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The Spurs and the ones that got away

The mystery is what makes fandom worthwhile.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Parker never did have the best timing.

A Spurs legend, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer-to-be and the finest European point guard of all time did something curious the other day, announcing his retirement at age 37, wrapping up a superlative 18-year playing career during which he played a starring role in four NBA championships for San Antonio.

The problem was that he decided to announce it on the morning of a potential closeout game of the NBA Finals between one team, the Toronto Raptors, looking to capture its first ever title in the Toronto Raptors and another squad, the Golden State Warriors, desperately hold off elimination and preserve its chances of three-peating.

Oh, and there was the tiny matter of Kevin Durant, if not the best player on the planet then certainly in the conversation, being declared healthy enough to return to action after a month-long absence from a calf strain he sustained in Game 5 of the Warriors’ second-round series against the Houston Rockets. If Durant was even 70 percent of his former self for just 25 or 30 minutes, surely it would be enough to tilt momentum back to the side of the defending champs.

So yes, “The Wee Frenchman” got a wee bit lost in the news shuffle, with a mostly needless announcement that was all but an open secret anyway, what with his fellow “The Big Three” teammate Manu Ginobili revealing during his jersey retirement ceremony this past March that he expected to be back on the AT&T Center floor the next spring to honor Parker in a similar fashion.

I couldn’t help but recall the most iconic, ill-fated sequence of Parker’s career, his Jordanesque score-steal-score sequence in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals at Miami that turned a 89-86 deficit into a 91-89 lead for the visitors, putting them in position to capture a title as underdogs. Parker had only shot 4-of-16 in the game up to that point, and he was dragging around on a bad leg, but he had a chance to be the hero, the guy who toppled the mighty Heat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (not to mention Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mike Miller...). Parker would’ve had a legit argument to not only claim his second Finals MVP, but he was undoubtedly the Spurs best player that regular season and postseason as well. He carried the team far more that season than he did in 2007, when he was more celebrated.

The only problem is that unlike Michael Jordan at Utah, there was still 58 seconds left to play in that Game 6, and a whole helluva lot happened in those 58 seconds, most of them were not great for the Spurs. A pantheon moment for Parker got lost to all but die-hard fans with die-hard memories.

I bring this up because another Finals ended in anti-climatic fashion for a former Spur of some renown.

I think we can all agree it would’ve been better for just about everyone, fans, journalists and the players involved, if the Raptors could’ve just wrapped up this puppy in five games, no? Fans in “T-dot” could’ve celebrated on their home court and in their various “Jurassic Parks” all across Canada. Poor Klay Thompson would’ve been spared months of grueling rehab and a season of his prime lost after sustaining an ACL tear. Last but certainly not least, we would’ve had the sweet narrative of witnessing Kawhi Leonard, another all-time great, having his own iconic fourth quarter stretch to topple a dynasty, a veritable “passing-of-the-torch” moment. The columns would’ve written themselves.

Instead what we got was Leonard playing a relatively pedestrian Game 6 by his lofty standards, mostly a bystander in the fourth quarter while Fred VanVleet of all people was sinking the hero shots. Don’t get me wrong, Leonard’s Finals MVP was well deserved, but it was odd seeing it given to a guy who tied with VanVleet as his team’s third-leading scorer in the clinching game with 22 points (behind Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam who had 26 apiece) and only getting there with three free-throws in the final second that were pretty moot to all but the gamblers. Leonard was 0-of-4 during 8:52 of playing time in the fourth quarter, with nary a rebound, assist, steal or block. No. 2, pardon the pun, looked pooped.

I’m not going to rehash the whole Kawhi v. the Spurs thing again. I said my peace about it already, though it’s worth noting that the reticent Leonard got as expansive as he ever has on the subject on the podium after Game 6, saying,

”Last year, a lot of people were doubting me. They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing that that was out in the media because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if we’re not playing this game, if we’re hurt, I mean you’re down. So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. It doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about me, I know who I am as a person. I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself. And that was my goal and my focus.”

We may not know everything there is to know about this intensely private individual, but one thing that’s clear is his passion for the game. It’s right up there with Jordan, Durant, James, Kobe Bryant, you name it. Kawhi Leonard loves playing basketball more than you or I love doing anything. His drive and ambition to be great at it is unparalleled, and every coach and teammate who’s crossed paths with him at any level will tell you as much. He’s not some renaissance man with myriad outside interests like a Ginobili or a Parker or a David Robinson, to name three. He’s not out here doing humanitarian work and trying to make life better for impoverished people like Tim Duncan. The dude is here to hoop, period.

Leonard is very much a “show, not tell” type and Popovich usually respects such people. From the beginning, Leonard demonstrated an exemplary work ethic, an insatiable appetite for coaching and drill work, the weight room and reps. He didn’t speak much with the media, but he raised eyebrows when he declared, very early in his career, that he had aspirations about being a league MVP one day, far before anyone could’ve envisioned such an ascension for him. He expected more from himself than anyone.

Regardless of the skepticism PATFO may have felt about Leonard’s medical situation, I think they should’ve given him the benefit of the doubt, if for no other reason than the pragmatism that Leonard’s superstardom demanded. You don’t do anything to potentially alienate a top-5 talent. You bend over backwards, cater to their whims, within reason, and when they ask you to jump, you consider yourself fortunate if there’s a parachute nearby.

The Spurs were no strangers to superstars, of course, but they hadn’t had one with any kind of “baggage” since Dennis Rodman. As you may recall, Pop dealt him to the Bulls for Will Purdue -- not exactly equal value.

In retrospect, the prudent course of action might’ve been for Popovich to gather his coaches, PR people, Ginobili and Parker into his office and tell them in a private meeting, “Listen, going forward whenever anyone asks you anything about Kawhi, the only thing any of us will ever say, on or off the record, is that we love him, we support him, we know he’s working as diligently as possible to get back, and we’re all 100 percent behind him. Period.”

What we got instead was Parker telling the media that his quad injury was “100 times worse” than Leonard’s, precisely when things between PATFO and Leonard’s camp were already coming to a head. Parker’s comments, misinterpreted or not, taken out of context or not, were likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. Leonard never sat on the Spurs bench again and the fissure was irreparable.

You don’t always get what you want in sports, just as in life. The best laid plans go astray. Freak injuries happen. Egos run amuck. Temperamental stars get in their feelings and demand changes of scenery. A home scorekeeper falls asleep and somehow .4 seconds lasts closer to 1.4. One year’s playoff hero is next season’s goat after committing an unforgivable, needless foul in Game 7. Another championship goes by the wayside when James, down five with 38 seconds left, misses a wide open three so badly that it scuds off the backboard wide left, setting off a cataclysmic chain of events which... well you get the idea.

Not to sound too corny, but it’s why we watch, right? None of this is scripted and nobody knows what’s going to happen, no matter what oracle-like wisdom the talking heads on TV claim to have. It’s why everyone including yours truly lost their collective minds when Durant decided to take his talents to the Bay, joining a juggernaut in progress. It made the sport feel scripted and the result a fait accompli.

Only none of it was as quite as easy and simple as we figured it would be for Durant and Co. Their first year together, Durant suffered what looked like a potential season-ending injury in February, colliding into teammate Zaza Pachulia, naturally. He dodged the proverbial bullet, missing about 40 days of action but returning in time for the playoffs. The Spurs that year, led by Leonard, were much better than expected and found themselves up 25 in the third quarter during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at Oracle Arena, only for fate to intervene in the vile personage of Pachulia once more, robbing us all of what could’ve been a series for the ages and, as it turned out, setting the stage for Leonard’s disenchantment with the Spurs.

The next year, the Warriors, for all their dominance, were down 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals to the Rockets and probably would’ve lost had Chris Paul not hurt his hamstring late in Game 5. Even with Durant the journey was bumpier than expected, even though the result wound up being predictable.

Ask Dwane Casey about timing. The former Raptors skipper never got to coach Leonard. He never got to go through a playoff run without the specter of James looming over him in the East. Nick Nurse, meanwhile, got the benefit of Leonard, he got Siakam and VanVleet one developmental year further in their respective careers, he got Marc Gasol in a mid-season deal and he didn’t have to deal with boogeyman LeBron. Timing is everything.

Sometimes your franchise center gets hurt and the ping-pong balls fall your way and you land a Tim Duncan and other times your mercurial young star suffers a season-ending injury and all you have to show for it is DeMar DeRozan and ”Jake Puddle.”

Sports can be gut-wrenching and heartbreaking but they can also be thrilling and spiritually rewarding and fascinating while bringing disparate (and desperate) groups of people together in ways nothing else can. The mystery and unpredictability of all is what makes it fun. No matter how gifted and superhero-like the elites of the sport are, they’re still fallible humans, with brands and motivations and insecurities and at times frail and uncooperative ligaments, tendons and bones. Unfortunately real life isn’t “NBA2K” and we can’t turn the injury-sliders and the fatigue bars to zero and the real humans involved suffer bruised egos at times in addition to bruised quads.

I know many haven’t forgiven Leonard for wanting to leave and may never find even want to forgive him. Personally, I was rooting for him with the Raptors. I thought it was cool that a title-starved, deserving fan base got to experience the joys and thrill of their first championship. I’m glad it was them and not somebody old, tired and bloated like the Lakers or Celtics. Leonard personally authored the best moment in Raptors franchise history and had his considerable mitts all over several others. He crafted memories that will last a lifetime for a whole country worth of fans rather than just one city in Texas. If you can’t appreciate that after witnessing five titles already as a Spurs fan, I don't know what to say.

Parker will have his jersey raised next year and it will be well deserved. Duncan and Ginobili and Popovich will speak glowingly about him, while tossing in the occasional jab here and there to keep things festive. No one will mention a missed shot here, a near-trade there, a Hollywood dalliance gone awry, a rap career that never quite took off or a poor choice of words concerning an injured teammate. I’m pretty sure Brent Barry won’t be invited and no other members of the Barry family will be brought up. The four old friends will only talk about the good times, as it should be, even though there were some bad times too, as is the case for all of us.

Maybe there will come a day that, as a fan base, we’ll remember more good times with Leonard than bad, and fondly look back on what was, rather than sulk about what could’ve been. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but what ever does? It’s the mystery that keeps us coming back for more.