Some people say that winning never feels as good as losing hurts. While I generally agree, I believe there is one exception. Normal wins may not feel as good as losing hurts. But a win after a painful loss, or many losses, feels pretty darn good.
My first distinct basketball memory came when I was 9 years old. We lived in Silverton, Oregon: a town of only 4,000 people whose lives revolved around the high school sports teams, the Silverton Foxes. While we had state champion wrestling teams, the basketball team was ... not good. But on rainy winter nights, which was all of them, we went to the games.
In the game that I remember most, the Foxes had not won a game all season — I think we were 0-18 at the time. But that night, against a team from a similar Oregon small town named Sandy, things looked a bit brighter as the home team kept the game close. And with the score tied 46-46, one of the guards (whom I remember as wearing glasses) made a free-throw line jumper at the buzzer. Pandemonium! The crowd cheered and cheered, and then cheered some more. Someone got the idea to go to the local church and ring the bell — and they did, 48 times, one for each point that made the team now 1-18 on the season — but the Foxes were 1-0 that night.
Another great memory came much later, my first year coaching the junior varsity at Claremont McKenna College outside of Los Angeles. In the preseason tournament, we lost to Pomona Pitzer’s JV (Gregg Popovich coached the varsity) by the brutal score of 101-39. That was not my great memory — that happened in the regular season re-match, on our home court.
We played much better than the first blow-out, keeping the score close. And because it was the rivalry game, with the varsity game following, the gym began filling up as the second half began. With 5 minutes left, the gym was packed — and all those fans were rooting for whichever school was theirs. My JV guys, who were used to playing in front of family and friends, were now playing in front of a passionate packed house.
It gets better. We tied the game at the end of regulation, and the game went into overtime. The crowd got even louder. With three seconds left in OT and the score tied 72-72, the ball got knocked out of bounds under our offensive basket. Our ball. We don’t take a time out. I call “Play Two” — post guy screens up to the elbow for freshman guard Andy Sallee, who curls off the screen and drills a 16-foot jumper from the wing as the buzzer sounds. All net. The place goes crazy. I kneel in front of our bench with my eyes closed for five seconds, imprinting the memory into my brain — and there it remains, decades later.
Spurs fans also know how good winning after losing feels. I believe the Redemption Finals in 2014 tasted so much sweeter because of what happened the year before. On the 8th anniversary of the Ray Allen Shot, I wrote this:
The 2014 Spurs, without preening or pounding their chests, looked genuinely happy, and that was a very good thing. They didn’t need to preen or pound their chests. They could just look up at the scoreboard, laugh, smile, hug and say meaningful things in each other’s ears. And feel at peace.
And because the Spurs felt that way, so did Spurs fans. Including this one. Now when I think of Ray Allen’s three-pointer in Game Six, I immediately think of the 2014 Finals. And smile.
Watching the end of the Spurs’ win over the Lakers Friday night gave me some of the same feelings as I had after Silverton’s win over Sandy, the Claremont JV’s win over Pomona-Pitzer, and the Spurs’ win in the 2014 Redemption Finals. And from everything I have read about the music, laughter and shouting that came from the Spurs’ locker room after Friday’s game, I am certain the players felt the same. If they had a church bell, someone would have rung that bell 129 times, one for each point the Spurs scored to break their long losing streak.