I owe you an apology. You don't know me any better than Gary Neal would know a shot he doesn't like, which is to say, not at all. I have loved you for many years now, in the way that fans develop love toward the athletes who capture their imagination. Suffice to say that there's a pretty serious man-crush going on and we'll leave it at that.
You have been a part of my life for 11 years now and we've been through a lot of ups and downs together. There was that ridiculous baseline dunk you threw down over the Lakers during the conference semi-finals in 2003; a dunk that told all Spurs fans, if not the basketball-loving world, "things are going to be different in San Antonio from now on" and "these are not your Daddy's Spurs".
There you were leading Argentina to the Gold Medal in the 2004 Olympics, and a game in which you beat a US Team that featured Tim Duncan. I was so crazy about you that I bragged about this to rednecks in Texas and other southern states, that you, an Argentine (by way of Italy) had beaten the mighty U.S. of A. in a sport we consider as American as jazz and the Delta Blues. Yeah, that's some rich irony there, amigo.
There you were at your free-wheeling and reckless and heedless and spontaneous and wonderful (and long-haired) best in the 2005 playoffs. Simply put, without you I'm not even sure the Spurs make the Finals that year. In fact, I'm pretty sure if Timmy hadn't gone nuts in Game 7, you win the Finals MVP that year. (Losing that game wasn't even an option, am I right?)
Sure, there was 2006, and that free-wheeling and reckless and heedless and spontaneous and (not so) wonderful foul of Dirk Nowitzski in the playoffs. That helped send the Mavericks on to the Finals we should have been playing in. And there was the collective shrug from all Spurs fans giving you a lifetime pass. We don't want and won't tolerate anybody else going against the Spurs grain (that would be you Stephen Jackson) except for you.
But it's more than just your talent and your penchant for winning that earns you this status. You have always held a special place in the heart of every Spurs fan since the moment you came aboard.
Part of it probably has to do with the Hispanic heritage and it would be silly to ignore that. San Antonio, as the movie Bernie put it, "is where the Tex meets the Mex". This is a city and a team that refused to bow it's head in the face of the hateful racism that so many small-minded people attempted to subject Sebastien De La Cruz to. A city that embraces its heritage, and for so long you have been not just a Hispanic player but a future-Hall-Of-Fame Hispanic player.
But it's not just that, Manu, it's something more. Your on-the-court skill set represents a delightfully Spursian, herky-jerky, Eurostep, flailing non-coolness that is so unique (and has brought fruitful results for so long) that it actually veers back into coolness. And that otherworldly vision of yours, the intelligence that can never be taught because you can't really teach somebody to see things, in real time, as they might or could be -- only a handful of players in basketball history have had it, and you do ... in spades.
And yet, despite all this, I started to give up on you in this year's playoffs. I rationalized it by saying that while you were playing atrociously, you admitted as much yourself. And it only seemed to get worse in the Finals--going in to Game 5 your +/- was -9. You were a non-factor in our wins and an outright detriment in our losses. I texted J.R. Wilco my frustration at one point in game 4 and he wrote back that I wasn't the first one to bring this up with him. The national media seemed to side with me as well.
Well, whoopty-freaking-do. What the heck kind of justification is that? As my Mom used to say, if you're going to go off a cliff make sure you're following your own nose and not the arse of another lemming.
I told myself, and others, initially, that it wasn't that you weren't capable of greatness any longer, it was just that you'd been hurt all year and, we'd all find out after the season that you're still well below 100%, regardless of what you said before the series started. But then doubt started to creep in. We all get old after all, Manu, even you.
I watched while normal passes to teammates started almost sailing over their heads or causing them to have to lurch left or right to catch them: passes to set shooters, not cutters. And the turnovers; it wasn't how many there were, but the WAY they happened. You started turning the ball over like it was covered in butter. I thought maybe we wouldn't see that return to greatness. It broke my heart but there it was. I thought it out loud. Not really out loud but you know what I mean. Even in my head it sounded loud and terrible.
But you went out in game 5 and showed us all. Good on you and shame on us. All of us. What did I ever do for you after all you've done for me? I was just a bystander, screaming and yelling, all sound and fury signifying nothing. And you were actually in the arena, marred, as our 26th US President once said, "with dust and sweat and blood".
And I just wanted to take this moment to say, "I'm sorry, Manu, and I'll try not to let you down again."
I know you didn't ask for this apology and, more importantly, you don't need it. But you deserve it nonetheless. Why? Because you don't ask or need any sympathy; because you have the heart of a lion and the vision of a prophet; because even a hero deserves to grow old gracefully without the short memories (and tempers) of fickle and constantly-unsatisfied fans.
Because you're you and we, your fans, wouldn't change you for anything.