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Jeff Ayres and the emotional plight of the fringe player

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The curse of being ridiculously good at your job and still not good enough.

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Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

You probably didn't notice Jeff Ayres falling apart in front of 20,000 people the other night.

I certainly didn't. I was paying the bill at a bar, having mentally checked out of the Spurs blowout win at Phoenix well before Gregg Popovich inserted Ayers into the game at the start of the fourth quarter. San Antonio was up 75-41 after the third quarter, a rare comfortable lead in a season filled with tight wins and bad losses. For once, Ayres was going to get a good chunk of playing time, a whole quarter to show his wares.

Except it didn't work out that way. Ayres was bad. He was really bad. He had three turnovers on an illegal screen, a sloppy inbounds pass and a ball that was easily pick-pocketed off of him on a rare post-up attempt. Alex Len and Archie Goodwin scored on him. He procured exactly one rebound in seven minutes, and it came moments after the aforementioned Danny Green-esque inbounds pass. He got in a minor scrape with Len.

Ayres was hardly the only Spur at fault. None of the guys out there with him, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, Boris Diaw or Marco Belinelli could do anything right those first few minutes of the fourth quarter. The Spurs were never remotely in danger of losing the lead, but man, the first few minutes of the quarter were U-G-L-Y, even for garbage time. Objectively speaking, Diaw and Joseph were more responsible for Phoenix's 14-0 run than Ayres. Nevertheless, Pop subbed him out in favor of Aron Baynes with 8:23 remaining. Soon after Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were summoned back in because the Spurs seemed utterly incapable of scoring unless one of Diaw's increasingly inaccurate fadeaways happened to roll in. Ayres wasn't reinserted into the game until 3:23 remained and continued to play poorly in a relatively meaningless, anonymous way until the game's merciful end.

And then J.R. Wilco noticed this.

It just crushes you. A game where the Spurs won by a million, playing better than they have in ages, and you can't even feel good about it because of poor Jeff Ayres, losing himself in front of our voyeur eyes. I don't think I've ever seen a professional athlete this sad after a regular season NBA game, certainly not after a win.

You feel sad for him, but inevitably after empathy comes the  curiosity. At least it does if you're me. You don't want to speculate but it's all we have. Yes, Ayres played poorly, but not alarmingly so. Was he distraught over getting pulled in a blowout? Over his careless pass? Of maybe looking bad in front of some college buddies in the stands (Ayres went to Arizona State)? Did Pop chew him out during a time out? Or maybe it was a completely unrelated matter having nothing to do with basketball. But the timing suggested that it did.

It reminded me of Dennis Hopson in Sam Smith's groundbreaking book The Jordan Rules, a chronicle of the Chicago Bulls 1990-91 season in which they won their first championship. Hopson, the third overall pick of the 1987 draft --two slots behind David Robinson-- had a disappointing first couple of seasons for the New Jersey Nets as a shooting guard with limited range, but came into his own in his third season, averaging 15.8 points and starting 64 games. Still, the Nets brass decided to offload him while his stock was high, trading him to Chicago for a first-round pick and two future second-rounders.

As Smith explained in the book, the Bulls were very excited at the time to acquire Hopson. He was supposed to be their sixth-man, an athletic third wing to spell Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Heck, maybe he could even play with them at times, with Pippen running the point. The world seemed full of possibilities.

It never happened. Hopson had trouble picking up the triangle offense, he clashed with Phil Jackson and, more importantly, never was able to get tight with Jordan or Pippen. In fact, Jordan rode him hard the whole season. Veteran Cliff Levingston and three-point specialist Craig Hodges leapfrogged Hopson in the rotation at mid-season and he ended the year as the team's 11th man, playing 18 minutes the entire postseason. Smith described him in the book bawling in the locker room while the rest of the team was celebrating. He had blown his one shot at greatness and he knew it.

Very early the next season Hopson was traded to Sacramento, which was then, as now, basically the NBA's Siberia. He actually had the best season of his career, at least when it came to the advanced stats, playing for that bad Kings team, but the league had a bunch of Charles Barkleys in their front offices in those days so Hopson's NBA career was over at 26. He played overseas from that point on.

Ayres is 27, almost 28. Still a young man by almost any standard and certainly by the Spurs', but well past the midpoint when it comes to his profession. The likelihood of him ever improving significantly is slim to none. At this point, he is what he is, a fairly athletic but mechanical big man who lacks any semblance of a post game and is too undersized to play center anyway. He has bad hands, marginal range and average-at-best basketball instincts. He's an underrated passer, probably his best asset offensively, but foul prone on both ends. He is your basic nameless, faceless, fifth/sixth big. Every team in the NBA has a Jeff Ayres, and the smartest among them know enough to hustle, work hard in practice and to keep quiet. "Be a pro," in other words. It beats working for a living and pays considerably more.

There's still pride, though, and as Marsellus Wallace taught us in Pulp Fiction, pride can be quite the obstacle. By any measure Ayres is among the 500 or so best basketball players on the planet. I very much doubt anyone who reads this is among the 500 best in the world at anything. I certainly wish I was one of the 500 best sportswriters. I'd love to be the 5,000th best-paid sportswriter. Ayres could play pickup in any game in the world and would look like a 27-year-old Tim Duncan. In fact, he'd absolutely murder the guy who'd murdered the guy who'd murder the guy who'd murder you or me. In the NBA though, playing against several people who are in the 99.7 percentile of basketball ability instead of the 99.6 percentile Ayres finds himself in ... well, occasionally things like the fourth quarter in Phoenix tend to happen, especially when playing time comes as sporadically as it does for the sixth big on a team aiming to win it all.

The Spurs acquired Ayres two summers ago on a flier, hoping to strike gold on a 25-year-old with some size and bounce. They signed him to an affordable two-year deal. Maybe their well-regarded developmental coaches could turn him into a useful piece. About halfway through last season by my estimation, Popovich figured it wasn't going to pan out, which isn't unusual by any means. For every Hassan Whiteside out there, or even a Gary Neal, there's 50 guys who just come and go. Ayres fit in with the team though, he's a good locker room guy, so he's stuck around for this season, though it was clear from the outset he's now strictly an end-of-the-bench player, someone who may not even be active if everyone is healthy.

So maybe that's why Ayres spontaneously broke down at the end of the game. He's only gotten into 34 games this season and has rarely had a chance to play significant minutes. The last time he played more than seven was on Jan. 22, a 23-point loss at Chicago. Getting your playing time chopped from what could've been 12 minutes to seven may not seem significant, but for a guy like Ayres, it had to have stung a little. On Saturday night, he wasn't deemed good enough to protect a 21-point lead. It had to be embarrassing.

Maybe what we saw were the tears of a man staring his NBA mortality in the face. Of realizing, no matter how much he works, how much he tries, how much he cares, that it's just not going to happen for him at this level, like Archibald "Moonlight" Graham in Field of Dreams.

"Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within... y-you came this close. It would KILL some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy." - Ray Kinsella

It's right there in front of him, so close that he could smell it, taste it, but he just can't grab it. It's so much worse than never making the league at all, at least then there's a rationalized "what if?" you can comfort yourself with. With guys like Ayres, they find out the answer to that question.

And suddenly, being one of the best 500 in the world doesn't matter and you find yourself losing it in front of a crowd of 20,000 who'd kill to be as good as you, and you seek comfort in the arms of one of the six or seven best to ever play. Ayres is a helluva lot closer to being Tim Duncan than you or I will ever be, but right then, he must have felt a galaxy removed from him, even though the man was giving him a reassuring hug.