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The Psychology of Losing (Big) and what the Spurs can learn from it

All the Spurs can do is keep learning, and fans need to keep supporting.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Spurs fans! Let’s dive into what this season is grinding into our bones! Let’s get our feelings out about what it’s like to lose and lose big! Losing has lessons, most of them we don’t want to learn, but there it is.

Allow me to go first with a monumental tale of losing that will cheer you up and make you realize how well the Spurs are actually doing! This can’t be, you might say, this is as bad as it gets! It is? Allow me then to escort you to the local rec where my team was gracing the court a couple years ago.

It was a losing season, much as the Spurs are going through, except that no one cared. My team didn’t even care, and on the day of the game in question, most of them, not being under contract, were distancing themselves from the brutal thrashings we showed up for weekly, so that on this particular day there were only four of us. Refusing to forfeit, we recruited a 9-year-old who was shooting layups on the other end of the court. I also tried to sign his mom to be our “6th Mom” and come off the bench, but she was either holding out for money or wanted no place in the massacre about to unfold.

By halftime we had 9 points. Let that sink in. Until you have sat on the bench with your teammates during halftime looking up at 9 points on the scoreboard, you don’t yet know shame. Kids in first grade at the Y put up more points. No one was talking, and we all seemed to be pretending we didn’t know each other or were not involved. The buzzer blared though, ending halftime and forcing us back into action. We groaned and staggered back onto the court.

With no bench, and half of us over 40, we staggered through the motions. The other team was enjoying themselves, college-age kids with one of them finishing alley oops and tomahawk jamming. After a small “run” (4 points in five minutes) we were down by, wait for it… 71 points at the end of the third quarter.

We were reaching near medical emergency conditions, but yet they continued to lay it on us, looking good while they were doing it, fresh with young legs and a full bench. Our sorry roster by contrast included myself, the 9 year old at “small” forward, our Covid-nervous “shooting guard” wearing his N-95 mask, our point guard and defensive stopper (who had stopped playing defense by the second game of the season), our power forward who had come straight from work and was wearing street clothes, and myself at 6’2” and forty-nine years old forced to play center against a young behemoth who was at least half a foot taller.

As the game began to mercifully reach its end, we blew through our timeout limit by using them for breathers, taking additional timeouts with technicals included so that we might even reach the end of the game. I used the break in action then to approach the other team’s bench, my hands on my head as I gasped for air. As they all looked up at me, I asked them if they were ready to surrender. They declined! This is your last chance I warned, contemplating laying down on their bench, they refused again!

Three more minutes of “action” remained, and this is where our story is full of lessons. Because I began to notice from their energy increase and the scoreboard they were up to some bad business. In a further attempt to embarrass us, they were clearly going for their goal of 100 points, presumably to buy imaginary tacos for the crowd of four people looking at their phones.

I called another timeout and was T-d up by the volunteer ref, my chest and legs screaming for relief, and thinking it might be oxygen attempted to deliriously borrow the shooting guard’s N95 mask who waved me off nervously. I wiped the sweat off my glasses and tried to get my team to huddle. They only dejectedly stood near as if they were grazing sheep as I told them of the other team’s suspected plan.

“Listen”, I said, hanging onto my shorts, “they are not going to get 100.” Everyone nodded in agreement! We brought it in. “On the count of three, no tacos!”

So, with three minutes left, in probably the worst blowout in the history of South Texas basketball and possibly beyond, we began to foul. Not so obviously to put them on the line, but I mean playing dirty. In fact, don’t read past this point unless you’re over 18 and not squeamish. I’m not talking about just grabbing jerseys. I’m talking nipple-twisters in the low post (I warned you!) But there was also plenty of jersey grabbing, and overall the game became a scrum, with myself especially riding the back of their young center every time he stormed the basket, hanging on for dear life and probably disgusting him so much with my profuse sweat that he began to hang out at the 3-point line.

But in the end, say it isn’t so, there they were as if passing out imaginary tacos and slapping each on the back, and I gritted my teeth and thanked them in the post-game line for helping me build character. They thanked me for being a character and helping them build self-esteem and looking good in front of their wives.

Which is where we leave that infamous night and circle back to the Spurs. What do we do in a season like this? What should the fans do? What should the Spurs do?

Let’s talk about losing. No, let’s talk about momentum. Momentum is the most fascinating thing in sports. Without it, there is nothing interesting going on. If one team can’t reverse its situation to regain the lead, each game would be only a straight line from beginning to end where their lead was sustained or grew. But that is almost never what happens in the game of basketball. Instead, the lead, the momentum, changes subtly, and before you can even recognize it, the tide changes and one team catches then passes the other team, and then again, back and forth.

So where does this momentum come from? From strategy change? Execution? Emotion? What value drives it?

Let’s briefly cover all three, and what Spurs nation, mired in a losing season can do.

1. The Spurs need to keep trying to execute. That is what this season is about. Even when down 20 the Spurs need to keep playing like every game is really just one long game stretched out over the season. That is pounding the rock. It’s not pounding the rock to execute when all is going your way, that’s just tacos.

2. Strategy: much like the 4th quarter of the massacre I mentioned above, there comes a time to change strategy and experiment. It’s a great season for that, and garbage time or garbage seasons are a time to try players and try different strategy. On this one, I would like to see finally in the NBA some real alternative defensive schemes. How about we try as the predictable pick and roll begins for the 50th time that game to trap the ballhandler with every player knowing ahead of time they need to start rotating behind the trap. The only stunt defense you ever see in the NBA is the occasional full court press. We could also try some of the stuff the Globetrotters used to do.

3. This last one is the most important one, and this one is for us fans. The psychological effect of the crowd known as the home court advantage is a real thing. Think about it, there is a reason that most teams win more at home. It’s because you, the fans, are cheering for them and giving them confidence. Which leads to momentum.

The third thing we can do this season is show up at the games and get on your feet for 48 minutes and let them know you’re there. Stay in it Spurs fans! 48 minutes! Don’t wait for the momentum to get you on your feet. Don’t wait for a trade or even the lottery. Momentum is not a chicken or the egg question, let our young team know you’re behind them and you will see momentum change, at least more than it has so far this season.

48 minutes! And if that doesn’t help (and it will) my rec team and I will volunteer to show up as the visiting squad to provide a boost to the Spurs esteem and all you nice people can have tacos.

Keep pounding the rock, Spurs!