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All We Can Do Is Smile Back

By Michael Erler on May 17, 2008.

Second Round Game 6 Vs. New Orleans: Spurs 99, Hornets 80 (3-3)

The frustrating, thrilling, maddening thing about sports is how, in an instant, one play changes everything that happened before and everything that will happen next. One unexpected, unpredictable, unscripted moment and suddenly all the storylines and perceptions differ and all your opinions and ideas have to be rethought, reconsidered.

One play, an innocent enough looking offensive foul ordinarily, committed with 10:11 to go in a rout, drastically altered the way everyone thought about the previous 37:49 of Game Six and even more importantly, how they’ll view Game Seven. What made this foul noteworthy when it otherwise wouldn’t have been was who committed it, whose body part he committed it against, and what the stakes were.

After all, there are literally thousands of hard fouls given during an NBA season.

99% of the time, no one gives a shit.

However, every so often a foul gets people’s attention. The broadcasters’ voices rise an octave or two. The media’s ears perk up. Old storylines are discarded and new ones are hastily written, in time for the morning paper and the 11:00 p.m. SportsCenter. Opinions change. Perceptions change. Futures change. Cheers turn into tears. Heroes become goats and vice versa. One measly foul changes millions of lives ands costs millions of dollars.

If you don’t think a single slap on the wrist or nudge on the hip can change the way the whole world looks and thinks about you, ask Manu Ginobili about it.

Better yet, ask Robert Horry.

These are two of the most clutch players in NBA history. Yet both of them will forever be remembered, unfairly, for a single stupid foul they committed. Manu’s wasn’t flagrant, but it changed the outcome of a series and could’ve very well cost his team a championship. Horry’s foul was flagrant, and while it didn’t cost his team a ring, (some would argue that it actually bolstered their chances) it cost him his reputation from an individual standpoint and even more importantly forever altered the way casual fans would view the Spurs franchise.

I admit I was looking ahead to Game Seven. Who wasn’t? I didn’t really consider the possibility that the Spurs would lose Game Six. They had too much pride, too much history, and contrary to popular opinion, too much talent to go down meekly at home. But for 37 minutes I was visualizing Game Seven one way and then for the final 11 minutes (and the two days afterward) I’ve thought about it another way, thanks once again, to Robert Horry.

What should’ve been the prevailing image of Game Six.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

By now everyone knows the story. Horry set a back pick on David West, the oft-grumpy Hornets power forward with the pinched nerve in his lower back, and even though Horry appeared to make contact more with West’s posterior than his back, the Xavier man crumpled into the ground in a heap, yelling in agony. Some of the crowd at the AT&T Center – notoriously among the quietest and most fickle fans in the league – chanted Horry’s name afterward.

Not our proudest moment as Spurs fans.
(Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

I think it’s important – vitally so – to separate the actions of the man from the reaction of the fans. Cheering any player’s injury, even West’s, is an unforgivable sin. I know West has been a prick all series. I know he’s taken a lot of cheap shots at Fab. Still, that’s no excuse. You just don’t taunt a man who’s hurt. That’s bush league stuff. It’s another example of why the Spurs themselves are a far better team than most of their fans deserve. Just look at the message boards. After Manu’s Game Seven foul on the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki in ’06, many of their so-called “fans” were calling for his head and demanding he be traded, just one year after he was a postseason hero for the Spurs. This year, after the team was slumping in mid-season, many fans were clamoring for a midseason trade for thug Ron Artest of the Kings, the quintessential example of a guy the Spurs organization is not about. Check out the ’08 free agency thread and you’ll see many posters wishing for the Nuggets’ J.R. Smith, another knucklehead. Maybe most damning of all, last year the Spurs didn’t sell out Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, a sign that their supporters had grown complacent with the team’s success and that perhaps the Jazz weren’t a sexy enough opponent for them to root against.

I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me. As a blogger I know more than most that the Spurs have many passionate, quality fans. They just don’t have as many as they deserve, as the Game Six audience proved again. This is why it’s ultimately fitting that a Game Seven triumph, if it is to be, comes on the road. Thanks to these fans, with a little help from Horry, the Spurs are the bad guys again, the villains. No one wants anything to do with them. The guys deserve to do this alone. They need to do it alone. I hope they do it on the road not just this round but the next two as well. They need to be gladiators.

I’ve been thinking about the movie “Gladiator” ever since Game Six ended. It’s probably my second favorite sports movie, after “Field of Dreams,” and no matter what anyone tells you, it was a sports movie. Gladiators were the first real visiting athletes, after all. They walked into the Roman Coliseum with thousands of bloodthirsty strangers cheering for them to die, often as violently and grotesquely as possible. People would wager on their lives and even if these courageous warriors were successful in mortal combat, against tremendous odds, if their fights wasn’t thrilling enough for the emperor, he could still have them put to death, without the chance to fight. It wasn’t enough to win, they had to win over the crowd as well.

I got your “Woo!” right here.

We know by now that the Spurs will never win over the masses. No Duncan rejection will ever be emphatic enough, no Parker foray to the basket acrobatic enough, no Ginobili pass daring enough. The Spurs will always be despised for what they’re not – high-flying, chest-thumping, trash-talking, alley-ooping Americans – rather than praised for what they are: socially unembarrassing, intelligent, cohesive, willful champions. They wouldn’t dare shout, moc
kingly, “Are you not entertained?” to a road crowd, not only because their humility prevents them from doing such a thing but because the Nielsen numbers have proven that even neutral casual fans don’t enjoy their performances, no matter how dominant or clinical.

Even more daunting for the Spurs is the history of teams that fall into an 0-2 hole in the playoffs in general and their own history in particular. The franchise has never won in that situation. They’ve never won when down 3-2. They’ve never won a road Game Seven. The last time the Spurs were involved in a series where the home team won the first six games was eighteen years ago, The Admiral’s rookie campaign in ’89-’90, coincidentally enough in the second round, against the Portland Trail Blazers. The games in Portland were all relatively close. The games in San Antonio, in the old HemisFair Arena, were all blowouts. The Spurs had a 97-90 lead with under two minutes to go in Game Seven but Portland came back and won in double overtime, 108-105. They would go on to make the Finals, where they lost in five games to the Detroit Pistons, a team that managed to do what the Spurs thus far haven’t – repeat.

It was my first season as a Spurs fan.

So now the Big Three Era Spurs face their biggest challenge to date, a road Game Seven where everyone – EVERYONE – will be pulling against them. Not only will their fans be demanding Horry’s dismemberment, but probably Bowen’s and Duncan’s and Manu’s as well. The media, the TV people and the league will be against them because the Spurs don’t sell. Right after Game Six, some hack tried to goad Ginobili into commenting on Horry’s new reputation as “Cheap Shot Bob,” alluding to last year’s hip check against the Suns’ Steve Nash. Because the Spurs are a team in every sense of the word, Manu quickly came to Robert’s defense and offered his rebuttal.

“I think he [Horry] changed more seasons making shots than hitting people,” Ginobili said, before adding, “I don’t think what he did had anything to do with last year’s series. He just pushed Steve [Nash] out of the court, but the problem was their players leaving the [bench]. He made a hard foul last year but [the suspensions] were their fault.”

Clutch and a winner, even with the media.
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Sanity at last. Blame Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for reacting the way they did. Blame Commissioner David Stern for strictly enforcing the rules and suspending them. Blame everyone involved in the “Malice at the Palace” in 2005 or that Nuggets/Knicks brawl in the Madison Square Garden last season, if you like, for forcing Stern to take such drastic measures. But don’t blame Horry and the Spurs. They just play basketball.

Hopefully not the last time we see The Real Big Three laughing it up this year.
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

There’s no need to guess which direction Emperor Stern’s thumb would point were he able to decide the fate of this series. The potential match-up between MVP Kobe Bryant and the man who probably deserved the honor, Chris Paul, would be compelling theater indeed. One dunks the ball, the other creates dunks for others. The Spurs won’t be playing five-on-five or even five-on-eight on Monday, as most fans fear. It’ll be five against the basketball watching world, the ultimate challenge for a team full of gladiators.

Just as we know that all men die, we know that one day the Spurs run will end. It could be next season when some team gets the better of them. Or it could be next month at Boston or even two weeks from now at Los Angeles. Eventually, it’s going to happen. Our guys will reunite with their long lost wives and loved ones, if not on a celestial field of wheat, then at least on a palatial resort in the Bahamas.

But in the words of Djimon Hounsou’s character, Juba, “Not yet.”

Not yet.

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  1. Anonymous May 18, 2008

    Great writing again, Michael. I was terrified that when you mentioned Gladiator as the second best sports movie, you were referring the Cuba Gooding boxing disaster and not the epic blockbuster. Fortunately, you’re right on!

    SiMA from PtR

  2. Anonymous May 18, 2008

    agreed, excellent post man.

    m&g via PtR

  3. Amrit Anand May 18, 2008

    As a Laker fan,I’ll prolly be derided as a bandwagoner or a shallow,narcissitic prick like much of the Laker fan base is on messageboards.But I’ve been following PTR for a long time(circa Matt’s breakup and his sabbatical,Aaron’s bartending etc etc).So a long time lurker here.And hats off man,one of the better posts I’ve read.We would much prefer CP3 than Timbot.Which is an indicator of the respect we have for you guys.Here’s to an exhausting Game 7.Cheers mate.

  4. Benjamin May 19, 2008

    So, was Horry’s move a cheap shot or not? Was it dirty or not?

    In his entire basketball career, I agree, Horry should be remembered for his clutch shots and strong playoff performances rather than dirty plays. However, when he consistently used physical intimidation to hurt the players on other teams, I have felt the need to reevaluate my opinion of Horry and that of the Spurs franchise generally.

    I’m looking at the Spurs from an outsider’s perspective. I’m a pure basketball fan and appreciate the clinical efficiency, heart, and competitiveness of the Spurs. But, I still see a franchise that appears to tacitly endorse some of the ugliest, dirtiest tactics in the NBA.

    We’ve got Duncan’s consummate whining, something lost in the personal history with Duncan and Joey Crawford throwing Duncan out of the game last year.

    We’ve got Manu’s flopping, something I’d prefer not to see in sports at all, but that appears to belong in soccer and not in basketball.

    And then we’ve got Big Shot Rob who claims he didn’t know West’s back was hurt. I don’t believe that for a second. Pop prepares the team too well for that to not be true. Every decent coach seeks to exploit physical weaknesses and make his team aware of the injuries suffered by the opposing team.

    While Horry was willing to become the pariah, I believe that Pop and the Spurs made a play specifically aimed at injuring the player with the most important impact on the series with you guys, David West. Pop is such a totalitarian coach that it’s hard to believe that anything goes down without his say so. You only ever get to screw up one play, regardless of how much you’re ahead, before the taskmaster calls a timeout.

    I appreciate physical, playoff basketball. But, you don’t try to seriously hurt another player, ever. It taints the game.

    I appreciate that you don’t let the fans off for chanting Horry after he hurt someone. As far as I’m concerned, all of those tasteless fans, like the ones cheering “cancer” in Utah at Fisher can all go to hell.

    Sports should be about transcendence and heroism, as a means of sublimation of our competitive and destructive instincts, not a genocide, victory at all costs against our opponents.

    As a franchise, I find the Spurs to be dangerous close to slipping toward winning at any cost.

    And just in case you don’t think I appreciate a lot about Robert Horry, think again. I’m a Laker fan.

  5. Sax Mann May 19, 2008

    well said, well said….

  6. Anonymous May 19, 2008

    imho, i don’t think horry tried to injure west.. perhaps he was just sending a message.. if the spurs wanted to injure west they could have tried it earlier in the game.

  7. Ninja Elliott May 19, 2008

    Thank you for calling out our terrible fans. I understand that there are many knowledgeable, classy Spurs fans out there, but I’m starting to think they are a minority.

    As a Cowboys fan, I know I’ll never forgive the folks in Philly for cheering as Michael Irvin lay motionless on the field with a career ending neck injury. I was horrified to hear the Spurs fans chanting Horry’s name as David West writhed on the court. Though I’m baffled that ordinarily reasonable basketball fans continue to argue that it was a dirty play, the fans’ reaction makes it much more difficult to defend.

    The home crowd’s behavior is just another indication of the massive amount of clueless bandwagoners who call themselves Spurs fans. We should have seen this coming when they started piping in ancient rock music DURING PLAYS and nobody complained.

    Hopefully this won’t taint a huge road victory in Game 7!

  8. Sam Scorup May 19, 2008

    Michael, thanks again for more great writing. You have a way of encapsulating many a Spurs fan’s feelings in a way most couldn’t put into words. As far as finishing off every (potential) series on the road, I don’t think it really matters. But the SAS are a tough team, a team capable of winning on the road.


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