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To Spursland and Back Again: A Foreigner's Tale - Part 7

You have no idea how difficult it is to find time to write something while avoiding alcohol poisoning by Manuwar and his Californian friends. I'm writing this as he pushes me towards a nearby bar, so please don't mention my tardiness.

In this part I get to write about meeting Manu. Neat, eh? Join me after the jump.

Day 1
Day 2

Day 3

Day 4
Day 5
Day 6

Day 7

Saying Goodbye to Austin

We didn't wake up particularly early, but Wayne still felt we had time for another Texan tradition: breakfast tacos. Tacodeli was the chosen venue, and when we got there... the time for breakfast had passed, so we had to settle for some regular tacos. Someday I'll understand how the breakfast deadline came to be: food is food, so I can't imagine where the extra cost would come from if you get rid of it. In any case, tacos were had, and I left with fire in my stomach. (I really can't handle spicy food.)

Half-price books was as sexy in the mornings as it was in the afternoons. I looked for some of Lauri's recommendations, picked some other that looked interesting - and then Wayne showed me the graphic novels section, completely ruining my budget. Thank you, Wayne.

We saw, we bought, we left for our last stops of the day: Mrs. ATS, Lauri, and pizza. Like in any epic novel worth its salt, each lady gave me a present that I'd use later on for glorious endeavors. Mrs. ATS gifted me with girl scout cookies, and while they were good when I first opened the box, they were downright spectacular once kept in the freezer for a few hours. Lauri, though, gave me the best present of all: pain medication for my sore back. She's a goddess.

Wayne drove around the city until he found a pizza place near Continental bar. It was his favorite, and considering I hadn't tried any USAian pizza so far, we decided it was a good choice for our goodbye to Austin. The name of the pizza restaurant was "Home Slice", and right in the front window it claimed to have "N.Y. style pizza". I guess Italian pizza is overrated, anyway.

The decor was eclectic, entertaining to the eye, and the place was packed. We were led by a waitress to our seats after 10 minutes of waiting, and I immediately zeroed on the menu. I'll give Home Slice this: they had a lot of different toppings. Not as many as I'm used to in large pizza places, to be honest, but a lot regardless. To the side, next to the prices, a little diagram explained how to eat the pizza slices: 1. hold the slice with your hands; 2. fold it in two along the axis of symmetry; 3. if "the grease is dripping down your arm, you're doing it right". I attempted to use my knife and fork to eat my pizza later on, but Wayne stopped me saying people would laugh at me, and he would be embarrassed. I can only surmise that civilization is devolving quickly, and soon will shun fire because it will be more manly to eat raw meat.

Now that's a lotta pizza

At my request we ordered the margarita pizza, because I knew that it was the closest I would find to the classic Argentinian mozzarella pizza. When it came I was both shocked at its big size and amused by the presentation: high in a raised, metallic platter. It was good, if not quite the type I'm used to, and I actually matched Wayne slice by slice - he was so surprised that he mentioned it to me, in fact.

Well-fed and painless, we aimed towards San Antonio.

Appetizer Spurs (Still Pretty Incredible)

We stopped at Tom's long enough for me to shower, grabbed the tickets he had left for us, and then headed towards the stadium. It was still early, but we needed to get there in time to catch the Spurs during practice. We were going to be wild, cheering fans during the game, but before it started our media passes would let us roam around the arena.

When we met, Tom introduced me to his "other friend from Argentina", a short man called Tarasios. Glad to exercise my atrophied Castillian skills, I started chatting with him: he was an ambassador for the Greek Orthodox Church in Argentina, which was rather impressible, and his father had worked for the Spurs for decades. In fact, his father was the kind old man that had given me my media pass two days before, and Tarasios came back to San Antonio to visit him and catch a few games every time he could. Throughout the day until the game started, Tarasios would be next to me every step of the way.

Chip spotted Wayne lurking around, and came to say hello. Yeah, what you just read - apparently those posts about him flexing his quads in front of Chip were true after all. Wayne introduced me, and we chatted amiably for a couple of minutes. Then Tom showed up and asked Chip whether he had 5 minutes to answer Wayne's and my questions - Chip said yes, of course, I only had to work on Tony's shot anyway and Tony isn't going to miss a shot in the entire night, anyway. He said that with a smile, one that he kept on his face throughout the entire chat. His is one of those smiles that invite you to join in the fun, and you just can't say no.

It's odd how much work it takes to describe Chip, when all one really needs to guess his character is to look at his face. He has an athletic build, long-limbed and in shape, and it's obvious that he played basketball when he was younger, and probably played it well. His face is expressive, open, and he really seemed to enjoy his time educating the clueless bloggers.

Visual approximation of Chip Engelland

Or blogger, I should say, singular - because there were a couple of times when Wayne's knowledge impressed Chip. I'll let him tell you that story, though, because it certainly is worth telling. Wayne and Chip did all the talking; I simply stayed on the side and listened attentively. Wayne asked my questions, his questions, some new questions that popped up, and still Chip stayed. He only left when someone called him, but he must've stayed for a good 15 minutes instead of the initially-agreed 5. I was still reeling when coach Mike Budenholzer quickly approached.

I was a bit off my game, but Wayne didn't waste a second: he immediately asked Budenholzer about the pick and roll, a question that spawned the post you have all read. Budenholzer is shorter than chip, more compact. He's got very short, reddish hair, and small bright eyes that looked mischievous to me somehow. He seemed amused during the chat, but attentive and thoughtful. Wayne and he were concentrated on their chat, but I stopped paying attention when I saw that Manu was seated on the Spurs' bench, toweling away the sweat brought on by the long shooting practice. Then Tom looked at me, told me "Come, David", and I started hesitantly walking towards Manu, almost shuffling my feet.

Alea jacta es, carpe diem and all that, I thought.

Uh, eh, Manu?

How to describe my 5 minutes talking to Manu? In the end it was just a nice chat with a person I admire, a player that has been given me much joy through the years. It was a moment, one that passed very quickly, but that will stay with me for a long time. It was brought about by the concerted efforts of Wayne and Tom, and Manu's kindness towards his fans. I'm grateful to each and every one of those people.

Tom introduced me to Manu, and I shook his hand with what I hope was reasonable firmness. Manu invited me to sit next to him, half a chair away, folding his legs beneath him. That was my first impression of Manu: thin but sinewy, and looong. He was sprawled over two chairs, and I was curled in mine, maybe as a reflection of my nervousness. Then we started chatting - or rather, Manu started asking questions.

"We call him 'Frenchie McWonderbutt'."

I had come with some vague questions ready, mainly because I felt there had to be some reason for the encounter, something beyond the handshake, the "I'm your fan" and the photo. Thankfully, Tom had told Manu a bit about me and my trip, so he took the reins of the conversation: "Where are you from?" "Are you going to follow the team?" "You write for a site?" There were more, but I didn't keep track - I just opened my mouth and answered them as best as I could, thankful that for the first time in weeks I was using my trusted Castillian instead of my rusty English. He wanted to know how a fan born and raised in Argentina had ended up writing in English; I responded something, even though I wasn't quite sure how it all came to be.

There were other questions, there were some photos taken by Tom with my old camera. Tom gave me an official Spurs jersey, Manu's of course, and a pen - I handed both to Manu, for some reason almost ashamed of being such a stereotypical fan but unwilling to let the opportunity pass by, and he signed it on the number 20 with practiced strokes. Then Tarasios came, brought by Tom, and he told Manu some details about his job in Argentina. We stood up, we took another photo with a bigger, learner, meaner camera, and then said our goodbyes. The moment has past.

When I walked back to the edge of the court I noticed Wayne was still chatting with Budenholzer, so I held my distance, not wanting disturb them. I chatted with Tarasios, killing time. "What a nice guy," he said. I agreed, thinking how accurate that simple, almost cliched adjective was. Manu is before anything else a _nice_ guy. He's the only Spur that stays after every practice and many games signing autographs, creating mementos his fans will cherish forever. He answers the sportswriters' questions honestly and directly, as if the possibility of embellishing the truth never crossed his mind. What you see is what you get, and that's practically unique in the hollow world of professional sports.

We Argentines really know how to smile

As a fan of sports in general, I have many national heroes: Maradona, the Best Ever, the magical left foot who conquered the English and made me cry along with him as a kid; Vilas, the first, the inventor of the top spin and the "Gran Willy". I still feel grateful for everything they did for us, even as they did it for themselves. I like them, I respect them, and defend them when people call them out for their egos and their flaws. They are only as we made them, they are our flaws and our egos. However, I wouldn't have considered approaching them as I did Manu - Gino is one of the rare people worth watching when he plays and meeting when he doesn't.

It really was a good moment.

And yet we win

It was going to be a good day, through and through. Wayne and I got very good tickets for the game, courtesy of the Spurs organization once again: 10th row, behind the bench. Those were good tickets, trust me. They were the kind that make you feel as if your cheering matters, you know? Wayne and I had quickly escaped to a restroom and were decked into our Spurs gear: he was rocking his classic Hill jersey, and I was wearing both a Spurs hat Tom had given me and my brand new, autographed number 20 jersey. The metamorphosis from responsible bloggers to raucous fans was complete, and the mojo was off the charts.

I was still impressed by the sheer size of the players, when looked from close by, live. Their bodies _felt_ heavy, massive, and seemed to occupy a disproportionately large part of the court; they looked fast, truly fast, and the bumps that seemed like gentle nudges on TV featured very real slaps of bone against bone, flesh against flesh. Threading a pass through the minuscule holes in that sea of limbs and wide bodies seemed impossible, and that put the skill required into perspective.

Before the game a guy who read the site approached us. He was Gareth, who you all know now; he was tall, very tall, and lived on Toronto. Two days later I would spot him sitting a couple of rows in front of me, with his wife and tiny, adorable baby. He introduced himself, said he had recognized my ugly face from previous posts (my words, not his) and decided to come down and say hi. It was a nice, unexpected encounter, and I know that Wayne was surprised by it. People actually read this site? Color me shocked.

It was a good win, but you've already read about it, and it doesn't seem logical to focus on it after the tough losses to Portland and the Lakers. I prefer to write about the little details those of us who only watch the games on TV miss. There are many.

The Show Within the Show

Before the game starts, the player warm up on their half of the court. You all know about the many rituals followed by our players: Manu's walk across the court, stretching as he goes from one impossibly long step to another; Timmy's between-the-legs reverse layup, that Tony has to match immediately after; Tim hanging from the net for an instant, or hugging the ball before tip-off. They are always present, changed only by injuries or illnesses. One they are done the rosters are presented, first the guest team in a boring, dead tone, and then the home heroes, with music blaring from the speakers and an introductory video meant to rile up the crowd.

A quick aside regarding that video: Really, Spurs? That's the best you were able to produce? Shorts clips of the current players mixed with stylized 3D models performing some of their signature moves on a pretty background? Meh. The Spurs have 40 years of history, a rich history that spans two leagues and 4 championship. An introductory video for this team should recognize that, honor it. Where's Gervin's finger roll? Where are Silas's jumpers? Moore's passes? Larry Brown, David Robinson, the Dallas Chaparrals? A complete disappointment, completely overmatched by other videos I would see afterwords.

In every single pause of the game, be it time outs or end of quarters, some kind of show is held on the court. It's almost as if the NBA were afraid of pauses, of momentary interruptions of their show. Some are good, some not so much, but they entertain the senses until the players come back. A fan favorite, and one I found funny and cute, is the kiss cam: the jumbotron shows a random couple at a time, kisses are shared. Another one I found hilarious, in Portland: the Regurgi-Cam. I'll let you figure that one yourselves.

Here's where I start complaining, and people get pissed off. First of all, I really don't understand the need for constant, loud music drowning all of the sounds of the game and sometimes even the cheering of the fans. Sometimes the classic tunes, shared by NBA games throughout the decades, actually add to the ambiance and organize the crowd - but usually it's just random crap that seems to serve no purpose. I had lots of fun listening to the sounds the players make against the wooden floor while they play, but apparently that's too normal for the NBA. I hope no one feels I'm being unjustly harsh, but I really missed the cheering so common in football throughout the world, and especially in Argentina.

Even worse, the kind of pricey seats Wayne and I had that day seemed to attract the worst kind of fans. We were by far the loudest in our zone, and this is with me still feeling weird about adopting the local way of cheering ("De-fense, De-fense" seemed alien to me, even after all those years of hearing it and typing it). The next time I go to San Antonio I will buy the cheapest seats available, the nosebleeds as they call them, and go cheer along some real fans - like BlaseE and Hirschof.

Good seats, terrible fans

My final complaint: fans leaving early. It happened in every game I went to, even in relatively close ones. The minute the outcome was only vaguely set, fans all over the arena stood up and marched towards the exits. It was a disturbing phenomenon, one shared even by the Baseline Bums themselves, to my shock during Media Pass Day. "They're trying to beat the traffic," was the reason Wayne offered. Is that how a fan behaves, though, I wonder?

That's pretty much it. Minor complains aside, the NBA offers a show every basketball fan deserves to see at least once. If only the Spurs won more often...

Another game was coming - but before it, it was time for some classical music.