Really Appreciating These Spurs May Take Time
JUNE 16, 2014
Suffering is good. It reinforces character, resolve and commitment. Experienced in public, it exposes vulnerability. Handled with class, it heightens likability.
On the road to championship redemption, it helps to have an N.B.A. great anchoring the lane; two foreign-born guards and a coach who are undoubtedly headed to the Hall of Fame; a rising young star; and a bench full of dedicated and productive role players.
But as a motivational tool, pain can be potent, and in the case of Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, it can also be promotional.
For a decade and a half, they were pro basketball’s most unsexy success story, but never were they more respected than after the excruciating way they lost last year to the Miami Heat.
Never was Duncan more exposed to the N.B.A.-watching world than when misery clouded his face in the moments of his most wrenching failure and his eyes misted after Game 7.
He was no longer the poker face giant, sharing only inside his circle. We plainly saw the broken heart of a four-time champion, how badly he wanted a career-bookend fifth title, how much it hurt to have been seconds away in Game 6.
Before this season’s rematch with the Heat, he even went out on an unfamiliar limb, transforming himself into Tim Duncan Messier.
“We’ll do it this time,” he said on the eve of the Spurs’ five-game wipeout of the Heat, punctuated Sunday night with a 104-87 clincher in San Antonio.
Duncan’s promise told Isiah Thomas everything he needed to know.
“He said it so casually but it told you that every day, for the whole season, that’s all he was thinking about,” Thomas said. “I know what that’s like, when you come so close, when they’ve got the trophy and Champagne in your locker room one minute, and then they’re wheeling it out.”
In the history of the N.B.A. finals, nobody suffered more than Jerry West, a loser in eight of nine championship series in 14 years with the Los Angeles Lakers. But in the more modern N.B.A., which by most measures began in 1980 with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Thomas and the Detroit Pistons remain the barometer for heartbreak, for crushing defeat in consecutive seasons along the way to the top of the mountain.
It was Thomas who floated the infamous inbounds pass that was stolen along with Game 5 and ultimately the 1987 Eastern Conference finals in Boston by Bird. It was Thomas who led his team back the next season, past the Celtics, exploding for 25 third-quarter points on a sprained ankle in Game 6 of the finals against the Lakers at Los Angeles.
The Spurs were denied last season when Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard missed late free throws and Ray Allen memorably connected from the corner. Fourteen seconds away in Game 6 with a 1-point lead in 1988, the Pistons were victimized by what many recall as a phantom foul, Bill Laimbeer whistled for breathing on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as he pivoted for a sky hook from the right baseline.
The details fade. The hurt remains, stored for repurposing.
“I remember after Game 6, we’re in the locker room, it’s very quiet, and Chuck comes in,” Thomas said in a telephone interview, referring to Coach Chuck Daly. “He said, ‘Bring it in,’ and we got in a circle.
“But what is there to say? It’s so gut-wrenching. You take it with you all summer, carry it around. But you’re also thinking, if we had had home-court advantage, that’s our championship. So you’re already getting ready to bring that into next season. That’s what Timmy and the Spurs did; they went out and got the best record.”
The Pistons won a league-best 63 games in 1988-89, and swept the banged-up Lakers in the finals. As Thomas noted, the Spurs differed from his team in one significant way: Their core veterans had already been champions. But like the Pistons, the Spurs were never much celebrated, never adopted and endorsed by Shoe Company America.
The Bad Boy Pistons played a generally unloved brawny brand of ball, and their two championships were sandwiched between the far more popular Lakers-Celtics and Jordan-Bulls eras. The Spurs were fronted by the publicity-shy Duncan, the prickly coach Gregg Popovich and a chip on their organizational shoulder for the accurate perception that the country and even the league preferred Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the finals to them.
Of the Spurs, who have the best winning percentage of any major sports franchise over the last 17 years, or since Duncan arrived, Phil Jackson said in April: “I wouldn’t call San Antonio a dynasty” because “they never won consecutive championships.” A nitpick for sure, but in a Twitter posting late Sunday night, Jackson wrote: “Congrats to Spurs and Pop. They overcame a mind numbing loss last year to comeback stronger physically, mentally, and spiritually.”
What a difference a year makes, Zen and now. Understand, however, that the two outcomes are part of one narrative, just as it was for Thomas and the Pistons a quarter century ago. For them, distance brought more appreciation, along with the flourishing touch of a recent ESPN documentarian.
In time, when the 2013-14 champions earn their own reel of fortune, even the most grudging holdouts on the Spurs — most of them brainwashed by the aforementioned mythmakers on what pro basketball at its best is supposed to be — will come around.
They will recognize the individual talent, more than most realize, blending magnificently in a blur of body and ball movement. They will smile at the sight of Leonard, 22, shouting not as a self-aggrandizing showman, only out of astonishment, while receiving the most valuable player trophy from Bill Russell.
They will relish the memory of the great LeBron James, dethroned but respectful, hugging Duncan tight; of the celebratory embrace of the Frenchmen Tony Parker and Boris Diaw; of the flags of Argentina and Italy draped around the shoulders of Ginobili and Marco Belinelli; and of an emotionally spent Popovich watching the celebration unfold from the bench.
Asked about the burden of bouncing all the way back, Duncan said: “We had the team to, if we believed and let it go.” He meant the pain of last season, and he most likely lied. “You never let it go,” Thomas said. “I’ve carried mine around for years.”
By reputation bad or boring, handling the pain is one way to change perception. Last season came widespread respect. This season brought heightened appreciation. For Duncan and the Spurs, it’s only a matter of time before they are remembered as eternally special.