I'll be 25 at the end of July. Old enough to be able to think rationally and objectively about sports, realizing that there is more to this wonderful thing called life, and yet still young enough for me to completely lose myself in the drama of the game the moment it begins.
I have numerous sports teams that I follow, both collegiate and professional, but the only pro team that has my unmitigated passion is the San Antonio Spurs. For a military brat growing up, the city of San Antonio was the closest I came to having a hometown. My earliest memories are of life in the shadows of Randolph Air Force Base's "Taj Mahal." My first part time job was in San Antonio. I have so many friends there that I have to be careful who I tell that I'm traveling anywhere near the area to avoid hurting folks' feelings if I can't make time to visit. My wife and I were married in HemisFair Park 2 years ago next month, and we honeymooned there. Mrs. Felder loves the city as well, and it's our goal to move back there and settle down one day once our military obligations have been fulfilled. Simply put, the city is in my blood, and has been for as long as I can remember.
So it was only natural that I fell in love with the city's only professional sports team at an early age. Though my earliest playoff memory is of the painful end to the 1995 season at the hands of Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, the majority of my fandom has been since the advent of one Timothy Theodore Duncan as a Spur.
While most of my friends were (with good reason) Michael Jordan/Bulls fans, my idol growing up was always The Admiral, David Robinson. I was born a year after he was drafted, so I can't recall anything before Five Oh suiting up for the Silver and Black. The fact that he was former military was a huge point of pride for a young kid like me, who was routinely uprooted and moved around the country every 2-3 years. The culture of humility and professionalism that Robinson fostered within the Spurs' organization helped transform him from just a great sportsman to the quintessential role model for me, endearing the franchise to me whether the team won 50 games or 20 games in any given season.
In 1997, I was still too young to fully grasp the full concept of the NBA Draft Lottery and appreciate the enormity of the good fortune San Antonio had in winning the #1 pick. Never having been a college basketball fan, I didn't know that a school such as Wake Forest even existed, much less that the player that the league was drooling over had played there.
All I knew was I liked this quiet looking guy wearing #21 who seemed to compliment Mr. Robinson so perfectly down low. No, he wasn't flashy, but he was GOOD - something I desperately wanted my Spurs to be. And when he, along with my other childhood heroes from the 1999 team, finally got us over the hump and brought a title to my hometown, I'd never been happier as a fan.
But as joyous as that June night in the summer of '99 was, I knew even as a youngster that sports were cyclical, and it wouldn't last. It couldn't, with injuries, players leaving to play for other teams, and of course, the ever-presence of an undefeatable foe known as Father Time. I made it a point to enjoy the good years of the Duncan era for as long as they would last.
Suffice it to say that the good years have lasted far longer than I could ever have hoped. Yet after the Spurs' disgraceful back to back playoff exits in 2010 and 2011, even I, despite all my usual optimism, figured that Timmy and the Spurs had their time in the sun and were simply going quietly into that good night of retirement/mediocrity.
Except that Duncan and the Spurs had other plans.
Watching the '12 and '13 editions of the Spurs has been a complete joy for me because I'd never have thought this same core, with the same stoic franchise cornerstone, would still be competing for championships all these years later. Getting to experience this ride as a fan, and watching one of my childhood heroes getting one more chance, has been incredible-something many sports fans never get to experience.
And so I have finally made my peace as a Spurs fan. Win or lose in the 2013 Finals, I am ecstatic at what the Spurs have accomplished not only this season, but as a franchise since Duncan's arrival. For a team that was written off by so many, including some of its own faithful, to defy the odds and turn back the hands of time to make the NBA Finals again is truly remarkable.
One of the great injustices, yet sad realities, of sport is that we have to watch so many great athletes deteriorate before our eyes as they approach the twilight of their careers. Once representing the pinnacle of their disciplines, too often we see them struggle at the end, their bodies aging past the point of responding to their minds' increasingly desperate commands. They descend from great to merely good, from good to average, and occasionally from average to awful, with only their name to lean on as a reminder of the legend that they built. Sometimes it's a product of him putting too much time into the profession to bear the thought of walking away. Sometimes it's due to injuries or difficult personal circumstances and struggles sapping away the once all-consuming drive to be the absolute best. And sometimes it's a result of just plain old bad luck from being with the wrong organization at the wrong time.
Our very own legend Tracy McGrady has gone from basketball demigod that single handedly scored 13 points in a mere 35 seconds to defeat the reigning back-to-back league MVP Tim Duncan (and his defending champion Spurs) in 2004 to being a bit player who rarely sees the floor on that selfsame Tim Duncan team, while the Big Fundamental chases glory yet again. That contrast in and of itself makes me appreciate what Duncan means to the Spurs and puts into perspective just how rare and wonderful it is that our old stalwart is even able to go valiantly into the breach as a general, not just a foot soldier riding the coattails of others' success. Father Time, of course, will eventually finish the job on Old Man Riverwalk's professional career on the hardwood, and perhaps we'll yet see Timmy languish in the throes of a pedestrian finale to a glorious tenure. But right here, right now, is the time to admire the unqualified success of not only this season, but also of the career of the greatest legend to don the Silver and Black. That sentiment will still ring true whether these Duncan Spurs win another title this year or don't win another game as long as he's in uniform.
While I know I'm preaching to the choir when I say this to y'all Pounders, but let's enjoy what's left of this ride. Soak up all the Finals coverage of our boys as you can. Laugh at the haters, savor the praise, and cheer your heart out, whether you're making the rafters of the AT&T Center ring or waking your next door neighbors. Wave a towel Patty Mills style and never say die until the clock hits 0:00. And realize that while there is much more to life than Ws or Ls in their respective columns, it is perfectly okay to allow the Finals experience to swamp us one more time. Because good favor smiling on a franchise for so long should not be taken for granted.