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From The Bleachers: Clearing the Mechanism

A father writes to his son about playing through the noise

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Son, as a parent who sat up in the bleachers every night cheering you and your teammates on, I was struck by how different the game sounds than it does when you’re a player on the court. As a fan, it’s a whole different experience.

I know what it sounds and feels like to be on the floor. I remember the sound of my own breath in my ears late in the fourth quarter of a close game, when I wasn’t sure I had anything left in the tank, but their leading scorer was open near the three-point line and I had to give everything I had left to fight through that last screen and close out on him. I still remember the endless nights of posting up and calling for the ball and then hearing, close to my ear, the insults and relentless taunting from the defender daring me to do something to prove that I measured up. And I still recall game three of our season-opening tournament my senior year as we were getting blown out in an almost-silent gym and our coach screamed at me from the sidelines to get my head in the game. He used stronger words, but I’ll spare you the details.

But up in the stands, it’s a different ballgame, so to speak. Oh sure, you can hear the dribbling of the ball and the snap of the net. You hear the ref’s whistle (it gets louder and more jarring as the game draws to its end, by the way). You can pick up on what the coaches are yelling — sometimes better than the players can, I think, at least based on how many seem to listen and obey. But you don’t really hear the nuance of the game from the stands.

The noise up in the bleachers can become disconnected from the actual game itself and almost takes on a life of its own. Fans are caught up in local rivalries, yelling across at each other no matter what the score displays. We focus on proving we know more about the play than the coaches or the refs, and we start side arguments with our neighbors that spin off from there. And speaking of arguing...we love to argue, against all rational logic, why so-and-so (who usually happens to share our last name) is going to be the difference-maker this season. Sure, somewhere down below us, there’s a game still going on. But being a fan in the bleachers goes beyond what’s playing out on the hardwood right at that moment. It’s about what we expect to witness.

This season, the San Antonio Spurs face some expectations too. In short, they are expected to lose. In fact, a good cross-section of our fanbase wants the team to suffer defeat after defeat every night, all in the hopes of landing a coveted ping-pong ball on Draft Night and selecting a certain 7’3” prodigy from France.

Son, you won’t have to visit too many message boards or read too many comments before you start to see the concern some fans have about the hot start the Spurs have compiled in their first four games. To some those three wins mean The Tank may be in jeopardy already, with 78 games and five long months still to go in the season.

Expecting to lose is just not in the Spurs’ DNA. They carry an all-time regular season win/loss record of 2,264 wins and 1,443 losses, good for a 61.1% win rate. For context, that record means the Spurs are the winningest sports franchise in history. Yes, in every sport. Period.

So if you’re wearing Silver and Black this year, how do you handle all the noise? Well, this is how, if you’re Devin Vassell:

Put another way, one of the top players on this year’s roster is telling the fans sitting watching from the bleachers: you can expect us to, but it’s not in our DNA to lose. You can cheer for a better chance at a ping-pong ball in June, but I will do everything in my power now, in October, to do what I’m paid millions to do on the brightest and most elite stage of the sport, which is to Win. The. Game.

We may not all be faced with the exact same expectations this year’s Spurs team is facing. But in some way, we all know what pressure feels like. We all have felt the sting of someone’s words or the embarrassment of letting someone down. The expectations pile on, trying to distract us from what we’re meant to do. So son, how do you play through the noise?

In baseball, it’s called “clearing the mechanism.” Or at least, that’s what the seminal 1999 Kevin Costner movie For Love of the Game would tell us:

It’s that moment when you’re mentally able to quiet the noise of the fans — the ones we hear yelling from the sidelines at the big moments of the game, but also sometimes the worst and loudest of all, the imaginary ones we let occupy space in our mind.

Clearing the mechanism means letting go of the naysayers, those who doubt you and your abilities. It means releasing your own fears of failure. It means realizing you have a job to do in spite of the expectations. Ultimately, it means trusting the foundation you’ve spent years developing and improving.

And son, just like the Spurs’ winning culture, that goes down to the very DNA — it comes back to who you are, at the core. Don’t worry about the narrative. Clear the mechanism, and win.