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What it feels like to break a long playoff drought

While living in Kansas City, this spoiled Spurs fan is reminded of how it feels to finally break through after years of futility.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a crazy year in the world of sports (and there's still three months to go!) For yours truly, the stretch from May until now has been the most transformational I've personally experienced in twenty years. To start with the obvious: The Spurs won a championship. They were supposed to be done, buried, lost to history as the new wave of NBA contenders trod on their grave. Instead, as the 2014-15 season dawns, they've got the basketball world in awe, their Finals victory so convincing and their spell so captivating, a team comprised of LeBron, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving can't stake a claim as definitive 2015 title favorites even among those starry-eyed name-droppers at ESPN - which, to be fair, may also have something to do with the team in question still being the Cavaliers of Cleveland.

Then futbol came on, in the form of the World Cup, otherwise known as the summer in which that person you know who's never mentioned soccer before in their lives is suddenly expounding on the credentials of Landon Donovan. After that came the Futt-bawl! we Americans really care about, with all its attendant craziness and baggage. There was that brief surge of chatter in San Antonio about the Raiders possibly coming to town, which seems to have died down after the apparent stadium deal the team struck with Oakland, and because S.A. has now had several weeks to be reminded exactly what sort of football product oozes onto the field in Raiders uniforms.

Seemingly forgotten amid the raucous clatter of NBA and NFL and college storylines was a baseball season that had slowly built momentum like a steam engine leaving the station of a dusty old western town. A town like Kansas City, for example, where the Royals ended a 29-year playoff drought (the longest in the four major sports) before completing one of the most improbable comebacks in one of the most dramatic playoff games ever seen.

It was a game I'll never forget. In the midnight aftermath of their extra-inning triumph, as I laid my Royals cap on my nightstand and tried to fall asleep next to my wife (a Missouri native who's never cared about baseball until now), I finally experienced what it's like to be a fan of a second team. I've spent most of my life now just rooting for one - a glorious one, a beautiful one. For the past twenty years, it's like I've been raising a Harvard valedictorian who becomes a MENSA-certified scholar and happens to do underwear modeling in their spare time. The Spurs are my first-born sports love.

Now comes the second. Certainly, it exhibits all the potential of the first - if not more. The Royals actually won their first championship 14 years prior to the Spurs winning their first. Unlike the Spurs, however, who followed up the first Riverwalk parade with four others, the Royals haven't had a single postseason at-bat since coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985, the same year VH-1 made its broadcasting debut and Marty McFly drove a time-travelling DeLorean.

Now that the second kid has graduated from college and gotten a job, I realize that I'm no less proud. Success has a way of heightening future expectations (how many of us Spurs fans are content, let alone ecstatic, with a mere playoff berth?) and it also has a way of obviating all the failure that came before it. Compared to most NBA teams, let alone the Royals, the Spurs have never in their five-decade history endured a true playoff drought. In the Duncan era, playoff time in San Antonio rates right next to brisket and the Alamo on the list of ingrained Texas institutions. While this certainly raises expectations, it does nothing to diminish the joy of accomplishment.

Pictures tell a better story than words, though, so I want you to watch this 10 second clip:

Now compare it to this one (skip to 1:10):

Listen to the crowd. Did you notice? One of these crowds represents a city celebrating its first MLB playoff victory in thirty years. The other is a city anticipating its fifth NBA title over half that span. But the joy is the same, and what ensues is a celebration fit for a championship.

It's the same experience around town, too. In Kansas City, everyone is now wearing Royals gear at all times, even though it's October and the Chiefs just murdered Tom Brady's career on Monday Night Football. All of the city's fountains are dyed blue. Total strangers are striking up conversations with each other about the wild card game and pitching rotations and how much they hate Ned Yost. It's identical to what I felt living in San Antonio during the Spurs' championship runs in 1999, 2003, and 2007. Having moved two states away by the end of '07, I was afraid I'd never feel like part of that city-wide camaraderie ever again. I certainly never expected to care this much about baseball ever again.

One of the most prevalent story lines around here is how many Royals fans, and even the players, weren't even alive the last time the team made the postseason. It's a funny anecdote, one of those "Hey, we can laugh about that now" observations, but it's also instructive to me as someone who was lucky enough to become a Spurs fan at just the right moment. A lot of us are barely old enough - if that - to remember a time when the Spurs were anything but regulars in the postseason.

Which reminds me: For all the emotional and experiential similarities, there remains one huge practical difference between my two teams. Call it elder child bias. The Spurs, as of 2014, are at the undisputed apex of North American sports. Even the New England Patriot comparisons have fallen by the wayside as the unlikeliest of cities in the un-trendiest of markets finds itself home to basketball's version of a perpetual motion machine. Until this week, the Royals resided nearly at the bottom, slightly above the Raiders and Chivas USA on the hierarchy of sports laughingstocks. No longer.


For Spurs fans, the way seemed long in 1999, and it seemed long in 2014. But let's not forget that we're the fortunate ones. The Spurs made it back to the top, seven long years after we'd last sampled that air. A 29-year drought makes that figure seem academic. But what strikes me is the joy felt by both sides. It's the same. For fans, winning truly is the cure for all ills.

In Kansas City, the hope is that the train which has gathered momentum is at the beginning of a long journey. In San Antonio, at least one stage of journey is close to its end. What lies in the future is uncertain. All I know is the joy, the privilege, that's been watching Pop and Tim lead these Spurs to the top these five times. I now see the other side of that coin, the end of a long, dark road. The joy and relief felt at the end is the same, but as those blessed to share in the journey, we should always be grateful; not just for the success, but also for the path that brought us here.