Wish You Were Here – I clutched the rose on my necklace and peered blankly at the television screen. Moments earlier, I had been standing with my wife, Jenn, in the center of the living room. After screaming, receiving a spectacular hug and then exhaling when it finally happened, I subsequently retreated to the couch and sat down utterly exhausted. I couldn’t move. I quickly realized that my momentary euphoria had absconded and left a foreboding cloud in its wake. Despite my tenebrous state, I knew where I was. I was back in the same vast empty space; the space that I had been in 74 days earlier while sitting in my car in the parking lot of the neighborhood basketball court. It was the first time that I had been back since that terrible Thursday evening in early April, but this time it was different. It was the same numbness, the same callosity. The difference was that this time it was familiar. I was acutely aware of it and I knew that the empty void would momentarily be engulfed. I clutched my necklace, I peered at the television, and I focused straight ahead at the on-screen celebration. Like a dusting of snowflakes on the dreary overcast day that constitutes winter’s last crescendo before gracefully submitting to the adagio exposition of a spring sonata, silver confetti danced in my field of vision. I followed one piece of confetti as it floated down from the rafters, around through the air and as it narrowly missed landing safely on the shoulder of one of the players before drifting rhythmically to a peaceful rest on the court. Like a maestro conducting the soloist in a concerto, this singular piece of confetti directed my eyes to play to its every whim. It demanded my attention and captured my imagination. This one piece of confetti seemed to control me because in that moment, and in the vast, empty space that I occupied, for whatever reason, it seemed profound. It was as if it embodied my entire universe. It was as if it were him.
Deep in the bowels of the AT&T Center, LeBron James gathered his Miami Heat teammates in a pregame huddle before taking the court for warmups ahead of Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals. Trailing in the series 1-3, the two-time defending champions had their backs up against the ropes and LeBron knew it. Given the trajectory of the series (after James and company had punched the challengers in the nose in Game 2 in San Antonio, the Spurs caught the Heat off guard by counter punching so forcefully in Games 3 and 4 in Miami that the champs were left clutching the ropes to avoid spiraling into a free fall), LeBron understood that it was going to take a super-human effort on his part in Game 5 to fight the Heat off of the ropes and back into the middle of the ring where they could retake the offensive in their quest for a three-peat. His message to his teammates was simple, “Follow my lead.” Less than an hour after hearing these words and following their leader through the tunnel and on to the court for warmups, the Heat were thoroughly in control of the basketball game. With 5:03 left in the first quarter Miami was dominating San Antonio. LeBron, upon hearing the opening bell, had exploded into attack mode for 12 points in the contest’s first seven minutes. Also working in Miami’s favor was the fact that LeBron’s stellar start was coupled with the good fortune that his team was going up against an over-anxious opponent (it was evident that the San Antonio Spurs had returned to their home court and began Game 5 playing like a team that was pressing to win a championship instead of playing like a team that was focused on winning a playoff game). Therefore, a perfect storm was brewing in San Antonio to provide Miami a legitimate opportunity to get back in the series. LeBron James had simultaneously put on his cape and inspired new life in his teammates which allowed the Heat to capitalize on an uncharacteristic lack of composure by the Spurs. It all added up to a 22-6 lead for the the champs.
With seven minutes elapsed in the first quarter of Game 5 and trailing by 16 points, San Antonio was in dire straights and in desperate need of a basket on the next possession to prevent LeBron and the Heat from running away and hiding without being forced to face any resistance from the 18,581 hungry Spurs fans in attendance. Because of the Heat’s quick start, the fans in the building had grown anxious but they were still salivating for an opportunity to show Miami how thunderously loud the AT&T Center can get when the city is trying to release nine years of pent-up championship closeout energy. For a little one-horse town, closing in on an NBA title at home means more than it does in the big city. It just does. Sure, it took a great deal of luck for us to have the good fortune to parlay a pair of winning lottery tickets into eventually building the type of small-market basketball franchise that is in contention for an NBA championship every single season. But because of how successful the Spurs have consistently been, nine years is an awful long time to wait for moments such as the one that was before us on Sunday, June 15. This is Titletown, TX, after all and the AT&T Center (also known as the house that David Robinson and Tim Duncan built) had not hosted a home closeout game in the NBA Finals since June 23, 2005 (the 2007 championship team closed out on the road by sweeping the Cavaliers in Cleveland). Keep in mind, the home crowd was also harboring the heartbreak of losing last year’s Finals to the same opponent and the opportunity to put that excruciating pain to rest would be added fuel to get the building rocking louder than ever before should the Spurs find themselves in position to win heading down the stretch. Needless to say, it was assumed that the noise of the home crowd would be a huge advantage for the Spurs throughout the night. Nonetheless, Miami’s quick start to open up a 16 point lead had successfully taken the famished and revenge-thirsty crowd out of the game and had, thus, surprisingly neutralized San Antonio’s advantage. Even from across town you could feel the tension in the building permeating through the television by virtue of the absence of noise coming from a shell-shocked crowd. Indeed, the next possession was shaping up to be the critical moment of the ball game. If, on the ensuing defensive stance, the Heat were able to force another missed shot or turnover and convert the stop into another easy basket at the other end (extending their lead closer to 20), Gregg Popovich may have been ready (out of frustration and with two losses to spare) to pull the regular rotation players and give the likes of Aron Baynes, Jeff Ayers, Matt Bonner, Marco Belinelli, and Corey Joseph a prolonged opportunity to try to get San Antonio back in the game.
Looking over at Coach Pop on the sidelines, I could almost see it written on his expression. One more empty offensive trip followed by another Heat basket and, more than likely, he would have elected to bench the regulars. I’m sure he knew that it would have been a tall order to hope for the reserve unit to find success in slowing down a LeBron James freight train which had already left the station, but he would have pulled the trigger anyway. The infamous Popovich mass-substitution that was forthcoming if things continued to go south would have demoralized the crowd but it would have also been the right decision and a necessary message for the NBA Coach of the Year to send to the rotation players in order to force them to regroup and refocus (similar to the earlier surrender in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder). The ensuing possession for the Spurs was, therefore, the critical moment of the ball game because it quite possibly could have been the last chance the regulars might have been afforded to to try and right the ship. In less than seven minutes of game action, the AT&T Center scene, which was supposed to be a coronation, had rapidly deteriorated into a dark, murky mess. We were dangerously close to the point of needing someone from the team’s front office to get on the phone with a South Beach hotel and confirm our reservation for a block of rooms the following night. Indeed, gray clouds were beginning to congregate once again in the skies above San Antonio and, as Spurs fans, we were helpless to stop whatever hell the basketball gods were conspiring to unleash. It just seemed like one of those nights. Besides dealing with being unable to defend the best player in the world (playing at the peak of his game), our offense, to that point, had been abysmal. The Spurs were 1-12 from the field and once again our attack, as it had in Game 2, seemed flustered by Miami’s frantic defensive pressure. The prospect of returning to Miami to face a suddenly rejuvenated Heat squad that had climbed within two victories of making NBA Finals history by becoming the first team to overcome a 1-3 series deficit was beginning to seem like a real possibility. There was no question that this next possession was the critical moment of the game. Somebody in a home white uniform needed to step up and give this lethargic Spurs team (a team that had seemed invincible 36 hours earlier) some life. We needed a spark and it had to arrive on this possession. Otherwise, there was a distinct possibility that Game 5 was already lost.
Like so many times before during his illustrious basketball career, when things seemed to be at their darkest in San Antonio, all of a sudden Manu Ginobili’s majestic talent, in all its brilliant colors, appeared at the edge of the horizon and started rising up to fill the sky. During this possession, which doubled as the critical moment in the game, Manu sprang to life and delivered the necessary spark. Down sixteen, Ginobili put the ball on the floor, got bumped by Rashard Lewis, and finished a continuation by dropping a runner in over the top of Miami’s interior defense. The whistle blew to award him the And One opportunity and the dormant crowd erupted with the fury of a thousand volcanoes. Fourteen down. Manu stepped up to the free throw line and sank the foul shot. Nothing but net. Thirteen down. Coach Pop was now relieved of the responsibility for making the decision on whether or not to pull the trigger on emptying the bench. The critical moment of the game (perhaps the critical moment of the series, the playoffs, the season, the last seven years) had just happened and Manu Ginobili, the greatest competitor to ever put on a San Antonio Spurs jersey, had delivered. To the surprise of absolutely no one, he wasn’t done. In fact, he was just getting started. On the next Miami possession, Shane Battier (desperate to get himself going in his final NBA game) became overly aggressive trying to establish position. Manu, who was guarding him, refused to give ground and Battier, in frustration, delivered a lethal elbow to Ginobili’s chest. The whistle blew once again, but the confrontation continued nonetheless. Battier unrelentingly continued to throw his weight into Manu’s upper body. Exacerbated, Ginobili through up his arms and ceded position. The unexpected release of opposing force caused Battier to tumble to the court and once arriving on the floor, the Miami journeyman kicked up his legs, tripping Manu and causing Ginobili to come crashing to the ground as well. Offensive foul, turnover, Spurs’ ball. Battier’s unwarranted aggression against the Spurs’ sixth man proved to be a costly mistake. Within seven seconds of the turnover, Manu was letting a three pointer fly at the other end of the court. He buried it. Ten down. The crowd, sensing something magical was happening, was now working itself into a frenzy. Miami called timeout to try to thwart San Antonio’s momentum.
Coming back out of the huddle, the Heat ran a well designed set play that resulted in Ray Allen attacking the smaller Patty Mills off the dribble. With Patty draped all over him, Jesus Shuttlesworth lowered his shoulder during his drive and dropped Mills to the hard court. This time, the referees swallowed their whistles and with no charge forthcoming, Allen dribbled into an open 16 foot jump shot. Surprisingly, the knock-down jump shooter missed and Ginobili was there to snatch a contested rebound. He dribbled down the court, commanded the attention of the Miami defense, and found a wide open Kawhi Leonard alone for another three pointer. Kawhi rose up and calmly knocked it down. Assist, Manu Ginobili. Seven down. Pandemonium in the AT&T Center. 45 seconds had elapsed off of the clock since reaching the critical moment of the game and during that time Manu Ginobili had scored six points, drawn a charge, grabbed a rebound, tallied an assist and cut a 16 point Miami lead to seven in the blink of an eye. You would be well advised to wear sunglasses when attempting to fully take in the brilliant colors of Number 20’s majestic talent. It’s just that bright. When it comes to athletes, his is rarified air. The legends surrounding his feats on the basketball court are timeless. I’m mean, the guy swatted a flying bat right out of the air, and on Halloween no less. Playing his career during the television era has actually done his greatness a disservice because he does something magical every single night that you can only fully appreciate if you have seen it in person. Yet, even with television, these legends persist. Could you imagine them without the deterrent of cameras and replays? He would be our generation’s Babe Ruth. Move over, Wilt Chamberlain and Pete Maravich. When I’m old, gray, and sitting out on the porch in a rocking chair with my grandchildren gathered round; I’m telling them stories of the times that I was in the building to see Manu freaking Ginobili.
After Manu’s magnificent flurry, the two teams traded baskets for the remainder of the first quarter and the Heat ended the period with a seven point lead heading into the second. To begin the next quarter, Coach Pop drew up a play that the Spurs rarely use; a play that he had added to the Spurs playbook for Richard Jefferson, once upon a time. Kawhi Leonard received the ball at the top of the key and immediately swung it over to Boris Diaw over on the left wing. He then cut hard to the basket curling off of a perfect Tiago Splitter back screen that picked off his defender, Dwyane Wade. Tiago’s defender, Chris “Birdman” Andersen was slow to react and Boris delivered a perfect alley oop pass that Kawhi hammered home without breaking a sweat. Five down. The Heat brought the ball back up the court and ran a set to get Wade a shot but as he tried to attack Danny Green off of the dribble, Danny stripped the ball from him and eventually tied him up for a jump ball. Danny went on to win the tip and the Spurs were back in attack mode. San Antonio methodically worked the ball up the court and around the horn. Tiago to Boris to Tony to Danny back to Boris to Kawhi isolated on the left elbow against LeBron James. Kawhi sized up the king, juked him once with a jab step and head fake, and then rose up and drained a 20 foot jumper right in his eye. Three down. It was beginning to seem as if the Spurs momentum was starting to flummox the Heat. You could see it on the faces of some of LeBron’s teammates. They were beginning to succumb to the relentless march of inevitability. As Miami’s supporting cast continued to stiffen up, it was clear that the pressure was building up like water in a dam and it was just a matter of time before it was ready to burst open.
Miami, however, was able to regroup and hold the Spurs off over the next few minutes. Wade and Chris Bosh both dropped in jump shots to get the Miami lead back to seven during a four minute stretch in which the Spurs went cold from the field. With the offense stagnating, San Antonio turned to our security blanket to operate the offense for the next few possessions. With the smaller Udonis Haslem guarding him, Tim Duncan went to work. Tony Parker fed Timmy in the post and Timmy dropped a beautiful retro 13 foot turn around fade-away over Haslem’s outstretched arms. The hustle & flow of Tim Duncan’s post game likens itself to a canon of literature from the Romantic Era and this particular shot was a masterpiece contribution. There was no time to dwell in art appreciation, however, as Wade came right back down, drew a foul, and made both free throws. On the next possession, the Spurs went right back to TD in the low post. LeBron came with a double team to help Haslem so Duncan turned away from James right into Udonis hoping to draw a foul. When a foul was not granted on the body contact down low, Haslem was able to regroup and block the shot back out to the perimeter. Timmy reacted quickly to regain control of the basketball but with the shot clock winding down he had to throw up a desperation shot. The shot missed but luckily Boris was in position to grab the rebound and alertly fired it back out to Marco Belinelli. Marco pump faked a scrambling Ray Allen, took one dribble, and buried a confident 17 foot jumper that purposefully suggested that, as far as Marco was concerned, C.R.E.A.M. (championships rule everything around me). Belinelli had signed with the Spurs last summer so that he could play for a championship contender and despite limited minutes, he was delivering in his first NBA Finals.
The Heat came back down and attempted to reestablish their sputtering offense but were not patient enough to get the ball into the hands of James in one of his sweet spots. They settled instead for an open Haslem 19 foot jumper from the top of the key. After Haslem missed and Diaw secured the rebound for the Spurs, San Antonio purposefully worked the ball back in to Duncan in the post. Timmy turned, swept across the lane, and put up a running jump hook over a helpless Haslem. This shot was reminiscent of the one he had taken over the top of Shane Battier to give the Spurs a lead in the closing minute of Game 7 of last year’s Finals in Miami. Last year, he back rimmed it and the rest was history. This year, he dropped it in as if he were blowing a kiss to the Spurs fans in order to reassure us that his “guarantee” would hold true and that the trophy was coming home. Miami quickly called a timeout but it seemed to be of little use in quelling San Antonio’s momentum. On the next Heat possession, Ray Allen was called for an offensive foul setting a moving screen away from the ball on Boris Diaw. Having clearly established a mismatch in Duncan’s match up against the undersized Haslem, the Spurs were happy to continue exploiting it. After the Allen turnover, Tony dribbled off of a screen by Timmy, passed to Boris on the wing. Bobo hit a cutting Duncan near the rim. Tim rose up and scored over Haslem once again and drew the foul. One down. The crowd was now officially embarking on its ascension into the rafters and appeared poised to systematically remove the AT&T Center roof from the rest of the building. In other words, it was safe to say that the fans were starting to smell blood. After Timmy had dropped in his third shot int he last four possessions, LeBron James threw up is hands exasperated. Apparently he did not appreciate bearing witness to true NBA royalty as it shredded apart his team’s interior defense. As much as privilege might make it hard to accept, sometimes even kings are rendered helpless and forced to sit back and watch the throne.
Even though Timmy missed the free throw that would have tied the game, it was becoming noticeably visible on the television screen that the body language of LeBron James’ teammates was taking a turn for the worse. You could now unquestionably see the dejection in their faces. James would not be quite as easily discouraged, but he now seemed resigned to the fact that this was quickly becoming a contest of the best player in the world versus the best team in the world. While his teammates confidence was eroding, to his credit, the evaporation of the Heat lead only made LeBron look more determined. On the next trip down the court, however, (unfortunately for LeBron) the same could also be said about his opponents, who were oozing with defensive intensity and appeared determined to coalesce as a cohesive unit in order to deny another one-man surge. Defiantly, James attempted to attack off the dribble and was met at the rim by the four outstretched arms of Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. LeBron missed the contested layup and there was a scramble for the loose ball that resulted in the ball cascading out of bounds off of Manu. Not to be deterred, LeBron attacked the rim again after Miami inbounded the ball. Again, he was met at the rim, this time by Timmy and Boris and again he missed the lay up. Uninterested in giving the king a third chance to get to the rim, this time Kawhi gobbled up the rebound and immediately started pushing the ball up the court. On the break, Rashard Lewis picked up Kawhi sprinting down the middle of the court but as Kahwi approached the three point line, Lewis continued back pedaling to the free throw line. Leonard stopped his attack on a dime and rose up behind the arc to take the type of shot that only superstars dare to attempt on this big of a stage and the type of shot that he wouldn’t have dreamed of taking in the 2013 NBA Finals. Not only did Kawhi rise up and attempt such a risky transition three, but in keeping with his rising stardom he had the swagger to bury that cold-blooded triple. Two up. The amassed fans in the AT&T Center lost their collective minds. The San Antonio Spurs had our first lead of Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals.
With the lead finally secured, (having already made a play in the critical moment of the game) the Spurs called on Manu Ginobili to step on the opponents’ collective throats. Based upon the fire in his eyes, Manu clearly appeared to believe that he still had more to do to finish the job of redeeming himself for his 2013 NBA Finals performance. After Miami wound up with a contested Ray Allen fade away on a broken play, Patty Mills narrowly missed a three, and Rashard Lewis air balled a contested three, Manu caught the ball near the top of the key and waived off a screen to get an isolation against Lewis. Ginobili calmly dribbled the ball back out to near the half court line to set up his attack. He drove left on Lewis and as Chris Bosh came to help near the rim, Manu smoothly reversed the ball underneath the basket with his left hand and dropped it up off the backboard on the other side of the rim for a sick reverse layup. Four up. You could now hear the AT&T Center crowd from the suburbs. After Patty Mills drew a charge on Dwyane Wade on the next Heat possession, you could easily hear the crowd from San Marcos. The Spurs brought the ball back down the court and five passes later, Manu was fouled on another drive to the basket and almost converted the three point play on a runner. He uncharacteristically rimmed out the first free throw but he knocked down the second one. Five up. The crowd at the AT&T Center was going (what could only be described at this point as) bananas and you could almost see the demons of Game 6 of last year’s Finals gathering their things together to get ready to leave the building.
LeBron, however, (still competing hard) drove the lane again and created a wide open three pointer for Bosh. Seemingly half-heartly, Bosh launched the shot which rimmed out. Timmy secured the rebound and got the ball back to Manu on the outlet. With a full head of steam and that look in his eyes, Manu drove to the cup and jumped in the air for what seemed would be another spectacular reverse layup or floater. To the surprise of every member of planet Earth’s basketball viewing public, Manu Ginobili didn’t put the ball in position for a layup or floater. Instead he just kept rising up in the air. Up and up he went until he had the ball so high that he was at a clear advantage over Chris Bosh, who was challenging Manu at the rim. The 36 year old proceeded to slam the ball so violently into the basket directly in Bosh’s face that I literally began crying tears of joy. Seven up (and I’m not talking about the soda), demons exorcised. In my 30 years of watching the NBA, Manu Ginobili is the only player I have ever seen that has been able to do things with a basketball that have made me so full of such utter euphoria that my only recourse is to begin weeping and that is a good enough reason for me to make him the player of the game. Like the sonic boom you would imagine is created when a supernova explodes, the Spurs fans in attendance finally reached the crescendo of Titletown, TX’s close-out a championship at home for the first time in nine years noise. You could hear it clear across the entire state. The noise, as predicted, was now an insurmountable obstacle for the Miami Heat to overcome. The writing was on the wall. When James (still competing, God bless him) was able to drop in a fade-away jumper to cut the lead back to five, the Spurs dribbled back down the court and even though the show was over, Manu amused the fans by granting them an encore. After a series of San Antonio Spurs passes, Manu caught the ball at the top of the key, dribbled right (using a Tim Duncan screen), stepped back off of the dribble, and drained a juicy fade away three pointer. As if it was all a dream, we were eight up, and the ball game was over. The San Antonio Spurs had a lead that we would not relinquish.
In the second half, the coronation was indeed on. Miami was unable to threaten to change the outcome of the game and the Spurs offense shifted naturally into cruise control. Patty Mills erupted for 14 points in the third quarter making all five of his shots including four from downtown. Needless to say, the Spurs backup point guard, who had played remarkably well throughout the playoff run, was hot in the third. In the fourth, it was the Tony Parker show. Parker, who went scoreless until the last possession of the third quarter, scored 14 points in the fourth on 6-7 shooting and 2-2 from the free throw line. It was a fitting cherry on top of the sweet and tasty championship dish for a man who had put the Spurs on his back the season before and almost carried the team to a title. You could easily sense that while Parker had put together a legendary 2013 playoff performance that had fallen only 28 seconds short of a championship, he was much happier to play a lesser role in 2014 but actually capture another ring, with a little help from my friends. With 2:12 left in the game and the Spurs ahead by 18, Gregg Popovich began substituting his star players out to give them a well deserved standing ovation.
After “having the trophy so close within reach that we could almost scrape a finger nail on it” last season, it was remarkable to see the mixture of excitement, joy, relief, and vindication expressed on the star players’ faces as they fittingly took their curtain calls. The first to leave was Kawhi Leonard: The Future. Next, it was Tim Duncan: The Franchise. Then, Manu Ginobili: The Legend was pulled from the game. Finally, Coach Pop substituted for Tony Parker: The Present and Boris Diaw: The X-Factor together allowing the high school teammates the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. After all of the Spurs’ stars had had their curtain calls, it was just a matter of watching the clock run down during garbage time. With 42 seconds left in the game, Jeff Ayers made the last basket of the Spurs’ 2014 NBA season by draining a 20 foot jumper that was assisted by The Red Mamba, Matt Bonner (the only other member of the team besides the Big Three that was already an NBA Champion). Tony Douglas came down a made a 24 foot three point jumper for the Heat with 37 seconds left and then the countdown to basketball bliss was on. Because the shot clock was running down with 14 seconds left in the game, Corey Joseph launched a half-hearted 19 foot jumper that missed. James Jones got the rebound, Miami advanced the ball, and Toney Douglas put up another three pointer with one second left for good measure. The shot missed as the buzzer sounded and the San Antonio Spurs were NBA Champions once again. The drive for five was complete. Confetti was free fallin’. Cinco.
The post-game celebration was spectacular to witness. Coach Pop sitting on the bench, looking utterly exhausted, just soaking in the excitement of his players. Tim Duncan and Mana Ginobili enjoying the moment through the eyes of their children. Danny Green running around like a kid in a candy store, manically trying to hug anyone and everyone all at once. Above all else, what stood out was the expression on Kawhi Leonard’s face as the players gathered for trophy ceremony. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it is like to win a championship, all you would have to do is look at Kawhi’s eyes during those moments. They told you, “it’s good.” And his smile reinforced, “it is good.” As Adam Silver (the newly appointed NBA Commissioner) announced Leonard as the recipient of the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award, the combination of unbridled joy and genuine shock was a fascinating snapshot of this entire era of San Antonio Spurs basketball. The humble glow on Kawhi’s face just beamed through as if to say, “wow, this is pretty sweet, I could get used to it.” Hopefully, like his teammate Tim Duncan, who won the same trophy in 1999 (at a similar age to Kawhi) he will in fact get quite used to it. Not only was Kawhi following in the footsteps of Timmy, but for the first time since Paul Pierce in 2008 and for only the fourth time in history (Dennis Johnson in 1979 and Bill Walton in 1977), the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award is going (going) back (back) to Cali. Kawhi is only the fourth native Californian to win the award joining Pierce, Johnson, and Walton. Leonard played remarkably in Game 3-5 of the Finals. He was like a phantom of the future. Game 3: 29 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks. Game 4: 20 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks. Game 5: 22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block. For three games, Kawhi went toe to toe with the best basketball player in the world in LeBron James and for three games, the Spurs’ small forward played the king to at least a draw. Kawhi forced LeBron’s game to suffer a severe case of californication. In fact, you could easily argue that Kawhi’s combination of Bruce Bowen defense and Sean Elliot offense in the final three games of the series was good enough to one up LeBron.
While firmly establishing himself during these Finals as an NBA superstar, Kawhi also has karate kicked the Spurs’ championship window back to wide open for several years to come. As for next year, the young nucleus of Tiago, Danny, Patty, and Kawhi represents a respectable foundation for constructing a playoff contender. Throw in the rejuvenated Boris Diaw, a still-in-his-prime Tony Parker continuing to play at an all-star level, and another year of Manu and Timmy performing at an exceptional level for their age, and there is no reason why San Antonio shouldn’t be right in the mix to defend our title when the 2015 playoff roll around. This sustained run of excellence, that will seemingly continue for several years to come, has exceeded the wildness of my imagination as a young Spurs fan coming of age during the first run to the title in 1999. It is hard to fathom that here we are 16 seasons later and there is no end in sight for the Spurs playing the role of championship contender. What are the chances that your favorite team from childhood would go on to become (hands down) the best team in American professional sports for two straight decades? Not a day goes by that I don’t marvel in the dumb luck of that happening to me. I’m thankful for my Spurs every day.
In this series, the #BlackAndSilver were in pursuit of achieving a human accomplishment that predates the entire history in which our species has enjoyed stewardship of the planet. In this series, the Spurs were in pursuit of achieving something primordial…redemption. It was evident from before the tip-off of the first game. You may have noticed a stark difference between the introduction of the 2014 NBA Finals from the introduction of the 2013 NBA Finals. This year’s finals were not introduced with a laser and fire show as they were the year before in Miami. In San Antonio, the National Anthem was sung, the lineups were introduced, and the players took the court to jump center. It was an old-school feel. So old-school, in fact, the AT&T Center forgot to turn on the air conditioning for Game 1. The blistering playing conditions of Game 1 were emblematic of the fiery focus of a team that would not be deterred from achieving the redemption it had locked its sight on. The focus in our players’ eyes was carnal and that fire burned over the course of the next five games. Without theatrics or showmanship this focused group from humble San Antonio put on their hard hats and worked the glitz and glamour Heatles into dust. Ball don’t lie when the results are irrefutable. The Spurs outscored the Heat by an average of 14 points per game, the largest point differential in NBA Finals history. San Antonio not only chased redemption and captured it in the 2014 NBA Finals, but we inevitably grabbed it so hard that we squeezed the life out of the flamboyant team that we were taking it from.
Indeed, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs were among the greatest championship teams in recent memory. The way that we were able to come together to play dominant team basketball was truly remarkable. This team was better than the 2013 Heat title team. If you could catch Eric Spolstra, Pat Riley, or a member of the team in a moment of candor, I imagine that you could get any of them, to a man, to admit that they were extremely fortunate to be champions in 2013. This year’s Spurs team was also better than the 2012 Heat or the 2011 Mavs. This squad would have destroyed the Kobe-Gasol Lakers. I believe they would be favored over the 2008 Boston Celtics. This current incarnation of the Spurs, while not the defensive behemoth of past title teams, was hands down the best offensive Spurs squad to win a title. And because they were sneakily above average defensively as well, they were arguably the best Spurs title team to-date. The last champion that could make a compelling case to be historically greater is probably the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers. When you factor in the redemption theme, you can, however, make a strong case that this year’s Spurs team was the greatest team to win an NBA championship since the 1998 Chicago Bulls.
Speaking of redemption, while ranking the greatness of past champions is a subjective endeavor, I can say that the similarities that I outlined before these Finals started between the 1989 Detroit Pistons and the 2014 San Antonio Spurs proved to be quite accurate. Both teams lost the Finals in seven games the year before in heart-breaking fashion. Both teams also had the good fortune to get a rematch against the team that had beaten them in the Finals the year before. In 1989, the Detroit Pistons dismantled the Los Angeles Lakers in a decisive four game sweep that ultimately shut the door on the championships that were collected by the Magic Johnson / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / Pat Riley era Lakers. In 2014, the San Antonio Spurs annihilated the Miami Heat and halted the ring count bravado of the LeBron James / Dwyane Wade / Chris Bosh era Heat at not three, not four, not five, not six, but two. Both teams ripped through their respective opponents as if they weren’t even playing the rival who had bested them the year before but were rather playing a game of chess against redemption itself. It takes focus to beat redemption at a game of chess and both teams had it. It also takes an impeccable brain trust. For the 1989 Detroit Pistons, that brain trust was Hall of Fame point guard Isaiah Thomas and legendary Head Coach Chuck Daly. Thomas and Daly, while at the NBA apex for a period of only two years, were nonetheless standard-bearers for basketball excellence during the bridge between Magic’s Lakers and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and his cantankerous partner Head Coach Gregg Popovich are clearly the brain trust of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs. Their run of basketball excellence has sustained over two decades and by taking the 2014 NBA title, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have further solidified their entrenchment as the standard-bearers for consistent brilliance over the last twenty years not only for the NBA, but for all of American professional sports.
This is a public service announcement, brought to you by the good folks at theLeftAhead: Tim Duncan is NOT the greatest power forward of all-time. Is Tim Duncan greater than Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett and on down the list? There is no question about it. But by boxing Timmy into a discussion about power forwards, one is robbing his legacy the opportunity to be held up and compared to other big men…the likes of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, and on down the list. Furthermore, Timmy’s place among the pantheon of great players should not be limited by position at all. Not that Tim Duncan cares about all of the lights, but we need to be discussing how he compares to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant as well. Now that Timmy has been around the block five times, I am of the opinion that he is one of the five greatest basketball players of all-time. The others on my list? Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Magic Johnson. Keep in my mind that I said the greatest basketball players of all-time not the best basketball players of all-time. Best means that one has mastered the art of playing the game of basketball; greatest means that one has mastered the art of winning at the game of basketball’s highest level. So yes, Tim Duncan is one of the five greatest basketball players of all-time. Not only am I of this opinion, but I have the numbers to bare it out.
Now that the ring count is retied, it is extremely difficult for the Kobe apologists to continue to make the case that Kobe is the greatest player in the post-Jordan era. Keep in mind that Kobe won three of his five championship rings as arguably the second best player on the team, in other words as Shaquille O’Neal’s sidekick. While Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and now Kawhi Leonard have all had moments during championship runs where they have asserted themselves as the Spurs number one option, there is no question that for all five championship runs, Tim Duncan was the foundation of the team and for his entire career, he has been the Spurs best player. Tim Duncan is a quintessential winner and with this title he has definitively cemented his status as the greatest NBA basketball player in the post-Jordan era. In fact, based on winning at the highest level, you can argue that Timmy is the second greatest player behind Michael Jordan to lace them up since 1980. Look at how Timmy’s career performance in the NBA Finals stacks up against the other all-time great players of the last 34 years. Only Michael Jordan boasts a better career performance.
Notable NBA Finals Career Performances Since 1980(minimum 27 games)
24-11 in the NBA Finals (.686), 6 championship rings (6-0 in Finals series), 6 Finals MVP’s
23-11 in the NBA Finals (.676), 5 championship rings (5-1 in Finals series), 3 Finals MVP’s
23-14 in the NBA Finals (.621), 5 championship rings (5-2 in Finals series), 2 Finals MVP’s
17-13 in the NBA Finals (.567), 4 championship rings (4-2 in Finals series), 3 Finals MVP’s
16-15 in the NBA Finals (.516), 3 championship rings (3-2 in Finals series), 2 Finals MVP’s
24-27 in the NBA Finals (.471), 5 championship rings (5-4 in Finals series), 3 Finals MVP’s
11-16 in the NBA Finals (.407), 2 championship rings (2-3 in Finals series), 2 Finals MVP’s
This 5th NBA Championship is enormous for something that Tim Duncan insists that he does not spend time thinking about but is constantly on the mind of his biggest fans…his legacy. The appointment Timmy has made to hoist a 5th banner into the rafters of the AT&T Center catapults Duncan, in my opinion, onto the Mount Rushmore of basketball players, supplanting Magic Johnson to take his place next to Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. By leading the Spurs to the 2014 title, the incomparable Tim Duncan aka Time’s Father has left Kobe Bryant and all of his other contemporaries in his dust and ascended to the highest rung for greatness in NBA annals. Timmy now has Russell, Jordan, and Jabbar in his sights and should he capture another title before he retires he will pass by Kareem and spark quite a debate for basketball junkies such as myself because a 6th Duncan ring would invariably make the designation of Greatest Basketball Player of All-Time a three person conversation.
What is likely far more rewarding to Timmy than individual greatness, is being a part of the San Antonio big three. Duncan reveres his teammates and having a pair of them that have been by his side for the majority of this spectacular run is seemingly more rewarding to him than all of the individual hardware he has collected over the years. You need not look any further for evidence of this than Timmy’s interactions with Tony and Manu while celebrating their fourth title together. Duncan couldn’t seem to get enough of being near Tony and Manu and reflecting on what they had accomplished together as comrades, brothers, and friends. And indeed, what the three of them have accomplished together is truly extraordinary…four titles together spanning 12 seasons. Incredible. If the trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili had happened to be put together for an NBA franchise in a major media market, they would be universally revered as the greatest NBA trio of all-time. For arguments sake, lets place them in Boston. Say Rick Pitino and the Celtics had won that 1997 draft lottery after all and drafted Tim Duncan and had also had the good fortune to draft Parker and Ginobili in subsequent years. Boston fans would have forgotten about Larry Bird, Kevin McCale, and Robert Parish because Boston would now have 21 NBA titles instead of 17 with Timmy, Tony, and Manu hauling in more banners than Larry Legend did. The Spurs trio would be regarded as the kings of Boston with the city’s infamous fans lining up arm in arm all along the watchtower on the off chance that they might catch a glimpse or their conquering heroes each time they were ushered inside the castle walls. Boston fans would be like, Pedro who? The pet phrase Big Papi would evoke Bostonians to think of Big Punisher not David Ortiz. I mean, Bobby Orr wouldn’t even be able to get a free ride on a zambony these days in Boston if Tim, Tony, and Manu were currently playing there. In New York? Forget about it. Luckily for me and millions of other small-market Spurs fans, we rarely had to share our adoration of the greatest trio in NBA history with the rest of basketball’s global fan base until recently. As much as we have enjoyed keeping Timmy, Tony, and Manu primarily to ourselves over the last 12 years, it is gratifying to see them finally getting their just do with the larger basketball audience.
The culmination that faithful Spurs fans had been waiting for manifested in the 2014 NBA Finals. For the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, it truly was a beautiful game. The Spurs had shown glimpses of this unstoppable team basketball at times over the past three seasons. During the 20 game winning streak spanning the last ten games of the 2012 regular season and the first ten games of the 2012 playoffs, it was on display. The Spurs reached these heights at times during the 2013 Finals run, albeit too sporadically. It’s almost a footnote in Spurs history now given the heartbreaking way that the 2013 Finals concluded, but the Spurs dismantled the defending champion Miami Heat by 36 points in Game 3 of that series. This season, we had a 19 game winning streak during the regular season during which we looked unbeatable at times. This ascension back to the NBA mountain top seemed unfathomable to most of the experts. After losing Manu Ginobili to injury prior to the 2009 NBA playoffs and then inexplicably bowing out in the first round as the three seed to the sixth seeded Dallas Mavericks in 5 games, a theory emerged that the Spurs were too old to continue to compete for NBA championships. In 2010, we returned the favor to Dallas by upsetting the second seeded Mavericks as the seventh seed but we proceeded to fall apart in the second-round and let one of our other rivals from years past finally got the better of us. The Phoenix Suns exorcised some of their own demons by sweeping the Spurs out of the playoffs in that 2010 Western Conference Semi-Final series. In 2011, the Spurs temporarily quelled some of the “too old” narrative by regaining our mastery of the regular season to enter the 2011 playoffs as the one seed. Once again, however, an injury disrupted Manu Ginobili and the Spurs were embarrassingly eliminated in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies in six games. At this point the “too old” narrative reached its apex right before the Spurs pulled off one of the greatest draft day trades in NBA history to acquire the rights to Kawhi Leonard in exchange for sending beloved Spurs guard George Hill to his hometown Indiana Pacers. Plucking American-born Kawhi Leonard away from the Pacers began one of the most spectacular engineering projects of global collaboration in the history of industrialization that retooled the Spurs into the machine on display during these Finals. Kawhi was soon joined by fellow American Danny Green to create the toughest defensive starting wing-combination in the NBA. With that combination in place to accompany the big three, the Spurs’ front office did what they do better than any other front office in the league and started globe trotting. Boris Diaw was added to the squad to join Tony from France. Tiago Splitter continued to develop his Brazilian game to complement Manu’s South American flare. Patty Mills and Aron Baynes were acquired from Down Under and Marco Belinelli was brought in to add some Italian seasoning to the mix. By the time the 2012 lock out ended and the season was underway, the Spurs had remarkably found a way to put all of the pieces into place to return to seriously contending for NBA championships. It was just a matter of time before the machine became an instrument that was fine-tuned to begin playing the sweet, sweet music of The Beautiful Game.
This June, the time was finally now. Without a doubt, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs were built not bought. In fact, they were purposefully engineered in the global marketplace to outwit the discouraging trend of teams buying the greatest individual talent available in American and betting on the odds that the accumulation of individual talent would overpower the competition. This was the blueprint that the 2012 and 2013 Miami Heat borrowed from the 2008 Boston Celtics to win back-to-back NBA championships. This year, the Spurs obliterated that blueprint by building a global team who’s whole was remarkably greater than the sum of its parts. The engineering of the machine was complete. The machine was a beautiful instrument and that instrument played a song so overpowering that the best basketball player in the world was powerless to silence it. The Beautiful Game performed an overpowering symphony in the 2014 NBA Finals that was so remarkably rewarding to listen to, there is only one possibility for its title. Cinco. As I sit here beaming as one of the luckiest and happiest sports fans of a generation, I know that I should be satisfied. I know I should stop clapping and exit the theater. But against my better judgement, I can’t help but wonder if the San Antonio Spurs have one more encore left for those of us still in the audience continuing our unabashed ovation. There is still one unturned stone, there is still one unaccomplished goal, there is still one dream that we have not yet been able to catch. Back-to-back. So if you need me, I’ll still be here in the audience cheering relentlessly and waiting to see if the band comes back out to give that one elusive encore. If you need me, I’ll still be here in the audience holding my breath waiting to see if The Beautiful Game returns to play the most spectacular symphony of my wildest dreams. Come on, San Antonio. Just one more. Play that back-to-back music to my ears. Let’s go, Spurs. Just one more. Seis.
As I sat on the couch and in that vast empty space, I knew that my emotions would soon engulf me. I rested there, motionless, embracing my catatonia while fully understanding that time is the enemy. My acute awareness of an impending emotional reaction was driven primarily by my experience in April, but also partially by a prior experience with a championship clinching win by the San Antonio Spurs. As I stared blankly at the television, coincidentally on Father’s Day, at this 2014 Spurs’ celebration, I remembered my experience watching Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals and I remembered my dad. The 2005 NBA Finals series between the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs had been a special moment in time for my father and me. Since my childhood, my dad and I had dreamed of an NBA Finals match up between our two favorite teams (Detroit was my dad’s favorite team and San Antonio is obviously my favorite team) and in bitter sweet fashion, our dream came to pass in 2005 at both the best and worst of times.
In August of 2004, my dad was diagnosed with alzheimer’s disease. I was living in Detroit at the time and the Pistons were fresh off of winning the title in resounding fashion by destroying the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. My dad and I had had an ongoing tradition since I was in junior high school to attend the Spurs’ game in San Antonio each year when the Detroit Pistons were in town. With a couple of exceptions due to extenuating circumstances, my dad and I had attended every Detroit Pistons v. San Antonio Spurs game that took place in San Antonio since 1993. After my dad’s diagnosis, he and my mom visited me in Detroit and we were able to take a trip out to the Palace at Auburn Hills (the Detroit Pistons arena) but it was during the NBA off-season so there was not an opportunity to see a Pistons’ home game during their visit. Nonetheless, after I returned to Texas during the holidays, my dad and I attended one last game between the Pistons and the Spurs in San Antonio during the 2004-05 regular season. With both the Pistons and Spurs once again among the top teams in their respective conferences, I remember my dad and I discussed during the game how promising it looked that our dream of Detroit v. San Antonio matchup in the NBA Finals would be realized in June.
When June arrived and that was, amazingly, the 2005 NBA Finals matchup, my dad’s disease had taken root and his mind was too far gone to be fully present with me to share the experience we had been dreaming of for so many years. I watched the Spurs defeat the Pistons in Game 2 with him in my parent’s home on Sunday, June 12, 2005. My dad smiled as he peered at the television during that game. He clearly enjoyed my company but was experiencing the realization of our dream in spirit much more than he was able to experience it cognitively. By the time Game 7 arrived, and the Spurs escaped victorious from a pressure-packed fourth quarter, watching the game alone in my Dallas apartment, I remember I had had a numbness in processing the result. I had occupied a vast, empty space as the Spurs began celebrating the 2005 championship. I remember that I was emotionally exhausted and I was eerily detached from the happiness that comes with a title-clinching victory. After watching the championship ceremony and witnessing Tim Duncan receive his third NBA Finals MVP award, I called my parents on the phone to talk to my dad. He was happy to speak to me. My mom had had the game on in the house for him, but apparently he had not been able to process the results very well. When I told him that my Spurs had just finished playing his Pistons for the NBA Championship, he asked me, “who scored the most touchdowns?” That was the moment the devastatingly cruel reality of Alzheimer’s disease hit home with me. Alone in an apartment in Dallas, I was no longer detached. The space I occupied was no long vast and empty. On the night of Thursday, June 23, 2005, my beloved San Antonio Spurs had just won our third NBA championship and I was alone, balling uncontrollably, engulfed in a perfect storm of agony and ecstasy. The ferocity of the competing emotions made for a piercing experience, one I assumed I was unlikely to experience again.
One of the last things that Brian and I had been making plans to do together was to find a weekend to get together in San Antonio and go to a Spurs game. As the season wore on and we hadn’t pinned down a game we wanted to attend on a weekend that worked with both of our schedules, it seemed that the best plan might be to try to target a playoff game that would fall on a weekend. Then, on April 3 (a few weeks before the start of the playoffs), just like that, Brian was gone. When I decided to write this second edition of the Black & Silver blog series after Brian’s passing, I knew that I wanted to dedicate it to my best friend. After making the commitment to the project, I experienced this calming confidence that permeated from outside of myself and that I associated with Brian’s spirit. Inexplicably, I just knew that the Spurs would prevail this year. Through out the playoff run, I carried his memory with me. The Spurs have allowed me to feel close to him. Since Brian’s passing, I’ve worn a silver rose on a necklace as a memorial to my best friend. The rose is symbolic of a significant moment in our friendship so I have been wearing it around my neck as a tribute to him every day since April 3rd and I will continue to wear it every day for the rest of my life. As these playoffs have unfolded, I’ve regularly clutched the rose on my necklace in tense moments during games. After the Spurs captured the title, as I sat on the couch watching the championship ceremony unfold, the vast empty space persisted and I continued to wait patiently to be engulfed. I knew that the same mixture of emotions that I felt in 2005 were an inevitability. I also knew that there was only one thing that would release me from emptiness and into the endless depths of emotion. There was a song that I needed to hear. Holding on to the rose on my necklace I sat on the couch in my emptiness and watched to post game championship coverage until the last piece of confetti had dropped from the rafters. When the coverage was complete and the lights were turned off in the AT&T Center, embracing the darkness, I switched over from the television to our living room stereo, found the aforementioned song and pressed play. The music crashed down on my soul like a tidal wave and, as anticipated, I was finally engulfed.
We met in seventh grade basketball tryouts. It was 1991 and I guess I was thirteen and he was twelve. Being a naturally gifted athlete, Brian was ahead of me on the depth chart. If my memory serves me, he started the season as the third string point guard on the A team and I started the season as the second string point guard on the B team. For whatever reason, quickly after tryouts had begun, we started pairing up together for drills during practice that required a partner. Maybe it was because we enjoyed each other’s company. Perhaps it was because Brian was very laid back and I lacked steady confidence in my abilities which made us a good match because some of the other point guards on the team were super competitive. I’m sure it was probably a combination of those things. Regardless, I quickly established myself in Brian’s circle of close friends. I think that one of the reasons we ended up becoming best friends is that, while we shared similar interests with our entire group of friends such as sports, video games, clothes, and music, Brian and I seemed to have a special connection when it came to our shared interests in music and basketball. It went beyond simply enjoying the same artists and athletes. For some reason, we both had a passion to interact with the music and sport that we loved, but we always had a blast sharing music and basketball with each other. For over 22 years music and basketball were woven together throughout the majestic quilt that was my most important friendship. From creating our own pretend radio station as eight graders in 1992 to creating Rhime Divine (our own hip hop group) as college sophomores in 1998. From having a blast playing Hoop It Up together in Austin in 1994 to attending Game 1 of the 2003 NBA Finals together at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Music and basketball were omnipresent in my relationship with my best friend. This journey has taught me that they are now vehicles that I can use anytime that I want to feel close to him.
As I announced in the post after the Spurs had gone into the City of Blinding Lights and stormed the castle, the songs that appear in this year’s edition of the Black And Silver blog series originate from a playlist entitled Brian’s Cuts that I created for his memorial party. These were songs that Brian loved. I used them to honor him as I used our team as my muse to do something that he always pushed me to do more of; write. Perhaps the blogging was a coping mechanism. Perhaps it was a distraction. The pain was acute when I began this journey and sitting on the couch in that vast empty space after the journey was complete, I was utterly exhausted. I had nothing left. It has taken me a great deal of time to put these thoughts together. While the thoughts flowed freely during the journey, once it was completed, the well was empty. Now, I am finally beginning the slow process of replenishing it. A great deal has changed since that unforgettable night in June. I now live in Denver, Colorado. LeBron James is once again a Cleveland Cavalier. And the San Antonio Spurs once again have made history by becoming the first franchise in the four major North American professional sports leagues to hire a full-time female assistant coach in Becky Hammon (one of my proudest moments as a Spurs fan). One thing hasn’t changed. I miss my best friend and I think about him every day. I am continuing to use music and basketball as vehicles to feel close to him. As I had come to realize during the journey that was the 2014 San Antonio Spurs’ march to a tithe title, music and basketball are woven together throughout the majestic quilt that was my most important friendship. The two fabrics complimented each other perfectly. Sitting on that couch in that vast empty space back in June, I prepared myself for the inevitable engulfment, found the song I needed to hear and I pressed play. Wish you were here. With every ounce of my being, in that moment, wish you were here. I finally succumbed to the moment and the moment brought me peace. Brian is gone but every time I clutch my rose, I garner strength. I have our music. Every time I play one of our songs, I garner strength. I have our Spurs. Every time I reflect back on the 2014 Spurs march to the title and how close it made me fells to my best fiend, I garner strength. Wish you were here. And wishing it is torture, but through this journey I have established an unbreakable connection with the ways that you are here. Brian, I miss you. I can’t wait to see you again on the other side. Until then, I won’t forget to write.
Editor’s Note:: An excerpt of this post was originally published on July 31, 2014. The excerpt was deleted and replaced with the completed piece on May 2, 2015 but we are choosing to keep the original publication date. The final version of this piece references the hiring of Becky Hammon by the San Antonio Spurs on August 5, 2014. That historic event, however, postdates the represented publication date of the post.
Featured Image Source: NBA.com
Headline Image Source: El Quinto Cuarto