What a disaster last night’s finish was. Not necessarily for the Spurs, the Spurs will probably be fine. This was by far the hardest game they have left on their road trip and things will likely even out again once we can log some time at home and with a healthy starting lineup and some stretch run motivation. Yes, in the abstract this was just a close loss to a very good team on the road. Nothing to see here. Move along.
The problem from where I’m sitting is that this game was decidedly not in the abstract. This game was situated squarely in a concrete, factual world full of narratives, emotions and a few brutal absolutes standing tall against a reality we were all desperately trying to bend to our will.
Poor DeMar DeRozan. He actually played really well in his homecoming. He showed flashes of the player that he was and flashes of the player he’s growing to be in our system. There were plenty of “look what I can do” moments including a gorgeous 360 layup that in a less cruel universe would be the only thing anyone remembered from this game. The Spurs had the ball, up 1, with 15 seconds left in the game. The Spurs should’ve won and the Universe had other ideas.
Kawhi Leonard is actually a fascinating foil to DeMar. He is, outwardly at least, an unblinking, unfeeling, basketball machine who doesn’t navigate his way through the maze of a game so much as efficiently bursts through the walls to it’s center. His game is full of an austere, brutalist grace that we all grew to appreciate and champion during his time in San Antonio. I used to love seeing him during games like this with the crowd going wild and the pressure building, and then there he’d be: his face impassive and looking almost bored out there in the eye of the storm. It used to fill me with a confidence I’m not sure I actually had. Now, it fills me with dread.
DeMar, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. His game is more wild, more fickle. He explodes towards the basket and delights in opportunities to show his athleticism. He spins and wriggles around screens. He shakes his shoulders on pump fakes. He kicks his leg out on mid-range turnarounds like Kobe used to. He thumps his chest and howls to the crowd in moments of joy and looks properly crestfallen when things go the other way. You don’t watch DeMar play basketball so much as you live the game alongside him. It can be equal parts thrilling and devastating, sometimes all in one night.
I will never forget DeMar lying there on the court in Toronto watching Kawhi race off for a go ahead dunk. He was surrounded by people who used to love him, who still love him, all cheering their heads off for the guy who just ripped the ball from his hands and put the other team up. What a moment. The emotion of it was written all over his face. DeMar felt that. Like, really felt it. All the standing ovations and all the video tributes and all the best intentions have to ring just a little a hollow when you see people wearing Raptors jerseys with your own name on it overjoyed with happiness at your demise.
I don’t say that to denigrate the Toronto fans. Not at all. I certainly don’t expect a respectful silence or smattering of applause simply because they have some residual affection for a player on the other team. That’s ridiculous. If the situation were reversed I’m positive Spurs fans would’ve done the same. We’d clap and cheer and make signs that said, “always a Spur” and then we’d get right back to the dirty business of delighting in our own good fortune. That’s how the world works, and that’s certainly how the NBA works. It’s not personal, it’s strictly business . . . right?
This had to be surreal for DeMar. He did everything the right way through out his entire career. He wanted to be remembered as the best Toronto Raptor of all time and lead that franchise to the promised land. He wanted to be the type of loyal, team-first star that we’re always crowing at LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis for not being. Instead here he was, marooned on his old home court, draped in a Spurs jersey he never asked for, and watching someone else take the Toronto fans where they want to go.
I don’t know what the future holds for DeMar DeRozan in San Antonio. Maybe he plays out the rest of his contract and then goes off to play somewhere that he chooses. Maybe the Spurs decide to commit to a younger core and trade him, or maybe he plays out the rest of his days in Silver & Black and we all grow old with one another. Anything could happen. All I know is that while he’s here and while we’re together I want to love him with my whole heart. I want to feel this pain with him and I want to heal with him. When then Spurs get back to San Antonio, I want to remind him that he has a real home here and that the Spurs family is a strong one. The thing I appreciate the most about DeMar is that I feel like he really needs us as much as we need him, and it’s time for us to hold up our end of the bargain.
Basketball may be a business, but the players are still people.
That makes it personal.