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Four Saṃsāra ​

Written on:April 13, 2019
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All Night – In his late-14th Century poem “Troilus and Criseyde,” Geoffrey Chaucer penned the phrase, “All good things must come to an end.” The poem is about the tragic love story of Troilus and Criseyde and is set against the Siege of Troy as a backdrop. As with every good thing that has come before, one could assume the love affair between the city of San Antonio and winning at the highest level in the NBA has finally come to an end against the backdrop of the Siege of Uncle Dennis. Coming into the 2018-19 season, many of the so-called experts were salivating with delight to make this assumption. There was a healthy trend among the handsomely paid prognosticator lot to pick the San Antonio Spurs to finish 9th, 10th, or even 11th in the Western Conference standings for the 2018-19 season. After all, more than a few of these so-called experts have already been predicting our demise for going on a decade or more now. You might think that year after year of being proven wrong time and time again might humble these so-called experts and perhaps even push them to feel the human emotions that we, the self-aware Homo sapiens, call embarrassment and shame. Unfortunately, should you think this, you’d eventually come to discover that our NBA prognosticator friends are callously devoid of these human emotions. As it turns out, being a so-called NBA expert requires one to suffer from a quite vicious personality disorder: talking-out-of-your-assicissism. Every season, something in the so-called NBA expert’s gut tells him or her that this will be the year that the San Antonio Spurs run of sustained excellence will end and his or her ego implores him or her to make this prediction as loudly and flamboyantly as possible, evidence be damned. Isn’t it funny how we never (ever ever ever) hear an acknowledgment of getting it wrong from the so-called NBA expert when the season ends and the Spurs have qualified for the postseason once again? In fairness, who has time to admit a mistake when you’ve got a busy schedule of cashing your lucrative “expert” checks and polishing your precious talking points so they’re ready to be recycled for the next season. It is a little known fact that in every broadcast journalism program in the country a class is offered called “How to Be an NBA Expert For Dummies 101.” In this class, future prognosticators are taught by their esteemed instructor Jeff Van Lundy (it’s an online class, so yes, JVG teaches it everywhere) to take a lesson from the saying that Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eshenback is credited with penning: even a broken clock is right twice a day. This is surely sound advice for almost every NBA prognostication a future so-called expert will be asked to make during his or her career. Unfortunately for Van Gundy’s students, there is one glaring exception. When it comes to the San Antonio Spurs run of sustained excellence and the so-called experts who cover us, the broken clocks are never right.

If you’re reading this and asking in your head, “But Ted, what about last season? The Spurs were merely first-round fodder for the eventual-champions. How does that count towards sustained excellence?” Of course we all remember when on April 25th of last year, the San Antonio Spurs were eliminated by the “gluttony of more” Golden State Warriors 99-91 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. (The player of the game was LaMarcus Aldridge with a workman’s 30 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists.) I would argue that the defeat came with a huge asterisks. For the first time since the Spurs drafted David Robinson in 1987, a Spurs franchise player put himself ahead of the team. And not only did this player put himself ahead of the team, make no mistake about it, he flat out quit on the team in mid-March. Setting aside for a moment the fact that Kawhi Leonard abandoned the franchise that helped develop him from a raw wing-defending prospect into an NBA superstar, San Antonio still won 47 games and entered the postseason with a roster (on paper) that was equipped to compete for a championship. Keep in mind that Stephen Curry was injured and ruled out for our first-round series against his Warriors. Now pick back up that Kawhi thing. Had the medically-cleared-to-play Leonard possessed the integrity and competitive spirit to set his aside his ego and instead earn his paycheck, the Spurs / Curry-less Warriors first round matchup would’ve been a toss up. Trust me, had Leonard played, there would’ve been a googolplex of Silicon Valley tech geeks sweating through their Kevin Durant Warriors jerseys so profusely, you’d’ve been able to see the purple bleeding through from the Kobe Bryant Lakers t-shirts they wear underneath. (Yes, this is descriptive writing calling out Warriors fans for being bandwagon converted Kobe-era Lakers fans.) The bottom-line? Had even a rusty Leonard chosen to play in the first round matchup with the Curry-less defending champion Warriors, I believe the Spurs win the series in 6. Last season’s inability on the part of the Spurs to overcome being ghosted by Kawhi Leonard and consequently bowing out in the first round to the defending champs in five games is simply a bad luck break. When you field a championship-caliber roster every single damn season, you’re going to have a few of those seasons end because of bad breaks. 2018 was no different than 2009 (when Manu was out for the playoffs due to injury) or 2000 (when Timmy was out for the playoffs due to injury). Sure, in this case, we were dealing with a pampered star who could’ve played and chose not to whereas those other players were stars because they were willing to give their left nut (in Manu’s case, literally) for the opportunity to compete for a championship. But in the end, it’s nearly impossible to legitimately compete for a ring when one of your best players misses the playoffs and effectively, that truth is what sealed our 2018 fate. This, friends, brings me full circle to my original point. SCORE BOARD ALERT: The San Antonio Spurs have been in title contention for over two decades and have booked the following results:

1998: 56 wins, Western Conference Semifinalists

1999: 37 wins, NBA Champions

2000: 53 wins, Western Conference Quarterfinalists

2001: 58 wins, Western Conference Finalists

2002: 58 wins, Western Conference Semifinalists

2003: 60 wins, NBA Champions

2004: 57 wins, Western Conference Semifinalists

2005: 59 wins, NBA Champions

2006: 63 wins, Western Conference Semifinalists

2007: 58 wins, NBA Champions

2008: 56 wins, Western Conference Finalists

2009: 54 wins, Western Conference Quarterfinalists

2010: 50 wins, Western Conference Semifinalists

2011: 61 wins, Western Conference Quarterfinalists

2012: 50 wins, Western Conference Finalists

2013: 58 wins, NBA Finalists

2014: 62 wins, NBA Champions

2015: 55 wins, Western Conference Quarterfinalists

2016: 67 wins, Western Conference Semifinalists

2017: 61 wins, Western Conference Finalists

2018: 47 wins, Western Conference Quarterfinalists

2019: 48 wins, To be determined…

Somehow, we continue to defy Marie von Ebner-Eshenback’s logic (which just so happens to be backed by the scientific laws of physics) that even a broken clock is right twice a day. The so-called NBA experts predict our demise year over year and year over year Coach Pop leads the Spurs back to the playoffs and makes them look foolish. With all deference to the wisdom in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, all good things mustn’t come to an end. One good thing continues to persevere. The Spurs enter the 2019 NBA playoffs with a roster equipped and in position to make another deep postseason run. To tie a bow on this thought, I see the writings of Ebner-Eshenback and Chaucer and raise you the writings of the incomparable Mark Twain. Paraphrasing Twain, reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

* * *

 
Hello, Mr. Leonard. Can I call you Mr. Leonard? I know I used to call you Kawhi. But I used to think we were (Spurs) family. I also used to think you were the Chosen One. I used to believe in you so much, you’re tagged in the Black & Silver blog series more times than Tim Duncan for Pop’s sake. But that was then and this is now. Given what’s transpired, I feel much more comfortable calling you Mr. Leonard, if it’s all the same to you. Oh, and I fully plan to rectify the tagged-more-times-than-Timmy problem before the completion of the 2019 installment.

Think whatever you want about the way the Spurs handled your injury, the bottom line is that you quit on the team. As far as I’m concerned, your choice to abandon your team during the 2018 playoffs is a black mark on your career that will permanently be a part of your legacy. As far as I’m concerned, you can now never earn a place in the history books among the fiercest competitors, best players, or greatest champions. No matter how many accolades you rack or how much adulation is showered upon you moving forward by Raptors fans, or Clippers fans, or Lakers fans, you will always be remembered in my book as Kawhi Leonard: Quitter or Kawhitter for short. I know last time we spoke during the Golden State series, I defended your choice to err on the side of caution with your injury and sit out. What I’ve come to understand is that by late-March of 2018, I was already in the grieving process for coping with your betrayal but at the time of the Golden State series (late-April 2018), I did not know it yet because I was smack dab in the middle of the denial phase.

I always knew that the Big Three era of Spurs basketball would eventually come to an end. But your decision to put yourself ahead of the team sure did have a way of ensuring that the end came with guillotine precision. Four-time Champion Tony Parker: signed to the Charlotte Hornets. Four-time champion Manu Ginobili: retired. God damn, Mr. Leonard. What, did you stop by and egg Tim Duncan’s house on your way out of town too?

There was so much I wanted to say to you after the trade last July. I was filled with so much anger, hurt, confusion over your betrayal I was ready to write a novel about it. Frankly, after reflecting on things for eight months now, I no longer feel you’re worth the energy it would take me to spend 10,000 words excoriating you. Look, we have an NBA regular season of separation now from the divorce. Time and distance really do make a difference. I don’t know if I’ll ever really know your reasons for asking for the divorce and for as long as I live, I know I’ll occasionally circle back to ponder what might have been, what should have been had Zaza Pachulia not wrecklessy ended your 2016-17 season in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals and set into motion this “Back to the Future Part II” alternate reality that has you playing the role of pampered superstar for another NBA franchise instead of continuing to accept the challenge of replacing Tim Duncan as the Black & Silver face of the franchise and raising more banners into the AT&T Center rafters. But time and distance have allowed me to really appreciate the fact that I get to watch DeMar DeRozan every single night. DeMar is one of the most electrifying scorers and playmakers to ever take the court in a Spurs uniform. From an entertainment standpoint, give me DeMar’s silky-smooth 360 spin move to the rack that results in an improbable kick out to a wide-open shooter in the corner over your methodical, deliberate, tunnel-vision turnaround jumper every single day of the week. Of course Demar is not the defensive player that you were for us. I’m okay with that, though, because Derrick White and DeJounte Murray have the potential to be and when both of them finally have the opportunity to take the court together alongside DeMar, Aldridge, and Poeltl I’m happy with our chances to once-again field an elite defensive lineup for the 2019-20 season.

Anyway, I guess that’s it, Mr. Leonard. I don’t want to keep you. I’m sure Uncle Dennis has a New Balance commercial shoot he needs you to bring your personality-less personality and creepy Grandpa laugh to as soon as we wrap up. Oh wait, there he is now pulling back into the parking lot in his new 2020 limited-edition Mercedes Coattails 500. Man, that’s a nice ride. He deserves it, though. He’s put it a lot of long, hard, laborious hours converting you to the Dark Side of the Force. Closure really is a wonderful thing, isn’t it, Mr. Leonard? You see how closure is allowing us to joke again? Look, you’re even smiling. As much as I appreciate your smile…wait, please don’t laugh. Save it for the New Balance commercial. Whew, that was a close call. In all seriousness, Mr. Leonard, thank you for your contribution to the San Antonio Spurs. Thanks for your role in raising that fifth championship banner into the AT&T Center rafters. I wish you nothing but the best of luck with the rest of your career (except against the San Antonio). Please tell Danny we miss him.

* * *

 
Tim Duncan had brief flirtation with the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2000. I remember in my heart at the time, I didn’t think he would leave. Don’t get me wrong, I remember being scared shitless and a nervous wreck for several weeks, but deep down I believed unequivocally in his loyalty to my team and city. The day it was announced he was re-signing with San Antonio, I remember thinking, “there is no longer any doubt that he will be a Spur his entire career.” And, as it turned out, I never once had to go back and question that thought during the final sixteen years of Timmy’s career.

There was a brief 48-hour period during the summer of 2016, when ex-Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown and his Philadelphia 76ers made a strong play to acquire Manu Ginobili with a massive two-year $30 million contract offer, that I was forced to entertain the idea that the most beloved Spur of all-time might not play his entire NBA career for the franchise. I remember not having to dig as deep as I did during Timmy’s 2000 free-agency to find the confidence to believe in Manu’s loyalty. In the end, as I expected, the Spurs ponied up some overdue extra cash to a legend who had been underpaid the previous year (a measly 2.8 million) and re-signed #20 to a one-year $14 million contract putting the uncomfortable contemplation of having to see Manu in another jersey to bed quickly. 48 hours of minimal doubt over the span of a 16-year career ain’t bad. You couldn’t ask for less discomfort.

Of the Spurs legendary “Big Three,” Tony Parker was the only one that forced me to regularly contemplate the idea of him taking the floor at the AT&T Center as a visitor at some point in his career. The “Tony Parker might not re-sign” rumors started as early as 2009. After losing in five games during the first round as the three-seed in the 09 Playoffs to the sixth seeded and rival Dallas Mavericks, Tony Parker started giving quotes about how the Spurs were no longer at a championship-caliber level. For the next three years, rumors swirled on San Antonio’s local sports talk radio about Tony jumping ship. From his initial comments until the unraveling of his marriage to actress Eva Longoria, the specific rumor was that Tony would eventually leave the Spurs to go play with Kobe Bryant out in Los Angeles for another hated-rival, the Lakers. Once he was divorced from Longoria and the Hollywood lifestyle, that rumor slowly faded but Tony continued to talk openly about eventually leaving the Spurs for another NBA club until the Spurs were rebuilt to go on another three-year-long championship hunt from 2012-14. After the Spurs were bounced in the first round of the 2015 playoffs in a hard-fought seven game slugfest of a series with the L.A. Clippers, Tony restarted public contemplation of ending his career for another NBA team and added a new wrinkle. He threw in the possibility of finishing his career playing professionally in his native France for the EuroLeague club he owns, Villeurbanne. Suffice it to say, of the Spurs’ “Big Thee,” Tony Parker is the one who, in regards to his legacy, seemed the least concerned about playing his entire career in Black & Silver.

The announcement on July 7th, 2018 that Tony Parker would sign a two-year $10 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets was not shocking, but it was still surprising and it coupled as utterly gut-wrenching. After 17 seasons at the helm of our ship, it was hard to imagine TP in another uniform. So yes, it was weird when the first photos of TP wearing Purple and Teal surfaced on Twitter. And yes, it was uncomfortable to watch him come off the bench at the Amway Center in Orlando on October 19th, 2018 and lay a goose egg on 0-5 shooting in 16 minutes for the Charlotte Hornets in his first NBA game not playing for San Antonio (he did have six assists, though). And, of course, it was flat-out weird to watch Tony return to the AT&T Center on January 14th to help his Hornets defeat our Spurs 108-93 with eight points and four assists in 19 minutes off the bench. All of this was tough. All of this was weird. But given the history of Tony speaking openly for a decade about the possibility of leaving the Spurs that’s documented above, none of it was shocking.

As we struggled with the weirdness of Tony toiling away as a mentor and role player for a middling squad in the Eastern Conference, thankfully there was closure to be had and it came late in the season in the form of Manu Ginobili’s jersey retirement ceremony. As luck would have it (or perhaps this was intentionally planned), the Spurs play the Hornets in Charlotte the game before Manu’s jersey retirement night. With permission from the Hornets, Tony flew back to San Antonio from Charlotte on the Spurs’ team plane to attend the ceremony. During the game, he was spotted sitting next to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the stands. By the time Tony delivered his hilarious and fitting tribute to Manu during the ceremony, it felt as if he never left. In that moment, not only did I get closure from the weirdness of Tony Parker: Charlotte Hornets Back-Up Point Guard, I realized the deeper context driving the closure. TP’s new identity as a journeyman is a technicality. Tony Parker is a Spur for life.

In thinking about the quintessential Tony Parker moment, I remember too many dagger pull-up jumpers to seal a playoff win to name or count. The one play that seems to stand out was from Game One of the 2013 NBA Finals. Even though we ultimately did not win that series, the play epitomizes the craftiness, fearlessness, resilience, and perseverance that Parker played with throughout his entire 17-year Spurs career. I’m just going to leave the clip of that shot right here and end these reflections by saying, #MerciTony.
 

 

* * *

 
It was about this time of year. I remember feeling hyped for the postseason. We were heading into the playoffs as the three seed but that was of no matter. After all, we had just one the title two years earlier from the very same position as a three seed. I got up on an early-April morning daydreaming about how we were about to be going on a tear back to the NBA Finals (and getting some Western Conference Finals revenge on the Los Angeles Lakers in the process) when I checked my phone only to discover that the top headline in the San Antonio Express-News was that Manu Ginobili would miss the playoffs due to injury. In an instant, right then and there, I knew we would not be making that tear back to the Finals. For all intents and purposes, the season was over. Sure enough, we were upset by the Dallas Mavericks in five games in the first round.

If I could sum up Manu Ginobili in one word, it would be hope. As long as Manu Ginobili was suiting up for the San Antonio Spurs, I had hope that the last game of each season would end with the Black & Silver hoisting a trophy. Only the fiercest of the fierce competitors genuinely illicit hope on that level. The Larry Birds. The Michael Jordans. The Kobe Bryants. Manu Ginobili belongs right alongside these players on the pantheon of the NBA’s greatest competitors. Coach Pop expressed this exact sentiment in a video tribute that was played during Manu’s jersey retirement ceremony on March 28th. No matter what the situation, no matter how big the odds stacked against us, as long as there was time left on the clock and Number 20 was on the court, Spurs fans could always bask in the eternal warmth of hope. There was always a chance because of Manu Ginobili’s competitiveness.

I’ll be honest, I’m feeling overwhelmed trying to write this Ginobili retirement piece and put into words what Manu has meant to me as a life-long Spurs fan. I summed Manu (the player) up in one word: hope. I’ll respectively sum up my experience as a fan watching his entire NBA career in one word as well: joy. The competitiveness, the creativity, the basketball intellect, the relentless will to win; all such a joy to watch night after night, year after year. Reflecting on the fact that I no longer get to watch the most beloved Spur of all-time play basketball doesn’t make me sad. I set out into my reflection thinking that it will but the instant a vision of Manu Euro-stepping through traffic to finish at the rim or Manu throwing a bounce pass to a cutter between his defender’s legs appears in my mind, I become consumed with joy. There’s no way around it. Every memory that I have of Manu playing basketball makes me happy. The way he played the game was so joyous, even in the past-tense there is simply no room for sadness. Every season. Every game. Every moment bring a smile to my face. None so more than this:

 

 

I watched the aforementioned Manu Ginobii retirement ceremony from my hotel room at the Rome Cavalieri. I think there was something poetic and fitting about me getting to watch Number 20 go up into the AT&T Center rafters from Italy, the country Ginobili left (after playing two seasons’s of professional basketball for Basket Viola Reggio Calabria) when he moved to San Antonio, Texas in 2002 to begin his NBA career. It was cool to celebrate the end of Manu’s NBA journey from the place in which it began. I imagine Italy danced through Manu’s mind more than a few times during that ceremony. When reflecting back upon a journey, it’s only natural to think of its origin. The idea that Manu was peering back to Italy that night, peering back to the beginning, and I was able to experience Italy peering forward and back around the globe to reflect with him in San Antonio makes the notion of Manu’s career cyclical and renders beginnings and ends obsolete. In other words, Manu’s career is timeless and to be celebrated as a living, breathing fierce part of the present in perpetuity.

The game started at 1:30 am local time, so by the time the post-game retirement ceremony had concluded, it was almost time for the sun to rise over Rome. I figured Alba di Roma was something worth putting off a little extra sleep in order to experience so I decided to stay awake for it. I waited out on the terrace of my hotel room and watched as the colors slowly started rising from the silhouettes of the mountains behind the city. Out on that terrace, I watched the sun rise in all of its newness and spectacular beauty with my mind still on Manu and his career. I thought about the timelessness of Manu Ginobili the basketball player and how I will continue to experience his career body of work it in all of its newness and spectacular beauty for as long as I breathe (and probably beyond).

Revisiting that terrace in Rome as I write these words todays brings me comfort and relieves me of the burden of feeling overwhelmed in writing this piece. I have forever to get my thoughts down on paper regarding Manu Ginboili’s retirement and what his career meant to me and since all good things mustn’t come to an end and the Spurs will continue making the playoffs forever, I’ll have endless opportunities to revise these thoughts as part of the Black & Silver blog series. That being the case, let me end with this: #GraciasManu. It was an absolute privilege to watch you play basketball for my San Antonio Spurs de principio a fin.‬

 

 

* * *

 
Alotta the so-called experts predicted the #BlackAndSilver to miss the playoffs. They never learn. The irony? Even if the “experts’ pooled their money, bought the team, got rid of the current roster and made themselves the replacements, so long as Coach Pop is still manning the bench, he would still drag them to the playoffs. As I’m putting the finishing touches on this, one of the most important Black & Silver posts to-date, the San Antonio Spurs are preparing for Game 1 of our first round matchup for the 2019 NBA Playoffs, our NBA record-tying 22nd consecutive appearance in the postseason. More on that tomorrow. For now, it’s clear that a lot of things have changed in San Antonio since I wrote One Nirvana 355 days ago. A lot has changed but one thing remains the same. The San Antonio Spurs are in the playoffs and (broken clocks beware) are a threat to win the title. Much like the sunrise or the brilliance of Manu Ginobili’s career, the sustained excellence of the San Antonio Spurs is eternal. We’ve merely experiencing a Black & Silver: Reincarnation. All good things mustn’t come to an end. Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

#GoSpursGo


Video Source: NBA on YouTube

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