I know exactly when I stopped watching SportsCenter. I know what year it was, anyway. It was 2007. I know this because I remember at the beginning of each broadcast they'd show that day's highlights on a reel, and follow it up with brief celebration shots of that years' champions in the four major leagues, along with tennis or golf or something. So that year, there would be a shot of Peyton Manning enjoying his lone Super Bowl victory, the Boston Red Sox celebrating their World Series sweep over the Colorado Rockies, and the Anaheim Ducks hoisting the Stanley Cup. And then there was the man whose quiet career is anathema to all that Bristol stands for, beaming beneath the lights of Quicken Loans Arena as he held his fourth Larry O'Brien. For an entire calendar year, Tim Duncan led off every broadcast of ESPN's flagship program. Hold the A-1, this irony is delicious just as it is!
I bring this up because I've come to appreciate the bond that all championship teams share. Whether a team is the favorite or a Cinderella, winning a title grants you admittance into a club whose bragging rights go far beyond banners in the rafters or tiny patches on uniforms. Maybe they all hang out in a Champions Lounge that resembles Ron Burgundy's office. The two franchises participating in Super Bowl XLIX (49, for those who prefer your numerals with curry rather than linguine) were not part of the nightly SportsCenter highlight package in 2007. But both frequent the Lounge, and one of them is about to be crowned a champion again, whether it be the Seahawks for the second straight year, or the Patriots for the fourth time in the Brady-Belichick era.
(This is the part where Spurs fans roll your eyes and go "Whatever, Patriots. Call me when you chumps win number five. In fact, call me when you manage to get by Eli Manning!")
But though we may loathe to admit it, there is much common ground between our team and NE/Sea. That became truer than ever this season, as both NFL teams stumbled over the first half of the season. Those stumbles reached their nadir with losses in my metaphorical backyard: for the Patriots, it was a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in Week 5; for the Seahawks, it was a 24-20 loss to the same Chiefs in week 11. Though the nature of both losses was different, they still left each team reeling. Questions surfaced about whether Tom Brady was done in New England, and whether the Patriots dynasty would go down with him. In Seattle, fallout from the Percy Harvin trade had left the franchise in disarray, and missing the playoffs in the brutal NFC West (pro football's answer to the Western Conference Southwest division) was beginning to look like a real possibility.
To illustrate their despair relative to what the Spurs endured during the first half of their 2014-15 season, here are some quotes. See if you can figure out which of them came from a member of the Spurs organization and which from a member of this years' Super Bowl entrants:
"We had to make the most of all our opportunities and we didn't. We had plenty of chances in this game."
"We put ourselves in a tough position to start the game... It was just the little things. We really fought back into it though and gave it all we had. But we came back short."
"Every game we've lost this season it seems like it's come down to the last play, whether it's defense or offense."
"We made some errors that are pretty odd, unique-type errors with a couple of passes.. That is the game. We made too many of those mistakes."
"We need to make sure we never have this feeling again."
"I thought they outplayed us in every facet of the game. When somebody retrieves 50 percent of their shots, you can't say that you're focused and playing competitively in any, way, shape or form. When we add turnovers to that and missed assignments defensively... it's a pitiful performance."
Okay, so that last one was obviously Pop after the Christmas Day loss to the Thunder. But the first one was Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. The second is Duncan following the thiple-OT loss to the Grizzlies. The third is Seahawks DE Michael Bennett. Then Pop. Then Tom Brady. Like the Spurs, the first half of the season for the Seahawks and Patriots had taken them to a dark place, where every loss is magnified and every win seems like it happened eons ago, and will never again be repeated.
Since their respective losses in Kansas City, though? New England and Seattle have a combined record of 20-2. The Patriots have outscored their opponents 468-261 from Week 6 to the AFC title game, while the Seahawks' defense has forced 15 turnovers and held their opponents to 9.75 points per game over the past eight games, which includes the 17 and 22 put up by Carolina and Green Bay in the postseason. Even with the factors of age, roster dysfunction, personnel turnover, "Disease of More", injury, and the unfair but unending pressure to prove yesterday's success wasn't a fluke, both teams have survived to the end.
Watching last week's NFC championship game, especially, I saw a Seattle team who had as much reason to quit as any team ever has. They were down 16-0 at halftime against the presumptive NFL MVP, and should probably have been down 24-0. Their quarterback was playing like Ryan Lindley, and every single break had gone the other team's way. I don't care what Matthew McConaughey's character said in Interstellar - Murphy's Law had jumped the Seahawks in a dark alley and made off with their wallet, shoes, and car keys. But somehow, they stood up, dusted themselves off, and made it home. They treated the second half like it was a different game. They remembered what got them there, added in just enough desperation, and played like the D.C.s they are.
Whatever your opinion of New England, Seattle, the NFL, or football in general, the strands between these two franchises and the Spurs are multitude. Scandals aside, it's always been easy - if not slightly cliche - to see the Spurs and Patriots as metaphors for one another. It's also easy to draw analogies between the failures of each defending champion Spurs team and the challenges faced by the Seahawks in trying to become the first NFL champion to defend its title since... well, the Patriots in 2003.
Like the Spurs, all the Seahawks and Patriots are asking for is a chance to play for a championship again. In the Champion's Lounge, everyone from Rudy T to the '69 Mets knows how hard it is to keep going and how easy it would be to let it slip away. The Spurs have let it slip away four times before. I don't know how many of them were watching (American) football last Sunday, but Jermaine Kearse, who caught the game-winning pass from Russell Wilson in OT after the first four passes between the two had been intercepted, had some pretty good insight following his team's improbable victory:
"Everything's not going to be perfect," Kearse said. "Life's not going to be perfect. There's always going to be downs. You are going to be tested and it's how you respond to that adversity. When things aren't good, it really tests your character."
What does this Super Bowl really teach us, then? It's a long season. Back in week 11, the Arizona Cardinals looked unstoppable. In week 4, Philip Rivers looked an MVP. Sometimes the narrative arc of a season is unbroken, as it was when the Spurs dominated the regular season before winning it all last year; oftentimes, the narrative shifts completely. Even after winning 8 of 11, the Spurs are nearly at the bottom of the playoff standings, with little hope of catching Golden State and needing a certain amount of luck, along with regression by Dallas, Houston or Memphis, just to get home court advantage for the first round. But just ask Seattle or New England if it's possible to bounce back.
Adversity is inevitable. Survival is a choice.