One more ring. Just one more.
That was my mantra for the past seven years, my plea to the heavens growing ever more shrill and desperate with each passing, fruitless season. I knew, rationally, that as a Spurs fan I was already spoiled beyond all reasonable expectation. The great majority of NBA franchises don't have four NBA championships in their trophy case and fewer still had them clumped so close together, all in a span of nine seasons. That was the stuff of major cities and iconic franchises. The Los Angeles Lakers. The Boston Celtics. More recently, the Chicago Bulls, thanks to the greatest player of all time in Michael Jordan.
The San Antonio Spurs belonging in that hallowed dynastic company? It simply boggles the mind. The NBA just doesn't work that way. Franchises like the Spurs are supposed to exist to give the glamour teams another opponent to pummel. Playing the Boltons, Fulhams and Stoke Citys of the world, to the Lakers' Manchester United, as it were.
Fate had something different in mind for the Spurs. First they lucked into David Robinson, one of the greatest centers ever, in the 1987 lottery, which catapulted them into instant relevance and contention for a solid decade. Then they hired one of the greatest tacticians in professional team sports in Gregg Popovich to lead the franchise to the next level. When injuries felled Robinson for almost the entire 1996 campaign, the ping pong balls dropped their way again for yet another once-in-a-generation big man in Tim Duncan. They found a Hall-of-Fame backcourt from overseas deep in the 1999 and 2001 drafts in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Add it all up and the Spurs dominated the league for a decade, culminating in their fourth title in 2007.
And really, that should've been it. That was supposed to be it. That's the normal cycle of sports dynasties, resembling something of a bell curve. You build a foundation, your young stars gaining experience playing with one another, you take your lumps in the playoffs for a couple years, you add some veteran role players, you win a few titles, your guys get old, get beaten by younger, hungrier squads and then you break it up and rebuild. For years the national media have accused Popovich and the Spurs front office of living in denial, of trying to squeeze every last drop from their "big three" when they had none left to give. For years the Spurs won scores of regular season games, only to peter out in the Western Conference playoffs. My postmortem was always the same: "We shall not covet, we shall not want." I knew we had it better than most fans. To moan about not winning another championship would've been a gross lack of perspective.
Then came the 2011 draft, where they traded for this relatively unknown kid from San Diego State. He had a serious demeanor, arms that went on forever and hands like manhole covers. He couldn't shoot or dribble much, but it was clear almost from day one that he could do things that no Spur had in years, maybe ever. Kawhi Leonard didn't just crack the Spurs championship window open, he burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid man in cornrows.
All of a sudden it didn't feel so silly and entitled to want another championship. It felt as logical as anything -- an expression of manifest destiny. "We have the best team, why shouldn't we win it all?" I thought. For the lion's share of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, it was hard to argue the Spurs didn't have best squad, and it sure seemed like they'd win it all deep into those postseasons, only for those grand plans to be waylaid by first Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden and Serge Ibaka and then by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.
It looked like the fifth title was just not meant to be and while I kept telling myself to quit being childish and stupid about this stuff, it ate away at me, burned me up inside. That three-pointer from Allen in Game 6 of the 2013 was as tragic as sports gets, ruining a dream finale for Duncan and Co. I couldn't help but think the Spurs dynasty was going to be lost to history, a footnote to the great and powerful "LeBron James Era." I couldn't stand it.
I was convinced that they were the better team in those Finals. That they lost on one of the all-time fluke scenarios in NBA history. It was crushing to me that the last relevant moment of Duncan's career was going to be slapping the floor after missing that bunny layup late in Game 7. It was agonizing to think of Ginoblii as the guy who committed 12 turnovers in Games 6 and 7 and looked washed up in those playoffs. I didn't even want to dwell on Parker as the guy who shot 9-of-35 in those last two games, hobbled with a bad hamstring. Yeah, he was only 31 and going to play a few more seasons, but surely he wasn't going to sniff a Finals again without his Hall-of-Fame sidekicks.
One more, just give me one more.
When I rejoined PtR for the 2013 playoff run, I told J.R. Wilco that I knew I was getting too old to be a fan-boy and that it was ridiculous for anyone to care about a bunch of strangers dribbling a ball this much. It wasn't getting me anywhere in life. Quite the opposite actually. I told him I just wanted the Spurs to win those 2013 Finals and that'd be it. I'd be free and clear. A couple months into the off-season he spoke to me about the opportunity to move to San Antonio and cover the team in 2014-15. I'd have to reshuffle my entire life, such as it was, but it was a chance to revive my fledgling dream to write about sports for a living. I also knew it meant that there was a definite deadline to being a fan. The Spurs had one more year to get this done and that was it, I was gonna move on, title or not.
Well, you know the rest.
Keith Olbermann wrote a story in a book he co-wrote with Dan Patrick called "The Big Show," about having to retire,as a fan. I spent an hour on Google trying to find it, finding tangential references to it here and here, but because Olbermann trashed Derek Jeter on his TV show the other day, that search has proved to be the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Anyway, Olbermann grew up as a die-hard New York Yankees fan, but his sports journalism career was starting around the late 1970's. In 1978, the Yankees, who trailed their rival the Boston Red Sox by 14.5 games in the standings in the American League East (back when only one team per division made the playoffs), somehow caught the Sox by the final game of the season, which necessitated a one-game playoff in Boston. Olbermann got a ticket because his best friend was a Red Sox fan. The Yankees won the game, thanks to a light-hitting shortstop by the name of Bucky Dent hitting a three-run homer. (Picture Matt Bonner leading the Spurs to a playoff win with 30 points and you get the idea at the likelihood of this.)
The Yankees went on to win a championship, but Olbermann recalled thinking, sitting in his seats at Fenway Park in what would forever be called the "Bucky 'Freaking' Dent" game, and I'm paraphrasing here, "This is a perfect moment for me to quit being a fan. It is simply impossible for it to ever get better than this." He went on to attend hundreds more Yankees games both in a professional capacity and just as a general fan of baseball, but he never had that same emotional connection to the outcome.
And so it must be with me. For my health, for my sanity and for my future. I literally couldn't have scripted the 2014 playoffs any better than how it unfolded. Not for Duncan, Ginobili, Leonard, Parker, anybody. The games, the Finals re-match, all of it was perfect. It is never going to get better than that. I can't imagine a better way to retire as a fan. If you're reading this, Matt Moore, it's official: I'm hanging up my pom-poms.
As you're reading this, I'm embarking on my first day of this new adventure, to cover the Spurs during Media Day. It's not that I think I wasn't objective about the Spurs before. I think I've been brutally honest when the situation called for it, and downright pessimistic at times. But from now on I will no longer cheer for them to win. I don't care about the results at all. I'm just going to be another hack, rooting for the best story.
What does that mean for "Stampland?" Hopefully not much in the way of changes. No more using "we" or "us" for sure. A lot less villainizing of the opponent, I imagine. I'll still call it like I see it both ways, and I'll still try to make it entertaining and worthwhile, maybe even informative here and there, for those of you who take the time to read it. As always your comments and feedback are appreciated, but I just wanted to make it clear that from now on I'll be coming from a different angle emotionally than most of you. I hope that's okay.
I had a lot of fun being a Spurs fan and they've brought me a lot of joy, especially in times where few other things did. I'm going to miss it terribly, but all things must end at some point.
After all, it's never going to get better than this.