You Can Never Go Home Again, But You Can Go Back to the Finals
(Authors note: I chose this title before reading Stephen’s excellent post from earlier in the week.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I never thought this team would get back to the Finals.
After 2007, each following year saw us move a bit further away from elite. In 2008 we ran out of gas against LA in the Conference Finals (I still think if not for that plane mishap in New Orleans, we steal Game 1 and possibly the series and then beat a Boston team still figuring it out in the Finals); over the following two years, we flamed out even earlier, and it looked for all the world like Duncan was finally slowing down, losing several steps and no longer the force he once was on either side of the ball. At this point, I thought our time amongst the upper echelon was over, though we’d still have several fun seasons to look forward to in Duncan’s twilight.
Then, miraculously, in 2011, we were suddenly the best team in the league during the regular season. But a freak Manu injury and a tough Memphis team featuring a career-peak Zach Randolph ruined another season. That was heartbreaking. Then we came back the next year, did the same thing (hell, we looked even better), made it back to the Conference Finals on the back of a 20-game win streak…and then lost 4 in a row to a younger, more athletic Thunder team that figured us out and swept us aside. It looked for all the world like the Western Conference belonged to them for the next decade. Again, I wrote off any thought of returning to the Finals.
And this was particularly hard for me because my devotion to this team is inversely related to the Title runs. I sort of haphazardly fell into being a Spurs fan in 1999 from a confluence of random events. And hey, they won the title. That’s a fun team to root for. Duncan and Robinson and Pop are great characters, this team will be easy to cheer on. But I wasn’t a huge basketball fan yet. Then the Lakers seized control of the Conference, and I went about my life. In 2003 I watched some playoff games when I could, watched much of the Finals, and was very happy “my” team had won again. In 2004 I witnessed .04, but wasn’t nearly as crushed by it as I might’ve been today.
In 2005, my obsession was starting to take hold, and I watched nearly every game of the playoffs and every game of that Finals, with long, late-night walks after those devastating defeats. I literally ran out the door after Game 7, running up and down the streets in celebration. I was crushed in 2006, as many of us were, and probably had my first brush with the full Manu experience after he made that huge 3 then fouled Dirk. By 2007, I was watching many regular season games, devouring as much content online as I could, and never missed a game I could actually watch on National TV. I saw us win our 4th title, and I beamed like the proud, irrationally obsessive fan I was.
In the following seasons, I was hooked completely. I got NBA League Pass, I watched every second of every game. Spurs Dynasty put a call out for writers, and I thought, “hey, I love writing, and I love the Spurs, this makes sense.” I learned more about basketball than I thought I could ever know, having never really played. I learned more about the Spurs than the me of 10 years prior would have ever imagined. They became family to me, and I began welcoming the new members, realizing my obsession was probably a life-long one at this point.
But the Finals trips dried up. As my passion grew stronger, the second seasons grew shorter.
I wanted to write about the Finals. More, I wanted to watch a Finals emphatically, passionately, devotedly. I wanted to devour each game with the knowledge of my team that can only come from seeing every second of the season, knowing how their offense runs, what the defense is trying to do, appreciating the elegance of Pop’s plays, seeing why Duncan is the best leader and player of his generation.
I just wanted one more run as the Spurs fan I am today. But I had written off that possibility.
I spent Memorial Day weekend back home in Iowa, my father’s sudden illness summoning me home. I got the call on Wednesday; Thursday afternoon I was on a plane. For several days, we were unsure of his fate. He might not make it. He might spend the rest of his life in hospice care if he did. The family gathered around his bedside, and being surrounded by all of this unconditional love and tough love rallied something deep within him, the immutable human spirit that can never be defeated. By Sunday afternoon, he was back home, an almost impossibly miraculous scenario just a week prior.
I was in the hospital as Game 3 tipped off Saturday night, swapping old stories as 3 generations of our family’s men sat around my dad’s bedside. I checked the score intermittently, fearing the worst as the team fell behind 18, but simply believing they would rally. I was able to watch the 4th quarter and OT on my phone in my old bed at home. Even on that tiny screen, the full essence of Duncan as a basketball player and as a man shone through during that OT period.
As Game 4 tipped on Monday evening, I was in the living room watching “Captain America” on Netflix with my stepsister, stepmother, and my dad. There is nothing remarkable about a Monday evening spent watching a superhero movie with your family, but just the fact that my father was sitting there, in his old worn out chair, was a miracle. Sometimes the best moments of life are spent on random Monday evenings, in silence, watching a good movie you’ve already seen.
I kept tabs on the game throughout, annoyed that the Spurs never seemed able to pull away from this pesky Grizzlies team. With a minute or so left, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I watched the last minute on that same phone screen.
And like that, my wish had come true. The Spurs were back in the Finals. I was back in the Finals.
People love to debate the importance of sports in our lives. One could make a convincing argument that having a cherished family member so close to death would put my love for the Spurs in proper perspective. And it did, in all the cliche ways one might imagine.
But the Spurs were also a wonderful salve over the emotionally draining weekend, a place of refuge, inspiration, and joy. And really, this is sports at its best. For many of us, it’s nothing more than geography, being born at a certain time in a certain place; for others, it’s adoring a certain superstar; for some like me, it’s just random luck, a week spent in San Antonio (where your best friend had just moved) at the same moment you’re starting to take an interest in basketball and, oh yeah, the team just drafted one of the 10 greatest players ever. Whatever the reason, teams become like family, fans–sharing the same passion–become like family, and contrary to the joke, we’re not rooting just for laundry; we’re rooting for blood, for kin.
By Tuesday morning, as I prepared for my flight back to Portland, my father was in the kitchen making coffee and my Spurs were headed back to the Finals. Both unimagined, both miracles in their respective rights, both bringing me immense joy. I’ll cherish each moment with my father a little more, knowing how fragile life is, how uncertain our time is. Everything has changed; everything is always changing. “Home” won’t be what it used to, but it will be even more special. And I’ll cherish these Finals above all others, knowing the dedication and work, the long journey this team has put in to get back here, 6 years after the last, 14 years after the first. These Finals won’t be anything like 1999, 2003, 2005, or 2007; they’ll be even sweeter, they’ll mean even more.
Family is family.
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