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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Grizzlies

On the perks and pains of perseverance

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

It had been thirty-one years since the English Channel had been successfully crossed by a swimmer when Thomas William Burgess dove into the frigid Atlantic waters in August of 1906.

Starting off at approximately 7:30am, at a time of year when the Channel was warmest, Burgess felt optimistic about his chances of crossing. After all, someone had already managed it before. It stood to reason that it could be done again.

Burgess had done his due diligence, having already attempted to cross the Channel on a number of occasions. He had started early in the morning this time (which would give him the hottest heat of the afternoon just as his body began to succumb to the chill of the water) and had eaten a large English breakfast of ham and eggs, convinced that a large meal would bolster his endurance.

And for the better part of six hours it seemed that he would be affirmed in his assumptions. Then came the tide.

A nearly impossible factor to predict at the time, the tides of the English Channel are powerful to excess, and can be challenging to weather from even the safety of a boat.

Burgess persevered against it for the better part of an hour before realizing that he was being borne back to land in spite of his efforts, and turned around to swim home. All in all he would spent over ten hours in the water. It was his eighth failed attempt to cross.

Just two days later he would make his ninth attempt, spending eighteen hours in the water, defeated by the currents off the Cap Gris-Nez, he had been able to see the French shores from his place in the water.

So close. No cigar.

Burgess would make six more attempts over the next two years. Twice more he would fail within sight of France, his longest attempt running just shy of 24 hours in the water.

Watching the Spurs narrowly fall in consecutive games against the Memphis Grizzlies, I couldn’t help but think of Bill Burgess’ attempts to cross the English Channel. Like Burgess, I know it can be achieved, and so do the players. And like Burgess, their efforts lack no spirit.

But they also share in a critical flaw with that valiant old-timey English swimmer: they just don’t quite know how to do it yet.

When Burgess attempted to become the second person to swim the English Channel, it was without intimate knowledge of how to achieve his goal. The first person to swim the Channel, Captain Matthew Webb, had perished some twenty years before in an inane attempt to swim the Whirlpool Rapids just below Niagara Falls, leaving no one to advise those who wished to do the same.

And so Burgess was left to experiment with each attempt he made, hoping to discover or divine the ideal method for success. This isn’t to say that Webb left behind no account of his crossing, but rather that the details lacked the interior knowledge of the doer.

Not unlike these young Spurs, who even with Gregg Popovich at the helm to direct them, lack the kind of intimate and authoritative knowledge that came as a part of playing with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili (or even Patty Mills).

You can see it in the hesitance of inbound passes, and decisions (and rotations) made just late; in the errors committed not for the lack of knowledge so much as experience.

But you can also see how those same players are coming along. Ending game after game against one of the three best teams (by record) in the league with the shore in sight.

It’s worth nothing that both of these near misses have come in the absence of their 2nd leading scorer, Devin Vassell. It’s also worth nothing Bill Burgess did finally succeed in his attempts to cross the Channel.

After his crushing near-24-hour failure Burgess began to reconsider his quest. He gave it one more go in September of 1908, and threw in towel after only four hours, his shortest attempt in three years, and at 34 years old, conceded that chances of succeeding had dwindled.

Defeated, he returned to his career in tire sales, and two years passed.

But in September of 1911 Burgess found the itch returning as he neared the third anniversary of his last failure. Now 37, he knew that his chances were slim-to-none (Webb had been only 28 at the time of his success), so he decided to change his tactics once last time.

Rather than go to the expense (and publicity) of chartering a tugboat and professional trainer, Burgess opted to enlist the help of some sailing and swimming friends instead. Additionally, he decided that he would opt to use the breaststroke rather than the freestyle or backstroke in an attempt to conserve his strength for the Channel tides.

And lastly, frustrated with the lack of visibility he suffered from in the ocean, he decided to adapt a pair of motorcycle goggles for swimming to negate the issue.

Twenty-two hours later he waded to the shore at Le Chatelet, covered in lard, goggles half-full of water, but victorious at last.

He had nearly faltered on several occasions, suffering from stomach cramps (likely brought on by his mid-ocean meal of chocolate, grapes, and hot milk), a thirst for ginger beer and champagne, and a bad case of the blues (from which his crew of friends cheered him by singing ‘Miserere’ and ‘Marseillaise’), but victory had been achieved.

It was his 16th attempt to cross the English channel.

In the years after, Burgess would train a number of swimmers who would also succeed in their attempts, including the 1st woman to do so.

I find myself wondering what these young Spurs might be able to do once they succeed at theirs.


  • For all his struggles earlier in the season, Keldon Johnson seems to finally be falling into a rhythm with his shot once again. What’s surprising, is that this is finally happening from the mid-range, even if the long-distance shots aren’t falling. Over the last ten games Keldon is shooting 48% from the floor and 87% from the free-throw line (up from 42/76) leaving his three pointer as the final domino in a season where’s he’s had to adapt to becoming a primary point of focus for most defenses. Just a slight improvement from beyond the arc and on the defensive end might have been enough to steal this one, with or without Vassell.
  • Josh Richardson has also been returning to mean after a bout of woeful shooting earlier this season. And while Richardson’s contributions are certainly valuable, this seems particularly important timing-wise with trade season steadily approaching. That being said, it’s also possible that the Spurs hold onto Richardson considering how important his distribution skills have been for the 2nd unit, as he tallied five assists in addition to his usual switch defense and timely supplemental scoring. It’ll be interesting to see what the demand for Richardson will be, with media trade mocks everywhere thirsting over his potential availability.
  • In a somewhat shocking development I found myself voting for Tre Jones for the All-Star team this weekend. Not that I think he has a ghost of a chance, but every year when I vote I always make sure to spare one vote for the best player on San Antonio’s roster. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was the frequently twitter-abused Tre Jones who leads the Spurs in both WAR and RAPTOR this season. And while his play has been quietly solid this season (including a bump in scoring over the last 10-12 games), I don’t think even I would have been willing to bet that he’d be leading the Spurs in those categories prior to the season. It’s the sort of revelation that brings up other questions about this roster, and I might be the only vote his get this season, but I think we can take a minute to let the man bask a little in being (arguably) the most valuable player on the team thus far.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

The Middle by Jimmy Eat World