During one of my 8,342 phone calls over the past week (moving out of state is a lot more complicated than you think, kids), the lady for my new internet provider asked me, just making small talk while her computer system processed my order, what compelled me to move from California to San Antonio.
"I'm doing it to cover the Spurs," I told her.
"Oh, the champions," she said. "They beat LeBron and my team."
The lady went on to explain that though she's a Heat fan and likes "most of their players," that she will be swiftly changing her allegiances to the Cavs because she's more of a LeBron James fan, so make of that what you will.
The part that struck me, though, was her brand identification of the Spurs. Instantly she made the connection that they were the champs. Not "older than dirt," not "boring," but instead champions.
It caused me to involuntarily smile. For a brief moment, in spite of myself, trapped in the stifling heat and the bureaucratic call-waiting purgatory this past week, I found bliss, a flood of memories rushing back into my consciousness, from Manu Ginobili's dunk over Chris Bosh in Game 5, to Patty Mills' hail of threes in that same clincher, to Kawhi Leonard's block of Russell Westbrook in overtime of Game 6 at Oklahoma City, to Tim Duncan dunking home a feed from Boris Diaw to cap off Game 4 at Miami to that tic-tac-toe passing sequence from Ginobili to Mills to Duncan to Diaw at OKC to Splitter's block of Wade's dunk and on and on. YouTube highlight videos playing in my mind at light speed.
Right there, in that moment where a complete stranger made the subconscious and instantaneous connection between the Spurs and what they achieved last season, it struck me instantly why I'm doing this, why I'm uprooting my life and moving halfway across the country to chase a sportswriting dream. Yeah, it's a career opportunity, but it's a stem that grew from the seed of my intense and ridiculous fanatical devotion to this team.
Every fan dreams of the fairy tale ending, the sports movie climax and we got to experience it. The Spurs didn't just win the championship, but they did it by defeating the same team that handed them a heartbreaking defeat on the biggest stage the year before, when the Larry O'Brien trophy was practically within their grasp. Not only did they beat Miami, they annihilated them. Even better, they only got to face Miami by getting past a Thunder squad who'd tormented them for the better part of the past three seasons. If all that wasn't enough, the Spurs won not by getting herculean efforts from one or two guys but rather by getting contributions from just about the whole roster, and their unselfish, pass-up-a-good-shot-for-a-great-shot style of play was heralded by opposing and observing players, media pundits and fans alike as a glowing exhibit for how beautiful basketball can be when everyone is involved.
It still feels like a dream. It's just unbelievable how lucky we are to be rooting for this team. They're the gold standard, not just of the NBA but any team sport anywhere. Every general manager, every coach, every fan wants what we have. It's humbling, in a way.
Winning a championship has its perks. For example, people like ESPN.com columnist J.A. Adande writes gives high marks to their off-season, just because the Spurs re-signed all their free agents, and mostly to below-market deals at that. If they hadn't won, Adande and people of his ilk (and probably us too) would be clamoring for the Spurs to splurge on the free agent market and concern-trolling that the team's window had closed with Duncan and Ginobili growing another year older.
Fans would've been up in arms that the team didn't do more to land someone like Pau Gasol, grousing about Peter Holt's unwillingness to go beyond the luxury tax to sign him. Maybe guys like Diaw or Mills would've been more willing to leave the comfort and chemistry for dollars elsewhere, reasoning that they did all they could in San Antonio. Heck, maybe the absolute unthinkable would've happened and Duncan would've decided to hang 'em up, figuring a fifth 'chip just wasn't in the cards for him.
While the blogosphere and basketball twitter were going insane the past six weeks over James' free agent plans and all the other comings and goings across the association, it was as if the Spurs were in another league, another sport altogether, so removed were they from the hysteria. Of course, every time James' name was mentioned --which is to say roughly eight billion times during these past two months -- the indirect implication took us right back to the Spurs. The main reason James went home to Cleveland is because the Spurs kicked his butt in the Finals. He couldn't have left Miami if they had three-peated. It wouldn't even be up for debate. It'd be a P.R. disaster to leave under that circumstance. You don't break up a dynasty in-progress without a seriously good reason. By extension, even though they themselves did nothing, the Spurs made the off-season so newsworthy for everyone else.
The Spurs' only real move was drafting Kyle Anderson, a Diaw clone, out of UCLA with the 30th pick, and the moment his name was announced, the reaction was almost universal... unbelievable, they did it again. The Spurs got the steal of the draft. How do they keep doing this?
Before Anderson was picked, ESPN ran a brief montage of the team's playoff run, and again it hit home, Oh yeah, they won it all, they had the best team. Whoever they pick here will have a tough time breaking into that juggernaut rotation next year.
For every other team a draft pick represents a piece of the championship puzzle. Coaches, GMs and fans alike delude themselves into thinking, "This is it, this is the guy who'll turn it around/get us over the hump/make the difference. This pick will right the wrongs of last year. This player will help us beat San Antonio."
The Spurs by contrast had the luxury of treating the draft for what it realistically is, a chance to acquire a cheap asset who can help down the line. No savior, no missing piece, just another link in the chain. He'll fit in and develop and play well or he won't, but we're certainly not desperate or needy of Anderson to pan out. At the 30th pick, it's silly to have high expectations, even with this team's remarkable draft record. We don't have to attach unrealistic hopes and expectations to him. He doesn't have to represent a solution to a glaring hole. He can just be.
Even getting away from basketball it was impossible to not be reminded of the Spurs. The summer's biggest sporting event was the World Cup and the tournament's best team, the one who ran roughshod over all comers, was Germany. The Germans had won the trophy three times already, but not since 1990, meaning they hadn't captured any of the last five World Cups. They have plenty of well-known stars on their roster, but not one single megastar along the lines of a Cristiano Ronaldo, a Neymar, or even a Wayne Rooney.
They made it to the Final though, beating Brazil by the unfathomable score of 7-1 in front of their shell-shocked fans to get there. In that semifinal game Miroslav Klose, their celebrated 36-year-old striker and veteran of four World Cups, scored his 16th career goal to set an all-time tournament record. The ageless Duncan, meanwhile, broke Magic Johnson's record for playoff double-doubles.
The Final featured a team of pretty good players against a one-man Argentina squad, featuring of course, global icon Lionel Messi, perhaps the best player in the world. Team play prevailed once more, and the multinational guys (the German team featured players with Turkish, Polish, Ghanaian and Tunisian ethnicity, among others) in the black and white jerseys prevailed over the individual once more.
(Sorry, J. Gomez.)
It's all behind us now though. Aside from the expected Kevin Love trade and possibly Rajon Rondo being flipped somewhere, the wheeling and dealing is over, by-and-large. Even the summer league is behind us, thankfully. The World Cup is long over so there are no real distractions on the sporting landscape. There's just the endless white noise of baseball and the faint echo of football training camps about to get going.
We've entered the basketball wasteland.
Last year July and August were spent in mourning, going over the what-ifs over and over in our minds a million times. What if Ginobili or Leonard sunk one more free throw? What if Duncan had made that bunny layup in Game 7? What if Pop left Timmy on the floor down the stretch? We killed ourselves agonizing over the myriad scenarios and feared that we'd choked away the last, best chance for one final championship for the big three.
This time though there is no what if. There are no regrets. There is no wondering if they'll win another one because they just did. Every time you see a basketball highlight on "SportsCenter," every time you see kids playing on the street or take part in a rec game yourself, every time you see a "Cliff Paul" insurance commercial, it'll take us all back to June and those three small, perfect words.
They did it.
And you'll smile every single time.