“I think the Spurs are gonna win it all,” my dad told me a few weeks ago. This was before San Antonio fully morphed into the fully operational Death Star of offensive efficiency that we watched eviscerate Miami in five games. Hell, this was before we knew if they would be able to shake the demons of 2012’s conference finals loss to Oklahoma City, much less the heartbreak in South Beach 12 months ago.
But my dad was persistent. And as dads so often are, he was right.
I’ll get to 2014 and the redemption of the Spurs, Pop, Timmy, Manu, Tony, Kawhi and the rest. First, I’ve got to let you know how it all began, at least for me.
I started rooting for the Spurs in 1991. I was nine or 10, and a devoted baseball fanatic who was just getting into basketball. I was largely unfamiliar with the NBA and its players, aside from the mega-stars: Jordan, Magic, Bird, Isiah, Barkley, and a few others. Naturally, those were the players that everyone pegged as their favorites.
Then, as now, most people picked a favorite team because of either a) geography, or b) a player they liked. Living in southwest Ohio, there isn’t exactly a “home” NBA team (not that I tend to root for any local teams anyway, but most around here do). So that left kids like me picking favorite teams for whatever arbitrary reasons we chose, and for most of us that was because of a certain star player we were drawn to.
I was drawn to the Spurs for two main reasons. First, they wore silver and black, and as a child and diehard Los Angeles Raiders and Metallica fan, that aligned nicely with my ideas that dudes who wore black were of the utmost coolness. Second, they had a physical freak of nature named David Robinson playing center, and while he was certainly one of the most gifted and famous stars of the era, there weren’t a whole lot of other kids in Ohio who counted “The Admiral” as their favorite player.
So it was that I began rooting for the Spurs, led by the 7-foot-1 Robinson. From the beginning of my Spurs fandom, they were good. Not championship good — not yet — but always in the playoffs and with an extremely likable star who was in pizza and Nike commercials and was on the legendary Dream Team.
When the Spurs acquired Dennis Rodman — and, more specifically, when Dennis Rodman began to dye his hair and act a lot crazy instead of a little crazy — my love for the team intensified. I was a weird kid, a contrarian even at a young age, and someone who always gravitated toward the oddballs of pop culture (Greg Maddux, the Fab Five and Megadeth to name a few). Even though they never fully clicked, Robinson and Rodman were the yin and yang in San Antonio, and it gave me the opportunity to root for a star and a sideshow.
You likely know how the story went for the Spurs from there: after several early playoff exits, Gregg Popovich descended from the front office to fire Bob Hill and take the coaching reigns himself, Rodman was exiled to Chicago where he would be a key part of arguably the greatest team ever, and the Spurs injury woes led to them winning the lottery in 1997, 10 years after they drafted Robinson with the top overall pick.
Enter Timothy Theodore Duncan, the 6-11 power forward and consensus best player in the draft. Popovich selected Duncan first in one of the least dramatic draft decisions ever, and the Spurs became the model franchise in all of professional sports, a distinction that was even further cemented by their dismantling of the Miami Heat in this year’s NBA Finals. It was the fifth championship for the Spurs, all coming during the Duncan-Popovich era.
Besides my undying loyalty to my favorite teams, the Spurs remained important to me for reasons that have little to do with basketball. Sure, it’s exceedingly easy to root for a winner, and the Spurs have been the most successful team in the league over the past 17 years. But it was more than just the wins and, eventually, the titles piling up that kept me obsessively following the Spurs from thousands of miles away (except for one incredible night in June 2007 when I was able to see them collect another trophy in Cleveland, only three hours from my home).
It was the ethos. It was the idea that a collection of overlooked foreigners, washed-up veterans, and singularly-skilled specialists could achieve greatness around the quiet centerpiece and the demanding orchestrator. It was also the lack of attention the Spurs received, which was largely by design, a byproduct of Popovich’s unwillingness to pull back the curtain to reveal the machinations within the San Antonio organization. No matter, it still felt to us Spurs fans like our guys weren’t being given their due like the Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls. For me, that feeling of exclusion meshed comfortably with my natural tendency for nonconformity. By having a bunch of normal, quiet, respectful players, the Spurs were a counterculture of sorts in the NBA’s landscape. I loved it.
And I learned a lot about myself along the way. It took a long time for me to truly realize that I was an underachiever, someone with all the potential one could want and none of the drive to maximize it. Self-awareness isn’t something that comes young or easy. Strangely enough, it was the Spurs who helped me to some very sobering realizations. That they did so in defeat — in particular, the most heartbreaking defeat I’ve ever seen in sports — added immeasurable impact.
That is what hit me so hard last year, when the Spurs collapsed in the most incredible way during Game 6 of the finals against Miami, finally losing the series two days later in Game 7. Sports, at their best, allow us to bond with one another, make us feel good (although they sometimes make us feel breathtakingly sad, too), and, hopefully, teach us some lessons that are bigger than the games. The San Antonio Spurs have always done the first two, and I like to tell myself that the third one got through to me with clarity last June.
There is a quote posted in the Spurs facility that reads:
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it — but all that had gone before.
Riis was a journalist and photographer who famously wrote about the living conditions of the poor in New York City in the late 1800s. Popovich adopted the mantra, and has instilled its message in every player, coach, and member of front office over the years. Spurs blog Pounding the Rock has a nice piece on how the “Stonecutter’s Credo” relates to the team, but it’s also easy to see how the lesson can translate to everyday life away from the hardwood.
Work ethic, sacrificing for the greater good, unselfishness, integrity, unwavering dedication to the process, and perseverance, particularly in the face of lofty expectations. For a few decades or so, these characteristics have defined the San Antonio Spurs.
In seeing the Spurs put in so much work to get back to the finals years after every talking head and most fans had written them off made me realize that I have no excuse for failing to put in the work to make myself better at whatever it is I choose to do. To see them sacrifice — starting with the vaunted “Big Three” of Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili – and give up minutes, stats, and, in Manu’s case, a starting role in the middle of his prime showed me that the least I can do is give my best to those I encounter every day. If much is expected of me by family, friends, or co-workers, then I owe it to them to deliver. I saw that I need to trust my own process which, while it may not be “pounding the rock” and ”packing the paint,” is still vital to my happiness and success.
There is a blueprint here, and just because it was drawn by men who make millions of dollars to play and coach a game doesn’t make its lessons any less valid.
I watched Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals with my dad. It was Father’s Day, and together we watched the silver and black machine hum with devastating efficiency. We hooted and hollered at Kawhi’s alley-oop, Manu turning back the clock to posterize Bosh, Tiago getting a little revenge for last year’s block, Patty making it rain, and Tony’s takeover that erased all hope for Miami and all doubt for San Antonio. The “Stonecutter’s Credo” tells us that it wasn’t the play calls or the scheme or the domination of individual matchups. It was last year’s gut-wrenching loss and a collection of players with the desire to push it out of their minds in order to focus on the task at hand. It was a group of men who spent six months pounding that rock, and this time it didn’t just crack, it exploded into smithereens on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.
The Spurs, always the nonconformists, always turning convention on its ear, didn’t find redemption Sunday. They weren’t looking for it. They realized a long time ago that the measure of how well they do their jobs couldn’t be found in the win/loss column. They might not have known that a championship would be the outcome, but they trusted each other and Pop, put in the work, sacrificed playing time and salary, chased away the demons from years past, and ignored everyone saying they were too old, not athletic enough, not able to rise and meet the elites of the game.
And maybe, if I follow the lead of my favorite basketball team, I’ll find success. Maybe I can find redemption and make the absolute most of what I possess. I want to be there for my family and friends, the same way Tim Duncan is always there for every teammate and the same way that Gregg Popovich pushes everyone he touches to their absolute peak.
I hope I can meet my weaknesses head on, without allowing my doubts and ego to get in the way. I hope I can abandon my failures and push forward with renewed vigor. I would like to think that all of the lessons I’ve learned from watching basketball over the years could translate into making me a better person.
I’ve seen what happens when the Spurs keep pounding the rock, and they’ve inspired me to grab my hammer and get to work.