Back through the mists of time, as though in a dream, I find him. He's sitting in his car outside the Kansas City apartment complex where he lives, head down, a glower marring the lines of his face. Though he has fewer hairs on his face than I do, and more atop his head, the resemblance is like looking in a mirror. Even so, the face I see is not mine. Mine is jubilant. My beloved San Antonio Spurs have finally prevailed. After seven long years, they've won their fifth championship. His Spurs, on the other hand, have just been beaten in the 2008 Western Conference Finals by the hated Lakers, and have failed for the fourth time to defend a championship.
I open the passenger door and slide into the vehicle, a tan Maxima with Pac-man dice on the rearview mirror and a Spurs decal on the trunk lid.
"Do I know you?" He demands. "Get out of my car."
"You don't know me yet," I reply. "But I'm a Spurs fan, too. I'm here to restore your confidence. Right now you feel like your team will never win again, like you're incapable of beating Kobe at full strength, that the journey to the top is too difficult to repeat."
He glares at me, but his silence confirms what I already know.
I put my hand on his arm - it's slenderer than mine, though he has slightly more paunch around his midsection, thanks to late nights of studying and stress eating. "Beating Kobe doesn't matter," I assure him. "The Spurs will win another title when Kobe is old and irrelevant. What's more, when they face the Lakers again in the playoffs, it will be a complete annihilation. A year after that, he'll be out of the playoffs entirely and the Spurs will be champions."
"So you're saying we'll keep alternating titles every year?"
"I didn't say that," I reply. "I'm just telling you to have confidence."
"We've got to accept that 2007 was probably our last one," he shrugs dejectedly. "The Lakers are getting stronger while we get weaker. Manu got injured again, Tim is slowing down, Tony has peaked. Michael Finley and Robert Horry are mummies. We were reduced to a Brent Barry desperation shot at the buzzer on our own court in game 4. It took Manu playing out of his mind just to win a single game in this series. For crying out loud, it took us seven games to beat the Hornets! I'm telling you, we're finished as champions."
I slap him, hard, across the face. Before he can process the injury, I instruct him to start the car. When he asks, I tell him we're going to someone's house.
Almost instantly, we arrive in front of a cream split-level with black shutters. It's a warm, late spring evening. We park in the driveway and enter the house. The young man stands, mouth agape, as he sees himself sitting at the bottom of the stairs, watching on the television as his Spurs' season slips away yet again, this time with a sweep at the hands of Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.
"This is why you tell me to have confidence?" He shouts at me. "The one team we never lose to sweeps us out of the playoffs?!"
His counterpart looks up. "Who are you two?"
"I'm you, from the past" the young man answers harshly. "I don't know who this bearded clown is, but he claims the Spurs will win another championship."
The one sitting on the stairs laughs darkly. "Fat chance! Are you watching this? Nash is beating us with one eye. Goran Dragic, a guy we drafted, is killing us. Pop is out of answers. Our post defense is a one-legged Duncan, Matt Bonner, and 75-year old Antonio McDyess! Manu just shot 2-11 in an elimination game. This run is over. THey probably should've blown it up last year, after Pop grew that terrible beard, Manu missed the playoffs, and Drew-Freaking-Gooden was the only thing keeping us from getting swept by Dallas in the first round. Tony is nearly 30 now, and we need to start thinking about trading him while he still has value. Maybe even listen to offers for Tim."
My hand flies and strikes him across the face. "Go out to the garage!" I shout. "I'm going to teach you a little faith."
In the garage, we find another young man. Sitting in a black Mazda hatchback with those same Pac-man dice and a Spurs license plate, head down, fingers sliding through thinning hair, he listens to AM 1200 out of San Antonio as Spurs play-by-play man Bill Schoening describes a last-ditch attempt by the West's number one seed to fight off a horrible collapse against Zach Randolph and the #8 Memphis Grizzlies.
With the 2011 season in its death-throes, I climb into the seat next to the young man. "Who are you?" he sneers bitterly. "And who are those two?"
"They're you from the past," I reply. "And I'm just a Spurs fan like you, here to assure you that Tim Duncan will win another championship with the Spurs."
He slams the steering wheel disgustedly. "Tim is finished. It's all finished. Our core is done, we can't sink any lower than this. First the Lakers in '08, then Dallas in '09, then a sweep - a sweep! - by Phoenix last year. It all came back to haunt us, all the teams we beat in the past, during our championship days. And now this. One series win in three years. We have no roster flexibility, we're relying on George Hill and Richard Jefferson and Gary Neal to save our season, we lost six straight in April. It's done. Tim is almost certainly retiring, Manu probably should retire, and I sure don't see any savior on the horizon."
"I do," I reply, calmly examining my fingernails. "A #15 draft pick from San Diego State. He's going to be Finals MVP in a few years."
"We haven't had a draft pick that high since 1997." The young man stares at me in disbelief. Then, with a dawning realization, he says "So that means we'll be in the lottery next year."
"No. Listen, you got the number one seed this year," I remind him. "You were a six seed last year. Things are trending up, not down."
He glares at me with tear-stained eyes. They'll soon begin moistening the front of his Ginobili jersey. "If only we'd been number six again his year," he moans. "All that number one seed did was make the loss that much more humiliating!"
"Get used to it."
"Yeah," he says bitterly, as the other two stand outside the car, nodding. "I guess I'll have to."
"I don't mean the losing. I mean being a high seed. Having home-court advantage again. We'll need it in order to clinch the title in San Antonio."
"Are you crazy?" he roars. "We're not going deep in the playoffs again! We probably won't even make the playoffs next year!"
The crack of my hand on his face echoes through the garage. Then, before the young man in the driver's seat can react, we're back in the living room of the house. The scene is different than before. A fourth man sits on the couch, head between his knees. He's watching a Spurs team which had just won 20 straight games get swept out of the 2012 Western Conference Finals by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"Ohh! So this why you told me to have confidence!" the first young man shouts mockingly.
"And faith!" scolds the second.
"What good did home-court advantage do us against the Thunder?" adds the third.
The fourth gets up off the couch. Like me, he has facial hair, though only on his chin. His grey Spurs t-shirt has a bit of spit-up on the shoulder, a gift from his 9 month old daughter.
"What's this all about?" He demands.
"This fool says Duncan and the Spurs are going to win another championship!" Answers the first.
"Is that true?" He turns his swollen red eyes to me. "Will they win another one?"
"Cross my heart," I say with a smile. "Just keep believing."
"No..." he shakes his head. "I can't. This was it. This was their shot, up 2-0 on a young Thunder team. Don't you understand? They can't keep up with Durant and Westbrook and Harden, let alone LeBron. Maybe Kawhi will become a nice defensive player someday, but he can't shoot, and he gave up that huge three to Harden. They're outmatched. They won twenty straight and couldn't even get to the Finals!"
"You don't need to win twenty straight to get to the Finals," I say calmly. "But we will win nineteen straight. And our young talent is as good as anyone else's. They just need a couple of years to jell, and the trophy will be ours."
The man grabs me roughly by the shoulders. I can feel the other three closing in around me.
"IT'S DONE!" they all shout at me. "These Spurs are finished! Tim, Manu, and Tony are done! The league, the championship, it all belongs to someone else now! ACCEPT IT!"
I reach out and take each of them roughly by the collar, dragging them toward the door.
"Where are we going?" they all protest.
In a room on the third floor of a Hampton Inn, we find another man. He looks almost identical to me. He's on vacation to the Windy City in mid-June, but at this moment, he's sitting on a hotel bed next to his in-laws, with an expression of horror upon his bearded face. 5 minutes and 28 seconds ago, his team was on the verge of winning a championship in the 2013 NBA Finals. Number five had seemed so real that he'd even texted his brother in Texas late in the fourth quarter: "It's happening." But it hadn't happened, it wouldn't happen. The Spurs' last, best chance, had evaporated.
He looks up at the five of us in the room. The family seems not to notice. "Who are you?" he whispers, as though his entire face has gone numb.
"It looks like you were wrong!" Sneers the fourth young man, ignoring the one sitting on the hotel bed. "They didn't win, after all!"
"Your 'savior' couldn't get it done!" Claims the third. "That #15 pick from San Diego State is a rich man's Bruce Bowen. And he has cornrows."
The first and second, the young men, adopt cooler tones. "This was impressive," the first says. "We made it back."
"But for what?" Says the second. "We lost again, only this time in the cruelest way imaginable."
I silence them all and look at the man on the bed. "Don't get down," I tell him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "They'll be back here in the Finals, back facing Miami and LeBron. Only, next time, there won't even be a game 6 to lose. They'll destroy the Heat by the largest margin in Finals history. A year from today, the Spurs will be celebrating again on the Riverwalk."
"And, not only will they win," I continue, turning slowly back towards the others, "they will have avenged each of their past losses."
I look at the first young man, then at the fifth. "You saw them, this year, in 2013, not only defeat the Lakers, but sweep them out of the playoffs."
To the third: "Before getting to the 2013 Finals, you saw them sweep Memphis in the Conference Finals, and hold Zach Randolph to 11 points per game."
And finally, to the fourth, the one with spit-up on his Spurs t-shirt: "And they will rout the Thunder, defeating them without Tony Parker on the floor, clinching the Conference Finals in Oklahoma City and leaving no doubt as to which team is the Best in the West."
"Can you hear yourself?" The fifth man says quietly from the bed. "Don't you realize what incredible luck it took just to get back to the Finals? The Lakers imploded, Westbrook got injured on a freak play. We had to come from 16 down in the last four minutes against Golden State. Then, just to get to this cursed game 6, Tony had to make an incredible shot in the series opener. Danny Green set a Finals record for three pointers!"
"Who??" say the first three in unison.
"Exactly! It was like seeing a basketball unicorn, and we still came up short. As a Spurs fan" he says to me, "you should know that every championship takes luck, and we won't get that lucky again."
Each of them recoils as my hand flies once again. My voice reverberates against the walls of the hotel.
"You cowards!" I shout. "You've all watched this team since elementary school! You saw David Robinson and Avery Johnson win a championship after years of being called failures and soft! You've watched the Big 3 overcome every obstacle, and you've watched a nobody division III coach who everyone, including you, wanted fired after his first season outlast Stockton and Malone, Kobe and Shaq, Dirk and Nash, Larry Brown's Pistons, D'Antoni's Suns, the Chris Paul Hornets, Kobe and Gasol, and now, even after they've refused to quit, you're all dying to quit on them! Be men, you cowards! BE MEN!!"
I sweep the five of them back to Kansas City, to the same living room where we saw the Thunder dismantle the 2012 Spurs. And then they see me, dancing in front of the television with my 2 year old daughter on my shoulders, celebrating a fifth Championship, the joy on my face outshone only by those who have waited so long to lay hands once again upon that golden trophy.
I turn to the five, enjoying their looks of shock.
"He doubted, too," I tell them gently, nodding toward the reveler. "When OKC ended the nineteen game winning streak, just like they had the twenty game streak, he doubted. When Dallas took a 2-1 lead in the first round, he doubted. When Serge Ibaka was injured and then returned, and the Spurs dropped two straight games to the Thunder, he doubted. ('It's 2012 all over again!' he said in his heart.) Even when Miami took game 2 after the Spurs' offense faltered, he too faltered in his faith."
"But ultimately, his faith was rewarded," answered the second young man.
"He learned never to doubt," said the third.
"Now we can win a sixth title!" exclaims the fourth. "Timmy can tie Kareem and Jordan!"
The first young man pumps his fist. "Another chance to repeat as Champions!"
My confident expression fades at talk of winning another championship, at going to the Finals for a third straight year. The usual excuses come boiling to the surface. I put out my hands, as if to suppress the excitement. My lips begin to say "Not so fast..."
And then, out of nowhere, I feel a hand strike my face. In a daze, I look around the room for the source of the blow. But I see no one. I'm standing there in my living room, with my daughter on my shoulders, watching my team with their trophy.
And that stinging cheek reminds me, once and for all: Never doubt the San Antonio Spurs.