year, neither do my kids always satisfy every demand of sportsmanship. However, I’m always proud of their respective efforts and believe our mutual support of the Spurs provides a strong background for their success.
Cliché? Yes, but the lessons in sport do translate to life. Of course, many positive coaches over the seasons substantially contribute to my children’s development. But with so many negatives in popular sports, ranging from players publically lobbying for ownership to fire the coach, to illicit drug use, to lack of team play, to disruptive tweeting, the Spurs stand almost alone as a point of light.
By the time San Antonio won its 4th Championship in 2007, my kids were 10 and 7. With each passing year I’ve been waiting for them to experience a Championship at an age more appropriate to appreciate the feat along with the validation that playing sports "the Spurs way" will lead to victory. Particularly against a team like Miami, who ... let’s just say, they're not the Spurs. As an aside, because I was returning home from Israel, I missed the Championship clinching games in both 2005 and 2007. I too wanted the experience of winning it all, in real time, one more time. I also knew a fifth ring would inarguably settle the greatness of the Pop, Robinson, Duncan, Parker, and Ginóbili era Spurs.
Last year’s defeat against OKC was certainly a body blow. I felt San Antonio matched up much better against the Heat and would have won the Finals. The 2013 regular season ended oddly with Parker hurt, Jackson waived before the playoffs and the team playing its worst ball in April. But momentum swung the Spurs' way with each passing playoff game, and Ginóbili’ s game-winning three pointer in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semi’s against Golden State that capped a 14 point come back with 4 minutes to go in the 4th harkened back to the Memorial Day Miracle.
After dispatching a tough Grizzly team in four in the Conference Finals, San Antonio got its chance at the reigning champs once the Heat beat Indiana in seven. And here’s where it got weird. The Spurs, always under-the-radar, fighting for ratings, and misguidedly perceived by some as boring, were the clear choice by just about everyone outside of South Florida.
Game 6 of the finals
The first game of the Finals ended with a play by Tony Parker that would have been the defining shot of just about any other series. Miami responded and the teams swapped blowouts in games 2, 3, 4 & 5. Now back in Miami with San Antonio up 3 games to 2 and leading game 6 by 12 with 1 minute left in the 3rd , Miami made its move and went up by 2 with 2:09 left in the 4th . Parker however hit an unbelievable step-back trey to put SA up by one, followed by a Heat turnover and another Parker jumper. A steal of LeBron by Leonard caused Miami to intentionally foul Ginóbili who made one of two, missing the chance to put the Spurs up 6. Still, a five point lead with 28 seconds gets the heart pumping, particularly when James misses from three following the timeout.
But LeBron didn't miss when Miller got the rebound right back to him, cutting the margin to 2 with .20 to play. Miller then fouled Kwahi, who could essentially clinch the game by hitting both. When he missed the front end, my stomach felt just like it did back in ’79. A back end swish avoids the possibility of losing by one at the buzzer, and when James misses badly on a trey attempt, all that's left is the rebound. But Bosh controlled the ball off the rim, directing it to Ray Allen in the corner, who made an off-balance three-pointer with 5 seconds left, sending the game into overtime.
Despite the letdown, San Antonio led in OT until the 1:43 mark with two arguable no-calls at the end: Ginóbili knocked around as he went to the bucket with San Antonio down by one with 2.4 seconds left, and Green was hit as he launched a three pointer to tie it at the buzzer. Spurs nation was left drained, disappointed, and devastated.
The coffee table
And this is when it happened. As time expired in overtime, understanding just how close the Spurs were to defeating the Death Star, that Parker’s explosiveness would be limited by his pulled hammy, that Duncan would need more than a day’s rest after the number of minutes he played, the odds of winning a Game 7 on the road, how much I wanted it for my kids, my parents, the newly minted Spurs fans, and yes, myself, I, without intention, grabbed the coffee table and silently lifted upwards as I stood.
I pretty sure the gesture would appear far more violent on YouTube. I don’t know how many hits it would attract but viewers would have seen my poor dog running for his little life as the table’s contents spilled out around the family room like talc from LeBron’s hands as the table spun 180 degrees landing perfectly upside down, legs sticking up in surrender.
Whether the videographer would have had the decency to turn the camera off when my now-awake wife ran out of our bedroom about to finish dialing "911" on the phone, I don’t know. I can say that I consider myself fairly lucky for not being committed to anger management treatment and suppose this is my way of explaining that destruction of furniture is not a valid therapeutic tool. My daughter seemed pretty understanding as far I can tell. I guess she has the making of real sports fan. Nonetheless, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, it wasn’t just losing a game that put that table in my hands.
I wanted to celebrate a fifth championship with my family, to show proof that the good guys could win, to hear the relief and the elation in my parents’ voices, to know that my team, that the team I supported since day one, had lifted up the nation by denying victory to LeBron and company.
Grandiose? Of course; yet sometimes we require something that is larger than ourselves to reach greater heights. This Spur team has and continues to inspire. Even though San Antonio lost Game 7, all else is not.