For the better part of the last decade, I have absolutely loathed the San Antonio Spurs. I mean HATED them- as much as I hate the Yankees (and given that I have a son named Boston, that's saying something). I was a Suns fan during the "7-seconds or less" years when Nash and Stoudemire were in their primes. The Spurs bounced us out of the Playoffs almost every year, most infamously when Big Shot Rob went all Hacksaw Jim and shoulder-barged Steve Nash into the scorer's table. The scrum that ensued led to David Stern handing out a one-game suspension to Suns star power forward Amare Stoudemire and, ultimately, a Spurs series victory. And it wasn't just that. I was convinced that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich held "cheating clinics" during the pre-season in order to indoctrinate new acquisitions into the Spurs Way: predicate an entire offense around illegal screens, flop like "Waterworld", and meet with an acting coach to perfect that face that Tim Duncan makes at the refs. You know the one, that bug-eyed look of astonishment that a man makes to feign innocence. "Who?! MEEE?" Underpinning all of my vitriol, however unbeknownst to me at the time, was an essential difference of opinion about what made great basketball: to wit, I thought the Spurs were egregiously BORING. And not without reason. Saying that Tim Duncan "slams" the basketball is like saying that my daughter "slays it" on her toy guitar.
But, something began to happen as the years rolled on. As my own body and hoops game began to break down and as I undertook the sacred everydayness of becoming a dad, my intuitions about the Spurs changed. And, I don't mean this simply in the tired dialectics of form versus function, style versus substance, and the like. Especially in the person of Pop- in what he coaches and in the way he coaches- there can be found significant insights into Life and fatherhood. Here are some of my favorite lines:
"We don't win quickly. That's not what this is about. We unpack our bags and we win over a long period of time." - Pop
I could write adages for a hundred years and not come up with a more profound expression to capture the essential task of parenting. The Grind- successes come in fits and starts, failure looms abundantly, and, all the while, what is necessary is to pretty much ignore the apparent results (you know, the ones that drive you to drinkin') and stay focused on the process. Potty training is a great example of this: If you allow yourself to rise and fall with each moment during PT, you will lose your damn mind. You'll be in the throes of jubilation 'cause your boy piddled in the Jon and two minutes later he'll take a twosie on the living room floor (if this sounds autobiographical, just shut up). Doing it this way- what amounts to a value system based on immediate outcomes- leads to fatigue and, ultimately, hopelessness. And, it's false. As parents and people, it tells us lies about the quality of our character, the depth of our efforts, and, if we're not careful, even the worth of our pupils. So, the next time you're feeling like a prisoner of the moment, remember this passage that Pop tacked up in the Spurs locker room:
"When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."
"Against an opponent this formidable, we need to play perfect." -Pop
Perfection is a pretty tall order. In fact, it's the furthest idea from most parents' minds. "Just don't f%#! it up too bad" is probably a more appropriate mantra. And, to be sure, an unbridled perfectionism is toxic. But, Pop demands it as a pursued goal. Maybe he is onto something here. Two thoughts:
1. Parenting "perfect" means understanding your limitations and identifying your weaknesses- NOT categorically eradicating them. Boris Diaw is slow. Tim Duncan is old. Manu is a spazz. Pop just keeps playing them to their strengths. In turn, I am a life-long night owl. I don't know that it will ever change. We were worried about this when we first had kids. But, instead of perpetually lamenting my oddity and assaulting this disposition with programs for change, we simply accommodated that feature of who I am in a way that stayed faithful to the good of the Whole. We set up the kids' schedules so they stay up a little later and sleep a little longer in the morning. And, it has worked out really well. My wife gets more time with them when she gets home from work, I am able to help out with late night baby drama, and the children get the benefit of not waking up to a walleyed ogre every morning.
2. Parenting "perfect" means understanding that not all minutes house the same meaning. When the Spurs play the Pistons they don't have to employ all of their tools to get a "W", but when they tussle with the Heat in the Finals they've got to play pristine. There is too much at stake and their adversary is too strong to take lightly. This applies to parenting as well. There are throw-away days where you just hang on and survive. You don't bring your "A" game and mistakes get made. And, that's all right. But there are instances, sometimes barreling right out of the mundane that bear great gravity, necessitating an intentionality and precision beyond the norm. I had a moment like this with my 4-year old daughter recently. I had called back to her room to see if she was tidying up as instructed. No response. I go to her room and she's nowhere to be found. Then, I see something shuffle in the closet. I ask her, "What are you doing, silly"? To which she responds, chin aquiver: "I was hiding because I thought you would be mad that I was playing instead of cleaning up". There is anxious anticipation on her face, and I know instantaneously that my response to her is wildly significant for her tiny heart. I help her out of the closet, hold her face in my hands, and make her look me directly on the eyes. "Mary Grace, you never, ever have to hide from daddy. Never, ever. Even if you do something wrong or disobey or make a mistake, you never have to hide from daddy." Fear is a tough customer. I hope I was perfect that day.
A few weeks ago, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs turned out one of the most dominant NBA Finals victories in recent memory, winning each of their four games by 15+ points against a nearly dynastic Miami Heat side who had won back-to-back championships and were returning to the Finals for the 4th year in a row. The basketball they played was breathtaking and, for long stretches, flawless. As the Spurs rushed the court after a Game 5 lambasting that clinched the series, a typically stoic (if not gruff) Gregg Popovich sat still. Exhausted and emotional, he took it all in. He had just led the franchise to its 5th title in 15 years. He had avenged a brutal series loss from the year before, against the very same Heat. He had cemented his place as one of the greatest NBA coaches in history- one of only five to claim five or more rings...
But, I'm not sure he was thinking about any of that. After all, he's Pop- a suitable moniker for a man who coaches like a father. I bet he was thinking of all the little battles that had been won to get there: for Patty Mills to "get his fat ass in shape", helping Kawhi Leonard to push past his timidity and own his talent, keeping the Big 3 healthy, a panoply of mystifying queries from the dweeby Red Rocket, and a host of other "family business" that filled him with pride and satisfaction.
He'll chew you all to hell in front of your brothers, but never sell you out in public view...
He's honest in his criticisms, but it is always in service of your best potential...
He's never satisfied with anything less than excellence, but he cares way more about your effort than he does the results...
Sounds kinda like what a dad is supposed to do, huh? This is probably why so many of his players refer to him as a "father figure". Normally this could be written off as cliche, but in a league whose two best players are notably fatherless, this defining characteristic should not be lost on us.
Thanks for the lessons, Pop.