Son, this is going to be a weird San Antonio Spurs season for me. For the first time in seven years, I can actually watch NBA games live. It means no more avoiding social media so I don’t accidentally see a late 4th quarter score or catch a fuzzy pixilated replay of the best darn block in NBA history instead of experiencing greatness as it happened. It means no more long nights shuttling you to and from basketball practice in the dark. No more listening to your grandmother loudly offer her years of vast indisputable refereeing experience from the sideline. And no more numbness slowly creeping up my spine from the unforgiving wood of the school bleachers. And son, I am going to miss all of it.
Watching you on the floor made me remember my own love of the game. Not as a Spurs fan –that has been intact since The Admiral first sailed the hardwood in 1989. No, it reminded me what it felt like to be a player again. Each time you figured out some new aspect of the game – as your court vision improved and your shot went from a two-handed desperation heave to a smooth ice-cold dagger – I smiled. When you hit 10 of your 14 three-point attempts on your way to a school record, my smile grew. The lesson you were teaching me was simple: good basketball transcends. When everything is in sync, a basketball player’s body speaks some of the most beautiful poetry in sports. But when it’s not in sync, it can be painful to watch.
Spurs fans are going to need to have a high threshold for pain this year. Enough internet white space have already been dedicated to “The Tank” so I don’t have to. Personally, I’m excited to see what Pop and Co have in store. We fans have begged for more Josh Primo, more playing time from the rookies and more Tre Jones and J-Rich. Even, I guess, more 22 point Where-Was-THAT-All-Year late season outbursts from Keith Bates-Diop. So we should be thrilled, because by gum we’re about to get a lot of that this season. But I also look forward to those moments of perfect synergy where, if even for a brief moment, team basketball is beautiful again.
That’s why, son, if I could offer a bit of advice from my buttock-numbed position over here on the bleachers, it’s this: as you take the next step in your development, I suggest that you model yourself after the Spurs.
When they are in sync, Spurs basketball is about shared achievement. The players, from the MPV on down, intentionally suspend individual identity and ego and they become The Team. I am pretty sure Spock was a Spurs fan because he had it right – when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, The Team transcends ... or something like that (Wrath of Khan was a long time ago). When The Team transcends, The Team wins. And when The Team wins, each player, once returned to the individual identities they willingly laid aside, is also a winner.
As defined by the Spurs, winners are more than just stats on a page. Winners have a few key traits:
- A team-first attitude, like when The Admiral himself gracefully handed the ball (and the accolades) to Tim Duncan in Robinson’s final seasons.
- A hard-nosed work ethic. See players like Bruce Bowen, Dennis Rodman and Vernon Maxwell (you might have to Google him, son), who all made opposing players—and sometimes the Spurs coaching staff—frustrated on a nightly basis.
- An insatiable desire to win. No one can write this on their resume in bigger letters than Manu Ginobili, who honored the game by playing for that victory on every possession until the last buzzer sounded or he had to be carried off the court.
- Action to make your teammates better. The great French Croissant himself, Boris Diaw, always made that extra pass, the perfect play to the cutting wing or kick-out to the corner for the three. He worried less about his personal stats and focused toward the best possible shot that a given possession could produce.
Players who struggle to subsume their egos and demonstrate the patience and restraint needed for Spurs basketball don’t wear the jersey long. One cannot imagine a forward wearing Silver and Black who, for instance, is such a hard-nosed warrior that they punch a teammate during practice. I get the sense that players on the Spurs are expected to own their mistakes, and not go on national TV to admit they haven’t really thought about their actions that much and can’t go back anyway so let’s all move on, cut to commercial.
Players who endure as Spurs have at least one thing on their resumes: they show a willingness to put the needs of The Team ahead of personal success. The fires of drive and motivation can be good. Tony Parker and DeJuan Blair both used them at times to achieve more. But they can consume you, turning into anger or selfishness as they burn.
So when Devin Vassell lays out on the floor for that desperate steal attempt in a game that appears all but over, when Tre throws an oop to Keldon for the flush instead of finishing himself, or when Sochan records his likely nightly 0 point, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals (I kid, I think)…all that beauty is built on the, dare I say, hammer blows that came before in a long legacy dating back to seemingly the dawn of time, when Pop himself first threw the ball toward those Merrillville High peach baskets and experienced his own moments of self-sacrifice for the betterment of his teammates.
Transcendent basketball is perhaps a bit like time, after all: a flat (18-inch) circle. What came before serves to develop and instruct what is happening now. This quest for mind/body completeness is why Coach Pop leads team discussions about the plight of indigenous Australians as much as he teaches transition D and why the names hanging from the bat-infested rafters of the AT&T Center are more associated with their on-court prowess than their practice antics (one notable exception aside).
It looks like they’ve turned off half the lights in the gym as a signal to us loiterers still sitting up here in the stands, so it’s time for me to leave you with this one last thought: Beautiful basketball is played when one is in total synergy – mind, body, and soul. We may be able to succeed for a time when we neglect one or the other. But someday, we all are faced with a moment that reveals what foundation we’ve chosen to build our game upon. Son, in that moment, when it’s your turn to reveal who your game is modeled after, who will you be? From up here in the bleachers, I hope what I see is someone who looks at home wearing the Silver and Black.