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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Raptors

What is honor, anyway?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

“The better part of valor is discretion...”

There are certain fictional characters that are so ubiquitous in media that we cannot help but be able to quote them. You might think of Walter White announcing that he is the danger, Michael Scott’s desire that his Dunder Mifflin employees fear how much they love him, or Danny Glover declaring that he’s too old for a wide variety of activities. In fact, you might have thought of any number of memorable quotes if you left your television on during the 3rd and 4th quarters of last night’s contest.

As for me, I’d already circulated through my entire mental library by the time the fourth quarter came along. Coming up with article subtitles is one of my favorite blowout activities. They have to be the right combination of vague but wry; descriptive, but not too descriptive; interesting, but not distracting. And to be honest, I was having real trouble coming up with one for a forty-point blowout.

But then, Gregg Popovich did something slightly unexpected. With an entire quarter of game left, he subbed Charles Bassey in at center, and I immediately thought of Falstaff.

Bassey, playing not just his only minutes of the year so far, but also his first regular season minutes since last February, would remain in place for the rest of the game while Jakob Poeltl and Zach Collins remained glued to the bench.

To be fair, the game was largely out of hand at that point. And to be fair, it’s always wise to avoid the possibility of a pointless injury to your best players. But I can’t say that it didn’t nag at me a little, with that much game left.

All I could think of was fat little John Falstaff climbing out of a pile of bodies, having pretended to be dead, declaring himself the hero of the Battle of Shrewsberry.

The character of Sir John Falstaff, for those who may not know, is an invention of William Shakespeare. But unlike Hamlet, Macbeth, or Richard III, Falstaff falls outside of the realm of standard villainy or heroism. Infinitely quotable, Falstaff is a rogue and a highwayman (though an ineffective one), a hedonist and an alcoholic, and yet also somehow one of Shakespeare’s most lovable characters.

Simultaneously brilliant and foolish, he’s wise enough to know his limitations, and keen enough to know how to avoid his obligations even when the solution is frowned upon. (There’s quite of a bit of Falstaff in the Game of Thrones character Tyrion Lannister)

During the moment in question, Falstaff is proud of his cowardice insofar as he considers it the wisest decision on his part. Fighting wars is for younger, braver, and fitter men than he, and he is wise enough to know. Drafted into the army for this battle, Falstaff rails at the very concept of honor, desperate to avoid a conflict for which he is ill-fit to compete in.

“What is Honour? A word. What is that word, Honour? Air. A trim reckoning! — Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No!”

And to be fair, this is a excellent point on his part. The rotund and aging Falstaff will almost certainly die fighting on even terms. That he avoids this by pretending to have a heart-attack is both hilarious and shrewd. It’s easy to see why he was Shakespeare’s most popular character at the time that he was still writing plays.

And yet, there’s something at the heart of the matter that divides people about Falstaff. Sensible though his amoral points can be, this does not detract from their realities. Falstaff is a coward, and a drunk, and habitual liar. In the 2nd half of Henry IV, we find Falstaff receiving a commission for recruiting an army destined for the same sort of carnage as the last, and doing so wielding the very word he decries as bollocks.

At the end of the earlier battle, his companion Prince Hal slays Hotspur, the leader of the opposing rebellion, and Falstaff, rousing himself just after, stabs the corpse in an attempt to claim credit for the heroism. And though Prince Hal knowingly allows him to do so at the time, Falstaff will later be banished on the charges of immorality and lechery once Hal completes his transformation in ascending to the throne.

You cannot, as it turns out, have it both ways. Which perfectly characterizes the interesting conundrum facing Spurs fans this season.

In spite of a strong start to the season, there have been signs of lottery intent in both the off-season and recent games on the part of a franchise otherwise committed to winning. Perhaps the recent injuries to the Spurs’ most important contributors have been considerable and coincidental. Perhaps not.

Victory in failure can be attained according to every Victor Wembanyama highlight and national pundit. But it’s not unfair to wonder what the cost might be, and to wonder since when do San Antonio’s fans and front office care about the opinions of national pundits in the first place.

For all the validity of his points on honor and morality, Falstaff isn’t even given the dignity of an on-stage death. He dies out of sight, brokenhearted at the betrayal of the prince he thought was his friend.

As it turns out, all the years of companionship from the prince served as a premeditated ploy to win the equally shrewd, yet cold-hearted Hal the favor of his father the King. And once he ascends, Falstaff is discarded.

And this is the thing about John Falstaff, well-loved in the moment, he is forgotten and banished in reflection; picked apart by critics who praise his brilliance, and decry his morality. Name all the Shakespearean characters you can remember from school. Are any of them Falstaff?

It’s a difficult question, posed by the venerable fat man himself: Is there more honor in victory at the cost of uncertainty, or survival at the cost of the thing itself?

It’s the kind of question only the season itself will be able to answer for these Spurs and their fans. I just wonder if we’ll banish it from our collective memories once it has served its purpose.


  • It probably goes without saying, but winning without Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell on the court is going to be hard. The Spurs have enough depth to weather games in which one or the other is out, but it’s a challenge for most teams to deal with missing both of their leading scorers, much less a team that most would agree have been punching above their weight thus far. Credit where it’s due to the players for never giving up in spite of the odds, but they lost by 43 on a night when they were missing precisely 43 points-per-game worth of scoring. That’s no coincidence.
  • Facing the obscenely lengthy Raptors was already going to be a battle for the Jakob Poeltl as it was, but Jeremy Sochan playing only ten minutes was undoutably a factor in his relative struggles for the evening. Mostly with undersized front-court partners, Jakob was overwhelmed at the point of attack, and especially on the boards. On the one hand, this showcases Jakob’s athletic limitations. The same limitations that will relegate him to his place outside of big-man stardom. On the other hand, it’s quite the compliment to how critical Jeremy Sochan has been to San Antonio’s success so far. There’s no question that Sochan’s shot need a lot of work, but it’s not unfair to also wonder if Toronto’s margin for victory would have been slimmer with more minutes from San Antonio’s versatile new wunderkind.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Summer, Highland Falls by Billy Joel