Letting the Spurs win
I was just happy to be there – happy to be back, really. Hell, we all were. Five years after the worst, most psychologically damaging moment of my basketball life, watching the Knicks defy all logic and odds and doggy-paddle their way through the Eastern Conference swamp and back into the Finals amounted to a welcome, pleasing peripheral, just out of focus from the hormones and the dope and the doubt at the center of life’s teenage lenses.
I knew we had no chance. I knew we had no chance because we’d already spent ten of our nine lives on rim-dancing floaters and four-point plays. I knew because the team we were up against boasted the most formidable one-two frontcourt punch in at least a generation, and maybe ever, while our own wounded warrior sat helpless on the sidelines. It was the first year of the second post-Jordan era, and – just like last time – we were there to try and win an asterisk.
The series itself was as ugly as the outcome was forgone. In terms of sheer aesthetics, you’d have been better served watching flaming pucks on Fox or juiced McGwire jacks. It hurts to admit now, but San Antonio was built, and functioned, the way the Knicks should have. Lockout crust and pair of number one draft picks aside, the Spurs – marshaled by a budding genius of a second year coach – knew who they were, and bent all wills to its own accordingly. And as much as I knew we had no chance, I hated the Spurs for it; hated that they’d taken “our blueprint” and built something towering above us and left no view but that of their cloud-cloaked crown.
But we didn’t suffer. At least not like we had in ’94, when that blueprint came within a cold hand of gold-capping. We moved on – or I did, anyway – believing better days lay ahead, even if it meant switching out a few of the cornerstone. Just not that cornerstone. When Ewing was traded to the Sonics a year later, it felt wrong, and we paid for it, and continue to pay for it, if curses do indeed die hard.
As the 90s gave way to a new decade and an NBA finding its way without a Jordan Polaris, the Spurs served as the constant constellation. Depending on the year, they were either just above the horizon or – in their title-winning seasons – directly overhead, visible, it seemed, in only those places where large market lights don’t cloud the skies. They brought on a pair of foreign guns to flank a flash-less forward now squarely in his prime, and Popovich’s growing masterpiece started featuring brushstrokes of flops and Euro-bred flair, and I just hated them more. I loathed Manu’s herky-jerky drives and Parker’s weakling grace. I despised Duncan’s stoicism and Robert Horry’s daggers and Bruce Bowen’s clandestine cheapies. I hated that they were winning while my team failed and floundered. But mostly I hated because I didn’t – or refused to – understand.
That hatred hit its apex in 2005, when the Spurs squared off against the defending Champion Pistons – having been whelped mere miles from their grounds, my second favorite team. Unlike the Knicks in ’99, the Pistons managed to give Duncan, Manu, Parker and company all they could handle. I’d just graduated from college, and my propensity for tapping into drunken rages at a moment’s notice had found its purest vessel. By the time Game 7 came around, I was ready to break shit. Never had I built up such an irrational antipathy towards what amounts to – let’s face it – a group of entertainers, than I did when the Spurs clawed and cut their way to a seven point win to take home their third trophy in just double the seasons.
For the rest of the decade, I equated silver and black in the NBA with bad calls and thespianic seizures; with flat-footed pivot monsters and pock-cheeked sideline maestros and –- most alien and threatening of all – winning. I knew they were doing it the right way, in the strictest organizational sense. Which is part of the reason why, as the years wore on and two title-less years turned to five, my hatred succumbed to numb ambivalence; where they once gnawed at me and beat my teams at their own game, now they were simply there, aging in a manner straddling stubbornness and grace but in no real way threatening. Like some postwar Soviet satellite, the real enemy now lay within.
I blame League Pass for the rest. Beginning last season, I started paying extra attention to the Spurs. After bowing out to the Grizzlies, in a Playoff throttling that laid all the flaws bare, San-An spent the offseason tinkering and re-tooling, adding depth and size and preparing themselves for another lockout-shortened slog. The end result has been a team 180-degrees gone – in praxis as much as theory – from those of a decade ago; from entrenched muscle to graceful guile, three-bar metal to Mozart, inching insect to Monarch Butterfly. And all with the public eye fixed mostly elsewhere.
A few days ago, Greg Popovich was asked to describe his team’s enthralling, perpetual motion offense. The answer was everything you’d expect from the Spurs’ skipper: quick, stock, and honest, but with a notable nod:
“As we got a little older and personnel changed, we were going to go from one of the best defensive teams to a more middle-of-the-road defensive team,” he said. “Something else had to change if we wanted to continue to win at a high level, so we went to the offense about two years ago and shifted it to pick up the pace to shift a little bit, went a little bit from Timmy to Manu and Tony and more attack early in the clock — kind of Mike D’Antoni-ish.”
Of course! Just as he had a baker’s dozen years ago, Popovich managed to perfect what so many seemed only capable of preaching. In a hilariously ironic turn, the Spurs have suddenly morphed – after a decade-long script flipping that happened too slowly for anyone to truly notice, let alone appreciate – into the team we should have been. The way the ball zips around like a charged ion; their patience and even-keeled air; the wholly genuine trust they all have in one another. They’re not simply the team Mike D’Antoni wanted us to become; they’re this generation’s incarnation of every New Yorker’s gold standard: the 1970 Knicks.
And you know what? I’m all in. Not that they’d ever replace the Knicks, or even match that team. I’ve invested far too much time, heart, karma, and closet space to turn back now. But – and you can blame time or age or marriage or basketball Stockholm Syndrome or whatever you want – that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them. The basketball is just too beautiful, the team too near the game’s Platonic ideal, to do anything but enjoy them.
After years of losing and loathing, and like they do and probably always will anyway, I’m finally ready to let the Spurs win.
Beyond his work for KnickerBlogger, Jim is a contributor to the New York Times Off the Dribble NBA blog, ESPN.com, and The Classical. He is currently working on a biography of Robert Silverman, titled "Clownin' and Astoundin.'" Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.