Free Bird – On the evening of Thursday, April 3rd, I turned the television off after having watched the San Antonio Spurs’ 19 game winning streak come to an end on the road and at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. My good friend, Ryan, called me almost immediately after the game ended but I didn’t answer the call because, given the fact that he is not a Spurs fan, I thought he might have randomly been calling me to talk smack about a former Texas Longhorn, Kevin Durant, and the Thunder’s impressive regular season sweep of the Spurs. When I didn’t answer his call, he quickly followed up with a text saying “Call me as soon as you get this.” At that point, I knew that his reason for calling was more serious than the basketball game. Jenn and I were on our way out the door to go to the grocery store so I decided that, even though I was worried that returning this call could be important, I would call Ryan back from the car on our way. We hadn’t even made it out of the neighborhood when Ryan hit me with the worst news I have ever received in my life. My best friend, Brian, had passed away. As I was getting off of the phone with Ryan, in disbelief, I pulled the car into the parking lot near the basketball court in my neighborhood, parked, and peered blankly out across the neighborhood park. The initial shock lasted several minutes before Jenn was able to get me to move to the passenger’s seat so that she could drive us back to our house. What has followed over the next several days and weeks has been about as difficult a period of time as I could have ever dreaded I might be presented with in life. The news of losing Brian sent me spiraling into a deep, dark hole, the likes of which I have never before had to endure during my three and a half decades of life experience. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. My productivity was debilitated upon returning to work after taking a few days off to attempt to process the news and to attend Brian’s service. Finally, and relevant to the interests of this audience, I could not have cared less about the outcome of the final handful of games in the San Antonio Spurs’ 2013-14 regular season. The only thing that existed in my life was pain.
While basketball played a central role in the foundation of Brian and my friendship, we met during seventh grade basketball tryouts, it wasn’t until the fall of 2000 that Brian started along his journey to becoming a die-hard Spurs fan. The reason for this would seem reasonable enough to an outsider. In the fall of 2000, Brian moved from College Station to San Antonio and became roommates with a die-hard Spurs fan. Probably as fundamental to the scientific laws governing our universe as The Einstein Theory of Relativity is The Die-Hard Sports Fan Theory of Relativity. Ask anyone who has ever lived with a die-hard sports fan and they will validate this eternal scientific truth: Living with a die-hard sports fan, by the power of transitive property and in the absence of a preexisting fan allegiance, will make you also eventually become a die-hard fan of your roommate’s favorite team. While Brian had always casually rooted for the Spurs, as the nearest NBA team to our hometown; it wasn’t until he moved to San Antonio to become my roommate, and entered my sick and twisted world of watching an average of one hundred Spurs games a year, that he quickly began developing his own die-hard status with the team.
By the time the 2001 NBA Playoffs arrived, Brian was all in. He had watched what he previously would have considered an outrageous number of Spurs games during the regular season and he seemed completely invested in the Spurs making a playoff run towards their second NBA championship and beating the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in process. In the end, the Spurs were swept in devastating fashion by the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and Brian seemed almost as bummed out as I was by the whole ordeal. I remember that we had just started watching The Sopranos: Season 1 on VHS during the Lakers series and after the sweep, we used binge watching the show as a way to take our mind off of how disappointed we were that the Spurs season was over. A year later, things played out rather similarly. Brian and I endured through a another painful exit to the now two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in five games, this time in the second round, and spent another summer licking our wounds. People often say that the third time is a charm, and in the case of Brian and I watching the San Antonio Spurs playoff runs together as die-hard fans, they would be correct.
In 2003, the San Antonio Spurs faced off against the now three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers for a third consecutive year. In a masterful turning-of-the-tables performance, the Spurs defeated the Lakers 4-2 in another second-round match up and in resounding fashion. This playoff series victory electrified the entire city of San Antonio and it was unlike anything we had experienced before. I cannot speak in regards to the energy in the city during the Spurs’ march to the 1999 Championship because after our sophomore year in college, Brian and I had been living and working in Austin and were not present in the city to experience the latter rounds of the playoff run that resulted in the Spurs’ first championship. We actually watched the Spurs clinch the 1999 NBA Finals, in Austin, while attending my brother’s bachelor party. But Brian and I were there, right smack dab in the middle of it, in 2003 to soak in the sense of pride that was spreading like a wildfire throughout our community. One of the local radio stations, The Beat 98.5, held a contest to determine the best Spurs themed rap song in San Antonio. I convinced Brian to record a Spurs song with me in order to enter the contest. We recorded and submitted this little gem which ended up being the first Rhime Divine song to get air time on terrestrial radio. Our song was a finalist in the contest and I still meet people to this day who were living in San Antonio during that magical summer and remember hearing it on the radio.
By the time that it became clear that the Spurs were going to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals (in other words, about half way through Steve Kerr’s barrage of three pointers in the Game 6 comeback that Brian and I watched in a San Antonio pool hall with our good friend Matt), I knew that I wanted to try to get tickets for the NBA Finals. It had been a dream of mine since childhood to attend an NBA Finals game and this seemed like as good an opportunity as I might ever have. The instant that tickets went on sale, I went online attempting to acquire some and I was able to secure two tickets in the first row of the balcony level for Game 1 of the 2003 NBA Finals. I remember that Brian was working that morning and, rather than call him to tell him the great news, I waited until he came home from work to show him my printed receipt for the most historic basketball game that the two of us would ever attend together. He was ecstatic; for the next few days before the game, we were like two kids waiting impatiently for Christmas to arrive.
The San Antonio Spurs defeated the New Jersey Nets 101-89 on Wednesday, June 4th, 2003 and Tim Duncan, who was the league MVP that year, had a monster game with 32 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists, and 7 blocks. More than details of the on-the-court action, the thing that I remember most about that experience is the pure joy and appreciation that Brian and I had for being there. Repeatedly throughout the game, we turned to each other to crack a smile and give each other a look as if to say, “I can’t believe we are here at the NBA Finals.” Because of the reverence that we held for the game of basketball and the National Basketball Association, that evening at the SBC Center (now AT&T Center) was, I feel safe in speaking for the both of us, one of the most fun and rewarding experiences that Brian and I ever had attending a game as Spurs fans.
Perhaps it was a little bit too much fun because, as the series progressed, I began coming down with a nagging cold. On Wednesday, June 11th, a week after Brian and I had attended Game 1, the Nets won Game 4, 77-76 in New Jersey and tied the NBA Finals at two games a piece. That was a devastating loss and I was so emotionally invested in the series that what should have been a normal two or three day battle with illness was likely prolonged by the amount of stress that the Finals was causing me and by Thursday evening I was severely ill. Late Thursday night, I was experiencing asthma to the point where I was unable to sleep because I was having such a hard time breathing. I decided to drive myself to the emergency room and within a couple of hours of arriving at the hospital, I was lying in a hospital bed being treated for pneumonia and bronchitis in my lungs. The next day, my parents arrived in town to look after me in the hospital where I was recovering well from the treatment I was given. As the day moved along into evening, and we were approaching the tip-off for Game 5 of the 2003 NBA Finals, it was unclear whether I would be discharged that night or be held for observation another day. I remember calling Brian and letting him know that I wasn’t sure if I would be home or not to watch the game with him so I suggested that if he wanted to make plans to go out with other friends that that would probably be the best plan. He said that he didn’t mind watching the game at home in case I ended up making it back there before the end. Finally, as the game was beginning, the doctor made the determination to discharge me. I remember that I watched the first half of the game in my hospital room and then had my mom rush me back to my apartment after being released from the hospital so that I could catch the end of the game at home. I opened the door to my apartment and found Brian grinning on the couch as I arrived just in time to see the Spurs clinch the victory and take a 3-2 lead in the series.
Later that night, my mom drove me back to her and my dad’s house so that I could finish recuperating from my illness. In order to convince me to come back and stay with them for the weekend, my parents agreed to allow me to return to San Antonio on Sunday evening so that I could watch Game 6 in San Antonio with my friends. Under strict doctor’s orders, I was forbidden to drink alcohol for a couple of weeks until I had fully recovered. Therefore, I requested that Brian, Matt, and my sister, Heather, meet up with me at Texadelphia because it was an establishment with a huge television and great food where I could watch the game comfortably without being surrounded by intoxicated Spurs fans. Once again the outcome of the game seemed in question until another barrage of three pointers, this time by Stephen Jackson, put the Spurs ahead for good. Tim Duncan had another monster game, narrowly missing a quadruple double with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocked shots en route to his second NBA Finals MVP trophy. Despite the fact that I could not have a “victory” cocktail, I was ecstatic to be celebrating a championship in San Antonio while hanging out with my best friend Brian. Heather graciously offered to drive Brian and me down to Southwest Military Drive so that week could participate in the impromptu parade of vehicles cruising up and down the street while honking, smiling, high-fiving, and cheering endlessly. As we drove up and down MIlitary, I remember that Brian and I repeatedly looked at each with the same look that we had given each other two weeks earlier when we had attended Game 1 of the series. It was a look of joy that simply said, “I can’t believe we just won the championship.” Sharing that 2003 Spurs playoff run to the title with Brian is a fantastic memory that I reflect back upon regularly.
Throughout the last 10 years, Brian and I had continued to share our die-hard fandom of the San Antonio Spurs with each other. We had been back to attend a handful of games together at the AT&T Center, we’d watched countless others together in bars or in each other’s home, and we could rarely hold any type of extended conversation during basketball season without sharing our thoughts with each other about the prospects of the squad. Now, all of that (as well as the dozens of other interests that we shared which had made us a great fit to be life-long best friends) has suddenly come crashing to a halt and I am beside myself trying to figure out how to process it. The last two and a half weeks had been a blur of sleepless confusion and acute suffering that had left me disconnected from, not only the news taking place in the world around me, but also my most beloved pastime; following the #BlackAndSilver through the game by game grind of the NBA regular season. For the first time since adolescence, I experienced a two week period where I didn’t know when the next Spurs game was, I didn’t know whether or not we had won or lost our last game, and I didn’t care.
Then something happened this past Sunday. I had spent the morning reflecting on my grief and on the meaning of Easter and knew that I needed to try to allow my mind to escape for at least a little while. I decided that I needed to reengage in my beloved team, since the playoffs were starting, so I sat down and watched Game 1 against the Dallas Mavericks in its entirety. I watched as the Spurs struggled to find any offensive rhythm for the first three quarters and watched as we continuously blew opportunities to build a comfortable lead. I was feeling worse. I watched as the Mavericks took a commanding ten point lead half way through the fourth quarter by capitalizing on repeated San Antonio mistakes, the types of mistakes that I hadn’t seen the Spurs make in a couple of months. I was feeling dreadfully worse. All of a sudden, led by player of the game, Tim Duncan, the Spurs starting fighting our way back. I started cheering. With each made basket and defensive stop, I started cheering louder and louder. By the time we took the lead on a sweet Tony Parker spin move for a driving layup, I was jumping off of the couch screaming. As the Spurs closed the doors on a 90-85 grind-it-out victory over the Mavericks to take a 1-0 lead in the series, I realized that, for almost the first time since I had received the news about Brian’s passing, I felt good. In fact, I felt great. For the first time since I had received that horrific news, there was a spark of light in the deep, dark hole that had been serving as the entirety of my existence.
Even though, I soon realized, my moment of exhilaration was fleeting, it allowed me to come to an epiphany of sorts. Because cheering for the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Playoffs had afforded me the opportunity to catch a glimpse of a spark of light, perhaps I could nurture that spark of light and create a torch, and perhaps I could use that torch to help guide me back up and out of this deep, dark hole. I won’t attempt to fool myself into thinking that this will be anything other than a long, hard journey. I’m not sure if I will be able to nurture that spark to become a torch or not, yet. I do know, however, that writing this has been cathartic. In some of the first thoughts that I was able to get down on paper about Brian’s passing I wrote, “If I could have had the opportunity to ask Brian what to do to deal with the colossal amount of pain that his passing has caused me, I know exactly how he would have responded. He would have told me to write about it.” I know this to be true with more certainty than anything else that I have to grasp onto right now. I felt Brian’s presence when I screamed that glorious scream while watching the Spurs take the lead that we would not surrender late in the fourth quarter on Sunday. I felt Brian’s presence while I wrote my memories of the time we shared as roommates and fellow die-hard Spurs fans from 2000 through the 2003 title. And I know that I feel it now as I formally announce that I intend for this to be the first post in a new edition to the San Antonio Spurs blog series that I wrote for the 2013 playoff run and that I also want to formally announce that I wish to dedicate this sequel to my best friend. I will do my best to chronicle the 2014 Spurs playoff run using the same format that I used last year while exploring even more space than before. I know that there was some unfinished business and there were some unwritten words that resulted from the heartbreaking conclusion to the 2013 NBA Finals. I fully intend to complete the job and write the final chapter. “Lord, help me, I can’t change.” This is for Brian.
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