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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Kings

Fathers, Sons, and Free Throws.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

In February of 1965, Carlton Fisk played one of the greatest games in the history of high school basketball in New Hampshire.

And yes, before you ask, I’m fully aware that’s it’s odd to begin a basketball column with a reference to the high school career of a 1970’s Bostonian *baseball* hero, but that’s just how we’re doing things today.

To carve out a career in any professional sport takes a perfect mixture of athleticism, luck, and the willingness to dedicate a portion of your life to that pursuit. It’s starts in childhood and is often sparked by a favorite team or player also involved in that sport of choice.

For Fisk, that sport was baseball, and his favorite baseball player was Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics.

No, I did not just erroneously substitute the word ‘baseball’ for ‘basketball’; it’s not a mistake. To this day Fisk maintains that Russell served as his primary baseball inspiration, waxing philosophically about Russell’s ability to control an entire game through his understanding of situations, weaknesses, angles, and trajectories. What Russell did on the hardwood; Fisk wanted to duplicate from his position on the baseball diamond.

It’s exactly the zany sort of anecdote that floats into my brain whenever I see an NBA big man suppress an entire offensive possession through shrewd defensive positioning or (much less often) directing a well-timed block back to his teammates, and it never fails to amuse me. It’s not uncommon for me to then wonder how Carlton’s father Cecil felt about it.

Cecil Fisk was, by virtually every recorded account, an iron-willed and uncompromising man. A talented basketball player and a New Hampshire tennis state champion, he graduated high school in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, eight years before the creation of the NCAA Basketball tournament, and eighteen years before the NBA’s inaugural season.

Unable to fund the university education that might have led to further athletics, Cecil first tried his hand as a salesman and eventually found work as machinist. As the U.S. and world economies began to recover, whatever athletic hopes he may have still been holding on to surely vanished with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Instead, Cecil would turn those aspirations toward his children.

It should come as little shock that for a lengthy stretch, his son Carlton’s best sport was basketball. And the adulation of Bill Russell starts to make more sense when you consider the New England geography. By Carlton’s own account, the thing he wanted most was to play power forward for the Boston Celtics

Playing for Charleston High (a school so small that it no longer exists) the basketball team went 49-3 with the younger Fisk on the court, as he helped lead them to an undefeated season and state championship in 1963. But it’s the story of the last game of his senior year that fascinates me.

In 1965 Charleston High made the state semifinals. Unfortunately, they were opposed by the previous season’s champion, Hopkinton High, who in addition to sporting a taller lineup than Charleston (the then 6’2” Fisk appears to have been Charleston’s tallest player), were led by the 6’9” Craig Corson, who would go on to play his college basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina.

Undaunted, Fisk played all but the final one minute and eighteen seconds of the game, fouling out just as he had pulled his team even with the last efforts of a 40 point and 36 rebound performance. Always one to take a loss hard, Carlton wept openly on the bench as Hopkinton won by two.

The performance was, of course, exceptional. 55 years later, it still stands as a record for that division of New Hampshire High School Basketball. But the moment I think about the most is the one immediately following it.

Bleary-eyed and bone-tired as he must have been, the first person Carlton Fisk locked eyes with coming off of the court was his father Cecil. And in an exchange that’s been cited more times than I can link, Cecil Fisk crushed his son with seven simple words:

“How could you miss four free throws?”

It’s a moment that’s difficult to fathom. When asked about that comment many years later, Cecil was unapologetic. Hardly shocking for a man who at 97, as the story goes, was out chopping his own firewood in the middle of a brutal New Hampshire winter the day before he died. Still, I can’t help but wonder: was it really necessary?

It’s the same question I ask myself whenever the post Big-Three San Antonio Spurs suffer a bad loss, experience a mediocre season, or an early postseason exit. The discourse is immediate and often negative, with arguments for and against the current roster thrown about as if certain aspects of the game were irrefutably simple, and the improvement (or exchange) of living breathing humans as straightforward as that of any individual asset.

It’s the same question I asked myself as I watched Tre Jones draw the ire of portions of Spurs Twitter for missing a pair of free throws late in the third quarter, followed by another late in the 4th.

To be clear, this is not an argument for the expulsion of certain kind of fandom. One of the historically excellent things about sports has been their ability to unite those of differing creeds, personalities, and philosophies under a single banner. Exclusivity is something that largely has been and will hopefully continue to be anathema in this arena.

But I do wonder if there’s not some degree of responsibility that we owe to the individuals that we’re so quick to cheer and boo.

In recent years it’s become in vogue to refer to a player that one likes, doing positive things, as ‘my son’. It’s largely a harmless expression; an internet-era tongue in cheek display of affection. But also, something that can easily vanish with a single stretch of bad play. And I can’t help but wonder what the ironclad Cecil Fisk would have thought of that either.

I’m not saying that this Spurs team doesn’t have its flaws. I just wonder if perhaps we have a similar issue in not being able to see the quality of the performances through the free throws.

Takeaways:

  • Another point of note for the nightly game of ‘pin the blame on an individual’, were the extremely sub-par showings of Doug McDermott and Keldon Johnson. McDermott’s performances have been on the inconsistent side this season, particularly on nights where his shots won’t fall and his knee is balky, but it was a particularly unfortunate time for a bad performance on a night in which Keldon Johnson struggled mightily. Mustering only 2 points on 1-6 shooting, Johnson had what was arguably his worst game of the season, and while a bad performance from one or the other might have been mitigated, a bad performance from both was too much to overcome. But then, that’s the nature of the beast; win as a team, lose as a team. I imagine there will be better nights to come from both players, since neither are far removed from excellent performances. But you might want to whisper a little prayer for the avoidance of another double no-show.
  • On the other side of the spectrum however, was the detonation of one Lonnald Walker the Fourth. Deadly from just about every part of the court, Walker served as San Antonio’s only reliable form of offense for significant stretches of both halves. Walker is averaging just shy of 22 points over the last seven games on a blistering 53% from the field. Seven games is quite a streak from the ever-streaky Lonnie, but I’m going to hold off for at least a few more games before I’m willing to declare him cured of all ills. Quite a game though. Consider me beyond interested. I’m sure I’m not the only one. (Nor do I imagine that the San Antonio Spurs the only team playing attention either)
  • It was a relatively quiet night for Josh Primo, but the kind of quiet night that you notice for the right reasons. While on the one hand Primo wasn’t exactly his usual hair-trigger self on the offensive end, he made regularly made smart decisions on the defensive end and completely avoided turning the ball over, something Pop must have noticed as Primo was rewarded with a solid 20 minutes of playing time. I know that the flashier plays are sexy and more highlight-worthy, but it’s nights like this where you can see the mental development beginning to take hold. And I’d be willing to bet that we’ll see even more of Mr. Primo if he can begin to figure out the balancing act between the two.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Changes by David Bowie