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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Lakers

Friends, San Antonians, countrymen, lend me your ears.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

In the spring of 1731, off the coast of what is now Florida, Captain Robert Jenkins lost his ear.

It occurs to me that ‘lost’ is perhaps too innocuous a word for the full context of this story, so perhaps I should explain.

On April 9th of that year, Captain Jenkins’ ship (the HMS Rebecca) was boarded by the Spanish Coast Guard on suspicion of smuggling. The Spaniards, who it must be noted were almost certainly privateers (legally protected pirates), then plundered the Rebecca’s cargo, beat and abused the crew, and cut off Jenkins’ ear.

What became of the ear is something of a debate among historians. According to several unverified accounts, the ear was then given back to Jenkins so that he might present it to King George II as a warning not to infringe on Spanish waters. Several of those accounts go on to suggest that upon returning to England in June, Jenkins (who had kept and pickled the ear) immediately requested an audience with the King and/or any official who would hear his story.

Naturally, the British Government responded with the sort of haste one might expect of a political institution, and in March of 1738 Captain Jenkins won himself an audience with the House of Commons. Legend has it that he then displayed that same severed and long-pickled ear in a jar as a part of his testimony to the British Parliament.

And after much debate and political hysterics (supposedly, one extremely hawkish member of parliament decided to take out and shake the shriveled appendage in people’s faces during one of the debates), The War of Jenkins’ Ear (No, seriously.) was declared in late October of the following year.

You might be wondering, dear reader, how long such a war could actually last? Certainly not nine years? Right? RIGHT???

Against seemingly all odds (and sense), The War of Jenkins’ Ear ran from October of 1739 to October of 1748. No significant gains were made by either country. England failed to successfully invade Florida, Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia. Spain failed to conquer Georgia. Jenkins was still missing an ear. It was a war so inconclusive and meaningless that even Wikipedia is unwilling to name a victor.

Which brings me, finally, to last night’s game. It was an exciting game to be sure, in the moment. There were dazzling individual performances from Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray, uncharacteristic struggles from Derrick White and Keldon Johnson, and red-hot long-distance bombing from San Antonio’s new bench kings, Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker IV!

And yet, the shadow of an absent superstar loomed large over the contest. It was that absence that seemingly gave the Spurs a chance to take the victory in the first place, but also might have lent it a hollow ring had they successfully converted the tight game into a win.

It was an absence that rang equally hollow for the Los Angles Lakers in victory, as they were taken to the brink by a team without (as of yet) a superstar of their very own. It was a quiet commentary on the state of both teams, of the precariousness of their current circumstances, on the state of a more and more frequently absent NBA player landscape. Neither team stood to gain much from a victory or loss from the moment LeBron James was ruled out; a circumstance destined to end in almost as unsatisfying a manner as a war started over an amputated ear.

Of course, the War of Jenkins’ Ear was more complicated than all that. Jenkins’ ear was in reality just one very prominent complaint on a long, long, list; brilliantly utilized to give Parliament public support for a monetary conflict. Finding themselves on the losing end of a trade war with the Spanish (and their still-dominant Navy), the English hoped they could negotiate better terms through blood and conquest. It was the very loose equivalent of a growing younger sibling spoiling for a competitive game of hoops with an older sibling.

For my money, Spain emerged the narrow victor. Waning as a dominant empire, Spain’s Navy stood as their last remaining semblance of real power, and they were forced to rely on English miscues (over half of England’s estimated 20,000 casualties died as a result of tropical disease). Over the next century England would begin to expand itself into ‘The Empire on Which the Sun Never Set’, as Spain lost hold of their New World territories one by one.

Whether or not that same progression is being seen on a micro level for these Silver-and-Black upstarts and their Purple-and-Gold adversaries has yet to be seen. These Spurs can only play the teams in front of them for now. A victory still counts as a victory in the standings; a loss still counts as a loss.

There are no accredited accounts of Captain Jenkins pickling his detached ear and keeping it in a jar, much less showing it to Parliament. But then, in 1834 both Houses of the British Parliament burned down (due to an accounting error, of all things), along with countless Parliamentary records.

Personally, I like to believe that it did happen; that he held on to some sense of faith in his country, his government, to the belief that that faith would one day be vindicated – to the ear that would attest to his trials and tribulations. In either case, he most certainly lost an ear.

In either case, the Spurs certainly played their guts out.

I just wonder how we’ll look back on that in the years to come.


  • Though he would ultimately commit San Antonio’s final turnover (and indeed, the final turnover of the game), Keita Bates-Diop deserves a great deal of credit for the Spurs hanging in there in this one. With Keldon Johnson going cold from the floor and around the rim (Los Angeles’ size was a real boon there) as well as on the defensive end, Pop made a gutsy call to go with one the final players to make the cut for this team, and it (mostly) paid off. Bates-Diop is a savvy defender who understands how to leverage every inch of his frame on the defensive end, can defend multiple positions, and makes few mistakes on that side of the court. It seems unlikely that he’ll ever be much of an offensive threat, but sometimes you just need someone who can hold their man down, grab some boards, and hit some shots in a pinch, and Diop can do those things in spades. Also, he may be one of the best screeners on the team not named Jakob Poeltl.
  • Well, the free-throw woes continued in this one. For what feels like the first time in my lifetime, and almost certainly in the PATFO era, the Spurs are almost last in the league in free throw percentage. Hopefully this is something that can be remedied, as it ultimately cost San Antonio a win in this one. And it wasn’t just Poeltl, as both Murray and Vassell struggled from the line as well. The good news is that the Spurs do appear to be returning to the mean from long distance, so at least there’s that?
  • As much as I hate to say it, Drew Eubanks is proving about as useful as teats on a frog against teams who have real size that goes several big-men deep. Even in their diminished forms, he’s just not built to go up against the DeAndre Jordans and Dwight Howards of the NBA. The good news is that he does have some real utility against smaller teams, but the Spurs really need for Zach Collins to recover without any setbacks, and to draft and/or acquire another quality big man in the next year, because it’s clear that, loveliness aside, Eubanks just doesn’t have much practical use beyond being a 3rd or 4th big man on an NBA team. Those outlet passes though. Mmmm.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

This Year by The Mountain Goats