You'll forgive me if I'm not feeling so recappy these days.
This is the post I never, ever wanted to write, so bear with me.
Anyone who ever reads me knows that I write, frequently, and often in graphic, unnecessary and unwanted detail about my private life. I write about my crazy best friend, about my various suckass jobs, about my lurid gambling and strip club misadventures, about my on again/off again psycho-alcoholic girlfriend (currently "off" by the way, thanks for asking). I write about sports and teams that the majority of you don't care about, because a) only crazy people like Stampler root for teams in different sports that have no geographical relationship with one another b) all my other teams never win squat and c) even if you are say a Philadelphia Eagles fan or a Turkish national soccer team fan, well surely there are blogs dedicated exclusively for people like that. I can assure you, if I went to an Eagles blog and started blabbing on about the Spurs, their fans would greet me far more rudely than you guys do when I whine about Donovan McNabb's latest clusterfuck.
So yeah, y'all pretty much know me. And yet, ironically, to quote Sally Field, you seem to like me. Really really like me. When I veer into my latest PtR-suicidal tangent, you're all kind enough to humor me as best you can or at least ignore me. By now you understand I simply cannot write any other way, like the old joke people have about Skip Bayless - "If you want to get him to quit writing, simply remove the "I" key from his keyboard."
And since you know me, you know that despite my many tragic, some would even say Shakespearean, faults I have one endearing quality that keeps you coming back to me post after post: I'm not afraid to publicly admit I love me some Manu Ginobili.
Like, I just saw this movie, "I Love You, Man" (sucked) about this guy who doesn't have any male friends, so he tries really hard to get one in the few months before his wedding so he can have a best man and that his fiancé won't think he's weird.
So he meets and makes friends with this guy and it's just so phony and convoluted. I'm watching the movie, and I'm thinking to myself, "I have a closer relationship to Manu Ginobili than these two fictional characters have to each other after all their bullshit man-dates and Gino doesn't even know I'm alive.
(Well, we met once, before a Warriors game and he scribbled his completely illegible signature on my e-ticket, but he didn't say anything.)
But yeah, despite my many, often embarrassing in a Take-it-easy-Champ-why-don't-you-sit-this-one-out-and-maybe-stop-talking-for-a-while kinda way relevations about Manu, I've never felt guilty or ashamed or stupid for sharing or writing any of it. I never felt like "Woo boy, I really need to get a life..."
I put on my jersey, I watch the games in public among groups of people who aren't Spurs fans, and I offer myself, and my undeniable hero-worship of Ginobili, as an easy target to mock and ridicule - a 31-year old who refuses to grow up. I'm sure most of them think I have a Ginobili poster on my bedroom. And the only reason I don't isn't that I think such a thing would be shameful but rather I've just never been a poster sort of guy. I bought a Transformers poster once and never put it up.
Anyway, I think I've safely established my Manu-love these past few years. I really am this big, fat, hairy loser who sometimes goes to bed with the last thought before dreamland being some Manu highlight - real or imagined - and who sometimes wakes up thinking about that day's upcoming Spurs game and Ginobili's potential role in it.
So imagine my surprise when I find myself alive, normal (well, as normal as I can be), and at peace with the world.
Don't get me wrong. I'm sad. I'm always sad whenever the Spurs end a season without a ring, and this season has certainly ended more suddenly, more unceremoniously, and certainly in a more anti-climactic way than any of us would've liked.
But I'm doing okay. It feels weird to say it, I'm almost guilty to admit it, but I'm doing okay.
For one thing, the news wasn't that surprising. I've been watching Manu play - I mean really focusing and scrutinizing on his game - for years now. I know his moves, his mannerisms, his facial tics. I feel like I can tell how he's feeling about every shot, every teammate, every ref, every little nuance of the game. It's gotten to the point where not only do I think I can predict every Manu play before it happens, but I can even tell when he's flopping and when he's legitamately fouled or when he's feigning disgust with a call and when he's really protesting it.
And watching him against the Pacers, despite his overall solid statline of 16-7-7, I had a bad feeling about it. He passed and rebounded well, but he wasn't moving that fluidly, a whodat named Brandon Rush was abusing him on defense and seven of his nine field goal attempts were threes. He played a season-high 36 minutes, but got only nine shots off. Maybe some other day I would've used that information to go on a crazy Tony Parker rant and claimed that Frenchie's selfishness is why Manu shouldn't ever be a starter anymore. I tried to ignore my hunch, but looking back on it, I knew something was off. Ginobili's minutes were increasing from game to game, but his agility and athleticism weren't. He just didn't pass the eye test to me.
Then the Cleveland game happened and I knew. I mean, I knew. It must be how a jockey feels when the horse he's riding pulls a muscle or breaks a bone. He knows something's wrong before the horse does. Manu just wasn't Manu out there. He was just some guy, some old, immobile schmoe, laboring. Let's just Monday's headline didn't knock me over with a feather.
That's not the main reason I'm calm though. I think, mainly, it's because I root for the Eagles, the Sharks, my homeboy Turks, that the last thing I would ever feel when it came to the Spurs in general or Manu in particular is regret. The Spurs have won and they've won big. Four championships in nine years. They've been to the top of the mountain and taken us along for the dizzying, harrowing journey. After four titles what more do we have a right to expect but a noble effort? We Shall Not Covet, We Shall Not Want. We've gotten our share, and then some.
I know that in some dark corners of the internet, and maybe even here at PtR it's become trendy to suggest that Manu shouldn't have participated in the Olympics last year and that it was even "selfish" of him to do so. The most popular arguments are along the vein of "The Spurs pay his salary, not Argentina, and as a season ticket holder/league pass subscriber, I demand a quality product when watching the Spurs, and that means more Ginobili" or the even-more-popular "I'm an American and the Olympics don't mean jack shit to me, so why should I be happy he gets to play and risk getting hurt in them?"
First off, the Spurs pay Manu a below-market salary and have so for the entirety of his career. At no time have they shown an inclination to rip up his contract and give him fair value. They also offered Ginobili a two year, $20+ million extension last season on the condition that he skip the Olympics, and Manu turned it down. Say what you want about him, but unlike almost all professional athletes, the guy has bigger priorities than money. The Spurs front office? Not so much.
Secondly, your season tickets and league pass subscription does not guarantee you a championship or a contender or any other nonsensical thing. All it does is give you the opportunity to watch a bunch of strangers play basketball. Injuries happen in sports. Andrew Bynum has never been in the Olympics and he keeps messing up his knee. Kevin Garnett wasn't in Beijing last summer and he's missed over 20 games with his knee. It's a physical game.
Manu doesn't owe any of us a damn thing. He's already given more than anyone could've expected when he was drafted a decade ago. Forget '05 and '07, those are givens, but without him I doubt we even win the title in '03. If he never plays again or never approaches his past level again any of us would be idiots to complain about it. Some guys, even Hall-of-Famers, have 15 year careers and when they hang it up we struggle to think of a single moment, a single highlight that stands out. Manu's given us literally hundreds of them in seven years. We've been very lucky.
The same thing goes with Tim. Duncan's going to be 33 next year. He's battling tendonisis in his knees. He can no longer jump at all and his lateral movement is rapidly declining. That we've already seen his best has long ago been settled. But looking into the future, it's hard to imagine he's ever going to be TIM DUNCAN again, and consequently, hard to imagine us winning another one with him as the hub. And that's fine. Again, he's given us plenty. More than we could've dreamed.
Even Tony, at 26, has already wildly exceeded all expectations. The guy's a superstar now, at the height of his powers, but if he leaves tomorrow for a villa in France, or worse, the Lakers, could any of us really complain? When this skinny teenager first arrived on the scene in late 2001, did any of us think he'd turn into the player he's become? "Unbelievable" indeed.
The Big Three, they've done enough. Whatever we get from them after this is gravy.
As for the xenophobic anti-Olympic sentiment, it's because you're American that the Olympics don't matter to you. You look at a gold medal in hoops as your birthright and not something to fight over or dream about or cherish. I don't think any non-Americans can possibly understand what playing in the Olympics meant to Manu and to the Argentine people as a whole. The pressure to represent the country, to defend their gold medal must have been immense. Don't think it was a coincedence that he got to be the flag holder during the opening ceremonies.
The U.S.A. only cares about Olympic basketball when they lose. They lost to the Russians in 1988 and their response was the controversial "Dream Team" with Michael, Magic, Larry, etc. Those guys insipired millions of little boys across the world. What the NBA, and its fans, didn't understand at the time was that most of those boys weren't from the United States. Boys like Ginobili, Gasol and Nowitzki. After losing in 2004 to Argentina the team was so shaken that they took drastic steps once again, jettisoning some questionable team members (Iverson, Marbury, Odom, Jefferson) and a coach who didn't respect the foreign game in Larry Brown, for a team with actual point guards in Chris Paul, Deron Willliams and Chris Paul, a leader who understood the challenge in Coach K, and three perimeter superstars hungry for global domination in Kobe, LeBron and D-Wade. That team even had extensive practice time together, and played in qualification tournament involving all the North and South American teams the summer prior. I'm not sure the '92 team could've beaten them.
If he didn't go, he wouldn't be Manu
To get bitter and resentful at Manu for taking on that challenge is to not understand the man.
I don't know how much I will participate at PtR in the coming weeks. I am hurt and bruised and just want the season to end and go away. I know the Spurs will fight, gallantly, to the bitter end and I know that in the end they will come up short, just as they would've, in all likelihood with a hobbled Manu on the team. I think the worst thing that can happen to us as Spurs fans is for the team to win a round or two of the playoffs because then it will cause Pop, and his masters, to rationalize. It will get them to think, "If only Manu was healthy..." and they'll delude themselves into thinking the rest of the roster is fine.
The best thing that can happen to the Spurs, long term, would be for them to get bounced, emphatically, out of the playoffs in four or five games in the first round. Only then will we have a mandate for change. The team has a glaring need at small forward. It needs to embrace the concepts of youth and athleticism, and contrary to popular belief, there is already some of that on the roster (Hill, Hairston, Mahinmi, Gist) but for one reason or another, it hasn't gotten on the floor. I don't know if they can usher Fin or Bruce or even Fab out the door, but it would certainly be nice if they tried. Gooden is a free agent and I doubt he'll be back. The team needs a big who can defend and rebound on one end of the floor and space the court for Duncan on the other end. They need viable backups for Tony and Manu. They need a coach who isn't blind to those needs. Pop has more talent in Austin than he does on his bench, and it's about time he realizes it.
I do know that I have very much appreciated everything Manu has given to us over the years and while I look forward to him being healthy and playing next year from the very beginning (maybe finally developing a little chemistry with Mason and Hill) it's also just as possible that it might not be in the cards. Again, if that happens, I'll be fine. We'll all be fine. We have to treasure what we've gotten. We Shall Not Covet, We Shall Not Want.
I feel like Manu is one of my best friends in the world, and he doesn't know I exist. I don't care. I still think that when this is all over the two of us should get an apartment together.