A San Antonio State of Mind
USA Today Sports
I used to despise watching the San Antonio Spurs. I was a kid growing up in Northern California, forced to watch Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy struggle to uphold what little basketball expectations I had created in my adolescent mind. The Golden State Warriors were dull on the court, mostly because of the losses and the daily grind that turned my ADD-addled brain away from such team-wide failure. I turned to the other team that was on primetime TV every other night, playing deep into the postseason year in and year out, and notably stocked with recognizable and likeable superstars. The Los Angeles Lakers were my childhood team.
I may or may not have suffered a concussion banging my head against the ceiling in my basement as Derek Fisher ran off the court after the famed 0.4 shot. I despised watching the Spurs because they were the Lakers rivals. Tim Duncan and David Robinson formed a foil for every team in the National Basketball Association. I didn’t dislike the style of play (I was in middle school, the hell did I know about a dribble-handoff or matchup zone?) as much as I hated the unrelatable face of Tim Duncan and the rest of those Spurs squads. They didn’t celebrate the way I did, fistpuming and pointing at the imaginary crowd in the kitchen adjacent to the living room. They didn’t make every shot increasingly tough and spectacular, like number 8′s fallaway jumper. They dunked, but there was no Kobe Bryant. They dominated, but not in the fashion that wore Shaquille O’Neal so well.
The phases of watching basketball mechanizes differently for every person. Stages of merely enjoying the imagery on the screen, due to nativity and ignorance, inhabited the beginning stages. Then growing up and learning the nuances of the game, no matter how general and unspecific lent the idea that there was a certain way to enjoy the game, engineering personal preference and biases. The Spurs, in that time, transformed from a team that prided itself on its lockdown defensive style to a team that moved up and down the court in a much more modern fashion. Coach Gregg Popovich saw the game faster and better than anyone else, not that I had any idea at the time.
But growing up means striving to “be normal” and that very much meant cheering for the Warriors, again, and enduring years of dysfunctional coaching and management, all around a scintillating two-season stretch of success marked by the pinnacle of the “We Believe” team. All this to mark myself as a “real fan”. Ingrained in my growing basketball acumen were players stepping out of bounds after a lazy attempt at a triple-threat position, very little awareness on the boards, and even less care and attempt at making the specific and aesthetically minimal, but “accurate” movements on offense.
The extra pass is the crux of everything the San Antonio Spurs have been in my lifetime and the next, and the next, and probably the next after that. The transition from despising their success and failures against my favorite team to bemoaning how the team I now enjoy watching fail to emulate the awareness and seemingly innate ability from the front office and players to recognize the extra pass remain frustratingly exhilarating. The Spurs aren’t the only team that can play at this high-IQ level, however. The Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, and the Warriors themselves at times are capable of this necessary and crippling aerial attack. Manned by either a great distributor like Chris Paul and LeBron James or a coach aware of this approach (Jeff Hornacek, Terry Stotts) or just a team full of excellent passers (Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry) this style made basketball inherently fun to visualize and see take fruit in the shape of players standing at the ready, hands palmed outside, and wrists cocked.
Simply watching basketball meant that there was less of an awareness to the intricacies of the game. Not just the physical aspect but the mental. It was particularly exhausting to realize that such a terrible basketball player as myself had to settle on a mindset to play the game, rather than letting natural instinct do its work in the process. It’s harder to mesh that sense of when to pass and when to shoot when it’s never been a trait worth considering, lost in the structure of basketball itself. Blessed with a coach and team that focused on the fundamentals more than anything else due to the talent issues, the extra cut, pass, and step made all the difference.
Extrapolating these issues to the highest possible level of the game, it made it harder to watch any other basketball team in comparison to the Spurs. From a distaste of their success to the loving and knowing realization that, most likely, your team and mine, can’t replicate the type of basketball that shuts up the backseat hooper. You know, the guy that refuses to acknowledge that, yes in fact, the players are too preoccupied with actually playing the goddamn game at the highest possible speed to realize whether a player behind them across the court is wide-open. A pass, mind you, that probably only LeBron James can make. The fact remained that, despite my own biases and perceptions, this was the only way I had learned to play and watch basketball.
There’s admiration, and then there’s the hopelessness that comes with wanting this brand of basketball to permeate through your favorite team. But let’s not forget that this utopian scheme and innate sense of style I’ve harped on hasn’t won a title since 2007. But we’re not here to delve on that, are we?