Wednesday, June 5, 2013

One More Time



I grew up in the 70's in Oklahoma City, a boy without a country. I was a huge professional basketball fan, but this was long before the OKC Thunder. Oklahoma kids typically rooted for Dallas teams like the Cowboys and Rangers, since geographically they were the closest pro teams to us. Because of this, I probably would have grown up a Mavericks fan, but the Mavericks didn't exist then. I thought about making the Houston Rockets my team, but nothing about them grabbed me. But one evening, in the fall of 1974, I was fiddling with the radio in my bedroom, and I stumbled upon a basketball game which captivated me.

The station was 1200 AM, WOAI in San Antonio. The game was between the San Antonio Spurs and the Kentucky Colonels. It wasn't the NBA--I was listening to a game with teams that I was only vaguely familiar with. The great Terry Stembridge was the play-by-play man, and the game was exciting (the Spurs lost--I only know this because I've traced the game to the October 24th, 1974 113-103 loss in Louisville). I felt like I was eavesdropping on a strange, new world of renegade, star-filled professional basketball (and the ABA was indeed a strange world of renegade, star-filled basketball). "Join us tomorrow night, as we'll be in New York to take on Dr. J and the New York Nets," said Stembridge, at the end of his broadcast. I can't tell you how thrilling that sounded to a basketball-starved nine year old trapped in the NBA black hole that was the American Heartland in the 70's. And so, the next night I was by the channel--how could I not listen to a game with Dr. J playing in it? I was hooked. They weren't an NBA team, but it pro basketball, and it was a league that nobody at school knew about, which made me feel like I was as step ahead. Plus, they were geographically close to OKC, and located in my native Texas, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

Two years later, the NBA absorbed four ABA teams. Thankfully, the Spurs were one of those teams, or I would have had to go searching for a new favorite. Since I started following the team in '74, they've almost always been good. In 40 years, they've only missed the playoffs four times, which is remarkable. But for many, many years, they were next year's champs. They came close a few times during the George Gervin era, but could never get past the Bullets (when they were an Eastern Conference team) or the Lakers (when they moved to the West). Even during the early and peak David Robinson years, they always came up short. None of those teams ever made the NBA Finals.

Now, the Spurs are in their fifth Finals, having won the previous four. The last 15 years of Spurs basketball is a stretch of excellence that is rarely seen in any sport. Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are a modern-day Auerbach, Russell, Cousy and Havlicek (whose careers were more overlapping than this Spurs core, yet the comparison between the two sets of four is pretty close).

Lately, the Spurs have reminded me of another New England team: the Patriots. In the last 15 years, the Spurs have four titles, the Pats have three. The Spurs have won 70% of their games, so have the Pats. The Spurs have been to the conference finals seven times in that stretch, the Pats have been seven times. The Spurs foundation is Popovich/Duncan, the Pats foundation is Belichick/Brady. And, it's been a while since either was back on the mountain top--the Spurs last won it all in '07, the Pats in '04. Yet, each has been a strong contender every year since their last title, and each has been dismissed as "old" or having their "window shut" by many, yet they keep hanging around and keep winning divisions or conferences almost yearly.

I understand that Mavs fans will never openly cheer for the Spurs--I don't expect Red Sox fans to ever root for the Yankees. But I would hope that any basketball fan would, at the very least, appreciate the rare greatness that is this Spurs team. In 40 years, I've never seen an NBA team that passes the ball as well as these Spurs, and I've rarely seen a team as unselfish as these Spurs (I do rank the '10-'11 Mavs as one of those great, unselfish teams). Bill Simmons perfectly described these Spurs when he said "they're like that old married couple who has been together for 50 years and you look at them and say 'wow, they really like each other,' except there are four of them (Pop, Duncan, Parker and Manu), not just two." It really is a rare thing in pro sports to see a team that has had so much success get along as well as they do. Everyone checks their ego at the door. It's all about the greater good.

One of the things I like the most about this team is that in 15 years you've never heard of Duncan calling out a teammate, or Parker bitching about his coach, or Manu complaining about coming off the bench. If they have disagreements, they are kept in-house. Publicly, the players defer to Popovich--on everything. They never question him. The loyalty displayed between coach and star players, and vice versa, is rare. They know they have a good thing, they know the system works, and they understand the pecking order. It's kept them viable for much longer than anyone could have imagined.

Two years ago, the 8th seeded Grizzlies beat top seed San Antonio in the first round. I wrote a blog post proclaiming the end of the Duncan era. I couldn't have been more wrong. The Spurs kept believing in the system, and they kept tweaking it. Duncan needed help down low, and they developed Tiago Splitter. They needed younger legs and longer defenders on the perimeter, so they drafted Kawhi Leonard and groomed Danny Green and Gary Neal. Always tweaking around the core three, and always believing--even when their fans and the media didn't.



And here they are again. Miami will be very tough to beat. They are the defending champs, they have the best player in the world, and they have home court advantage. But the Spurs have something, too--a chemistry which is truly rare in pro sports. And it's a chemistry that we may never see again, given player movement and the new CBA. I'm going to enjoy this NBA Finals, because win or lose, it's a special treat to watch a group of guys who respect each other so much and play team-first basketball the way the Spurs do. The kid from OKC remembers the ABA, and how far his favorite basketball team has come.