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For Pop

By Jeff Koch on June 26, 2014.

Spurs in 5.

That was my initial prognosis for the 2014 Finals. I didn’t share it because a) I believe firmly in jinxes, and; b) my prediction was based off of nothing but intuition and a glance at the calendar. Sure, I believed the Spurs were the better team and would win the series. But five games felt ambitious, even for this most ambitious of Spurs fans.

No, I chose Spurs in 5 from one look at the calendar. Game 5 was on Father’s Day.

* * *

On May 21, 2013, I received a phone call from my stepmom. “You might need to come home; your Father is in the hospital.” Two nights later I was sitting by his bedside with my brother and his 3 kids, the family summoned home in emergency.

As the diagnosis miraculously turned from ‘he might not make it’ to ‘he may spend the rest of his life in hospice care’ to ‘he can go home on Sunday’, the Spurs were battling in the Conference Finals against Memphis, a miracle run of sorts after being swept out of the Conference Finals a year prior by the Thunder. Yet here they were again, miraculously, on the precipice of another Finals.

The week spent in Iowa was a blur. The Spurs were up 2-0 when I left, and were headed to the Finals when I returned home. I remember going on runs in the thunderstorm with my brother, games with my nieces, movies with my stepsister and nephew, lots of food, a Midwestern comfort like no other. I remember the hospital, seeing my dad as fragile as I’ve ever seen him.

And I remember those two games in Memphis. Following the games on my phone as best I could, finding an ESPN stream to follow, living and dying by a blurry image on a small screen. It was small solace in trying times. But sports are a comfort food all their own, and the Spurs are no ordinary team: they’re family. Family rallies around each other in trying times.

I flew home on May 28th, my dad miraculously (truly, his recovery was astonishing) returned to his home and the Spurs miraculously returned to the Finals. Seven games later the season ended in heartbreak for San Antonio and their fans; but my dad was still alive, still a voice of love, reason, support, and humor in my life. Family rallies around each other in trying times.

* * *

On Christmas Eve I flew home to spend the holidays with my dad. There were hints and intimations that this could be his last Christmas, that his health wasn’t coming around the way they had hoped. My dad never said this out loud, perhaps out of pride or denial. But the truth was there. Again, my brother and I were summoned home, perhaps for one final visit, to say good-bye. Either way, I was looking at two quality weeks with the people I love most in this world.

My father passed away while I was in the air, somewhere between Denver, CO, and Cedar Rapids, IA.

He went peacefully. He fell asleep sometime in the night and never woke up. He felt no pain; he went on his terms. His mind was sharp until the end, his heart as big as always. His body simply failed him.

I sat with his body in the room where he went. I held his hand, I cried, I said good-bye. I felt his presence as strongly as I ever had, and I knew he was in a better place.

The next two weeks passed in a heartbeat and stretched into eternity. People came and went, bringing condolences, kind words, and food. Somewhere in there we celebrated two holidays and attended one funeral. We found comfort in each other and whatever else we could: crying, laughing, stories, food, music, movies, games.

And for me, the San Antonio Spurs.

Family rallies around each other in trying times, and the Spurs are family. Distraught each day, I eagerly anticipated the nights there were games to distract me for a few hours when the house went silent yet sleep would not come. I remember that annoying loss to the Rockets on Christmas night, the redemption against Dallas the following evening. I remember killing Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve and then losing our first game to a sub-.500 team two nights later against the Knicks, the players looking how I felt: flat and lifeless. I remember destroying the Clippers the next game, a game of such domination that perhaps previewed the first glimpses of where this season could head.

I sunk myself into the Spurs, even more than usual, the one thing I could truly cheer for in time utterly lacking in cheer.

* * *

I came home in early January and returned to normal life. We find comfort in routine because it makes the pain seem less real, a memory from a different life. I went about my days as if little had happened.

At night, though, I poured myself into this Spurs’ season. Sports are ultimately frivolous endeavors, meaning nothing. But anybody who has latched themselves on to a team for an extended portion of their life knows that it means everything. They become family, and family rallies around each other in trying times. This was the best possible cure for my grief: 3-5 games of distraction a week, always something to watch, to write, or to read. More importantly, always something to inspire, to enliven, and to give comfort.

A funny thing happened somewhere in there, as Winter turned into Spring and the playoffs approached. Everything started to come together in a really special way, and we all began to see it: this team had a real chance.

* * *

There was a game played last Sunday, Father’s Day. There are moments I’ll never forget from that game. That Manu dunk. Kawhi’s ascension. The exquisite teamwork, five players moving as one. A beautiful game beautifully played. But the enduring images of Game 5 all happened afterwards. The year that began with such heartache culminated in redemption, the anger and the sadness and the hard work finally erupted into joy, the glorious end of a long journey.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, both new fathers this post-season, celebrated another championship with their new family members. Fathers and children.

Tim Duncan embraced his two young children on the court moments after the victory, in tears. Duncan lost his own father over a decade ago, and now gets his fifth championship, but his first that both kids will remember. Fathers and children.

Kawhi Leonard, on the podium afterwards, let fly a primal yell, raising his eyes to the heavens. Few know what goes on in his head and his heart, but surely his father was there with him on that podium. Fathers and children.

And Pop. Never has a name so befit a coach, the patriarch of this team. You could see how badly the players wanted to win this title for their coach and father figure, to help ease the pain of last year’s ignominy. And how much he wanted it for them. My favorite moment of the entire season was Pop sitting alone at the end of the bench as the crowd was going crazy, soaking it all in, yet taking a moment of solitude, a sliver of silence in the frenzy. Then he put his head down in both of his hands, overcome by the magnitude of it all for just a moment before composing himself and joining his team.

Pop reminds me of my father in so many ways. The gruff and sardonic facade of misanthropy concealing what is surely the truest and biggest heart around. The brilliant mind and the persistent integrity. Leaders of men, heads of family. My dad was a Lutheran Minister, but the most important aspect of his profession was leading and inspiring his congregation, a voice to guide them, a shoulder to support them, a friend to counsel them. He had a gift for connecting with people, for bringing out their best qualities, allowing their lights to shine brightly. He was a calm hand at the wheel, guiding forever forward.

As Pop sat their on that bench, surrounded by his team, his organization, and his city–his family, his children–stealing just a small moment for himself, I sat there with him. I celebrated, I mourned; I smiled, and I cried. I processed the whole last year and what this title meant to me, a lone fan so far away.

And I thought of my dad. Fathers and children.

* * *

Karl Divine-Koch was no sports fan. We did not share a love for any team, let alone the Spurs. This victory would only mean something to him in that it means so much to me. That’s kind of the point of being a father, though, isn’t it?

But for however much I’m a writer, it’s because of him. He was a voracious reader and a skilled writer and orator. He was a lover of words and precise with his language. I was inspired by him constantly, sitting in pews on Sundays listening to the sermons he had composed in his office the week prior. I longed for understanding and expression the same way he found it and gave it to so many.

When my passion for the Spurs grew beyond simple fandom, I once again longed to understand it and express it in a way that would make sense of it and give it even more power. So I started writing about it. My passion grew, my love crystalized. The Spurs worked their way into my heart and became family through all the thousands of words I’ve written about them over so many years, words provided to me by my father’s love and inspiration. The Spurs are family because I am my father’s son.

So when they won their 5th title, I celebrated like family, for family. They were there for me so many times over the last 6 months, a family when I needed one; I would be there for them, a family when they deserved one. Family rallies around each other in trying times, but also in the best of times. Grief is made tolerable by the comfort of family; joy is made sweeter by the love of family.

Spurs in 5. I saw the Finals schedule and just knew it would end on Father’s Day. This  family’s final redemption for their Pop. One last gift for so many deserving dads. And maybe–just maybe–my father’s last gift for me.

Go Spurs Go.

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