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What we learned from the Spurs Play-in loss to the Pelicans

A tale of two unwanted contests

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

To this day, Fred Hoaglin swears he doesn’t remember the score.

It was January of 1968, and he and his teammates were not excited to be playing football. Having lost in the conference championship game, most of them believed that they should’ve been at home, resting and attending to their other interests and obligations. Instead, they were pouring sweat in the Florida heat and humidity.

It probably didn’t help that he and the rest of the team had been on the equivalent of a week long bender. But who could really blame them? They’d been required to travel all the way from Cleveland to Miami, to play for 3rd place.

In 1959 the NFL powers-that-were had decided that they needed to add another game to the schedule in order to compete with the rapidly blossoming AFL. Naturally, no team wanted an extra game on their schedule, and ABC wasn’t big on broadcasting regular season games to begin with, so the league agreed that a postseason game would have to be added. And so it was decided that the two teams to lose the conference championship would face each other.

The solution seemed ideal to a group of middle-aged suit-wearing multi-millionaires. After all, the World Cup had had a 3rd place game going since the 1930’s, and the Olympics offered athletes a bronze medal. Why shouldn’t the NFL have one as well?

Unsurprisingly, news of the 3rd place game went over with the players like a lead balloon. (As is often the case for additional athletic events whose purpose is purely financial)

To combat this, the owners devised a solution. They would name the contest in honor of their very recently deceased NFL Commissioner, Bert Bell, and would reserve a portion of the proceeds for the player’s pension fund.

Bert Bell had been very popular with the players (having reintegrated the NFL, formally recognized the NFLPA, and started the player pension fund in the first place), and the pension fund really needed the contribution, so the roar subsided to a dull grumble, and agreements were grudgingly made.

And so began the legacy of the game that everyone hated.

(At this point you may be wondering when I’m going to get to the basketball part of the article. Bear with me, dear reader. I’m getting there.)

It simply cannot be overstated how much the players and coaches hated this game.

Vince Lombardi dubbed it the ‘Toilet Bowl’ (‘Toilet’ is my polite substitution) and in the only clean portion of an otherwise artistically profane tirade, called it a “...hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players!

It was, he doubled down (in case his point had been misunderstood) a “...losers’ bowl for losers!”

To this day former players aren’t sure what made him angrier, losing the game to the Cardinals in 1965, or actually winning it over the Browns in 1964.

And honestly, it made a lot of sense to hate the game that would go on to be known as the Runner-Up Bowl. Neither the game’s statistics nor the result would be considered official. It did absolutely nothing to affect draft position, risked player injury, and after the cost of room and board only the winning teams managed to break even financially.

Worst of all, it was mandatory. And the coaches of the teams who played in this game, having just lost their conference championship, would then be required to coach the Pro-Bowl. (A tradition that continued until 2009)

Even Rams head coach George Allen, famously a strict disciplinarian, hated the game so much that he gave his players two extra hours before curfew, knowing full well that they would spend most of those two hours inside the lavish hotel bar of the legendary Fontainebleau Hotel.

In fact, they became so famous for their carousing, that in 1970 their hotel bartender declared that he would be betting on the Dallas Cowboys, the Rams opponent, because he’d seen Rams’ players getting drunk at his bar all week. Legend has it that as a collective middle-finger gesture the hungover Rams’ players stopped by the bar for a pre-game beverage (or two), before shellacking the Cowboys 31-0 and returning to the bar to gloat.

It makes sense, too, why Fred Hoaglin doesn’t remember the score of the 1968 game. The Cleveland Browns lost it to the Los Angeles Rams 30-6. I think I’d also have drowned all memory of being massacred in route to a 4th place finish at the hotel bar afterwards.

But then, suddenly, Joe Namath and the New York Jets made good on an idiotic guarantee, the AFL and NFL merged, and the game was mercifully cancelled to make way for an actual extended postseason. And just like that it was over.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that I imagine will happen when the NBA invariably expands. With the addition of (at least) two teams, it’s conceivable that the NBA will instead pivot (like the MLB) to an expanded wild-card game format, and the comparatively unwieldy play-in tournament will become the sort of relic that the NFL’s 3rd place game has become.

It might not even take the ten years that it took the NFL to scrap their oddity.

And yet, something funny happened on the way to that game’s irrelevance. In spite of the grumbling and tomfoolery, teams took it seriously once they took the field. Even faced with the prospect of a non-result, that colossal inner-competitiveness that resides in professional athletes couldn’t rest. And while five of the games were blowouts, the other five games were each won by a touchdown or less.

Fred Hoaglin’s teammate John Wooten and his opponent Roger Brown went at it so hard on the line that Wooten’s ear began bleeding and Brown broke his thumb. Baltimore Colts Quarterback John Matte took a swing at Cowboy LeRoy Jordan after a late hit, and was very nearly ejected.

And in spite of Lombardi’s labeling of the game as a ‘loser-bowl’, every team that played in the Playoff Bowl (minus the Cardinals and Lions) would go on to play in and/or win an NFL Championship in the 1960’s and/or 70’s.

The third-place game, it seemed, had become a battleground for young teams building postseason mettle and experience; a fiery crucible that molded also-rans into conquerors.

Watching the young Spurs play the New Orleans Pelicans, I could finally see how that might be.

Having dug themselves into a 16 point hole in the first three quarters, their goose looked to be all but cooked, and then they began an improbably furious comeback. It was the sort of surge that might have won them the game if not for the errors of inexperience and pressure earlier in the contest.

Clawing their way within six points in just five minutes of game time, they showcased the fury they’ll need to harness in order to close out better teams, and make a more legitimate postseason appearance next season.

After dreadful first halves, Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray found their footing, Devin Vassell shone out like a light in the darkness when no one else seemed to be able to score, and Jakob Poeltl muscled his way through one of the tallest starting frontcourts in the NBA.

In the end it wasn’t enough to win. But it was enough for me wonder if the play-in isn’t quite so bad a thing after all. I don’t know if we’ll miss it once it’s gone. Scores of former NFL players who played in the Runner-Up Bowl still claim to revile it. (Poor Roger Brown went 5-0 playing for two separate teams in those games, without ever winning a Championship)

But they all remember it. And I can’t help but wonder just exactly what that’s worth.

Takeaways:

  • In an odd turn of events, it was not the Spurs three-point shooting that failed them (at 38% they shot only 2% worse from deep than the Pelicans), but rather their mid-range and interior scoring. Thanks to their size inside, New Orleans shot almost 14% better from the field, and it would have been incredibly impressive if the Spurs had managed to overcome that sort of disparity. I think it’s safe to say that the Spurs will be looking to shore up the front-court in the upcoming offseason.
  • Devontae Cacok and Jock Landale ended up as DNPs in this game, which might foretell an upcoming departure for one or both players considering how badly the Spurs needed to make up for the size disparity is this one. Getting beat on the boards that badly (53-34) and still refusing to play your other big men is not the most encouraging of signs.
  • To their credit, neither Keldon Johnson nor Dejounte Murray allowed their shooting woes to cower them into passing up shots, a good sign from players who used to do that very thing when the rims were unforgiving. Both players have made a lot of progress since they were drafted, and I’d expect them to continue refining their respective games until they truly run out of ways to realistically improve.
  • One silver lining to the loss is that the Spurs lottery odds will remain unchanged. As it stands, the Spurs will have a 20% chance at landing a top 4 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, which would give them all kinds of options at their highest draft slot since they took Tim Duncan. Having seen what they can do with a pick in the late 20’s (Tony Parker, Dejounte Murray), I have to admit that I’m salivating at the thought of what they might do with a pick that high. Fingers crossed!

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House