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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Blazers

Festivities, fractures, and fate

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

On December 15th, 2001, an NFL kicker vigorously celebrated converting a forty-three yard field goal. It was not an important moment. The first score in a game that the Arizona Cardinals would lose, in a season that would see them finish fourth in their division, the memory of it would no doubt have faded into the ether, if not for the infamy of the celebration.

Just moments after the ball sailed through the uprights, the rookie kicker turned to sprint towards the sideline, and leapt in exaltation, striving vaingloriously against the surly bonds of gravity with the youthful burst of Icarian wings.

Seconds later he was on the ground clutching at his right knee.

Seeing it as it happened, I was baffled as to how to react. Was it comedy? Was it a tragedy? Was there an important lesson to be learned from it? More than twenty years later, I’m still not sure I know, but watching the San Antonio Spurs pull out a victory against the Portland Trailblazers last night brought out a similarly confused mixture of emotions for me.

All season I have been pretty vocal about my disdain for ‘the tank’, as it were. I hate losing. Even when it’s not actually me doing the losing, I hate it. What could be worse? How about having to watch someone else lose, on purpose.

However, for what I assume are a variety of ineffable reasons, my opinions appear to have been wholly disregarded by the Silver and Black powers that be, and I, like so many others, endured the season-long slog of embarrassment with as much grace as I could manage.

The choice had been made. And it was, at least, a choice.

Coming into the final stretch of the season, I’ve begrudging embraced reality. Bench all the players. Play a five-man rotation. Give all the time to the two-way contracts. There’s no sense in risking injury now, when there’s nothing left to lose, and nothing to be gained.

And yet there were the Spurs, with less than five minutes left in the game, clawing at Portland’s six-point lead with 3-4 starters (depending on one’s opinion) on the court!

I didn’t know whether to be proud or furious.

On the one hand, it could only have been personal competitive pride that fueled something like that. On the the other hand, Portland had seemed to be doing their level-best to lose all game; they did still (potentially) have something to gain from it.

But as I watched Keita Bates-Diop and Keldon Johnson can a pair of clutch buckets, and the frequently shatterable Zach Collins dive for a loose ball, all I could see were visions of the lesser Gramática awkwardly landing and rolling over in pain.

For the Spurs, it’s hard to know exactly where to go from here. Thankfully, no one was injured. But for Bill Gramática that celebration proved to be career-altering. Prior to tearing his ACL, he’d set a number of Cardinals rookie records. Afterwards, he was never quite the same; out of the NFL three years later, out of football altogether the year after that.

It’s easy to see how he got caught up in it at the time. The Gramáticas had often celebrated many of their field goals, and the Cardinals had technically still been in the playoff race at the time.

With the Moody Center packed, and reverberating with cheers, it’s easy to see how the young Spurs felt the same way. I don’t know that I would have been able to resist that siren song, were our places exchanged.

There’s no telling what the future holds. Lottery luck and ill-fortune seem almost equally likely, and the prospect of basketball games a little way up the I-35 corridor have made a lot of fans uneasy. In some ways, the franchise’s mooring feels more unsteady than it has since that stretch of desert years just before David Robinson’s arrival.

Certainly the Spurs are not in the same financial straits as they were at that time, but so much seems like it could hinge on a fragile roulette of probabilities.

Maybe, in confusing times like these, a win is the only thing you can really hold on to.

I guess anything’s better than Bill Gramática’s knee.


  • For those who may not feel so wild about Keita Bates-Diop and Tre Jones being on the roster, I think it’s very likely that you’re going to be disappointed next season. Barring the Spurs drafting the hyper-sonic Scoot Henderson, or the incredibly versatile (and lengthy) Amen Thompson, or any number of young hyper-athletic forwards (Jarace Walker, anyone?) you’re likely to see both of them for at least another season. Both possess the ability to blend in as needed, and rise to the occasion with a touch of scoring punch in an emergency, and both are clear favorites for their adherence to the fundamentals, defensive effort, and ability to slot into just about any grouping. Surprisingly, they were 1st and 2nd on the team in Win Shares this season. And while that’s certainly a commentary on the nature of the current roster and season, I don’t expect that PATFO will be willing to jettison those kinds of steady performances for anything less than exceptional talent. Amusingly enough, I’d say that the draft scenario that most increases their chances of both being on the team next year, is also the one where the Spurs land Victor Wembanyama. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.
  • I think it might be time to admit that I may have written Julian Champagnie’s addition off a little too early. Champagnie’s been on an absolute tear for the last three games, on both ends of the court. Long, rangy, and proving to be a much better shot that he initially showed, this might be yet another case of the Spurs scooping up castoffs from other teams and turning them into real contributors. Then again, Champagnie’s almost certainly still going to have to fight like hell to stay on the team, especially if the Spurs end up drafting a forward this summer. This whole thing could just be nice little hot streak, but at the very least, it’s been a fun thing to see in a season of not a whole lot to celebrate. I say we all just take it easy on ourselves on this one and not overthink it for now. Sound good?

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Heat of the Moment (Acoustic) by Asia