Spurs of the Moment
They are successful, visionary, and humble. If only we could say the same for our presidential candidates.
The political season, most of us would probably agree, has been disheartening. After a Republican presidential primary filled with incivility and misinformation, we now know that Donald Trump will be the party’s nominee. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a dispiriting prospect; I’ve been sick of Trump’s vicious histrionics for months. On January 14, in fact, I faced a choice. The Republican candidates were set to debate in South Carolina, which was soon to hold an important primary. But that same night, the San Antonio Spurs played LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. As a journalist who specializes in Texas politics, I figured I should watch the debate, but as a lifelong Spurs fan—and, really, as an American—I wanted to watch the game instead. In the end, the choice was an easy one. Debate viewers would have heard more put-downs and trash talk than at an average NBA game and more depressing pronouncements about the country’s being in decline and not winning anymore. No one would ever say that about the Spurs. That night’s game was a close, hard-fought contest, but the Spurs prevailed, as they usually do.
The Spurs may, in fact, be the most fundamentally sound institution in the country at this time. That remains the case even after their loss to Oklahoma City in the second round of the NBA playoffs this week. They had the finest regular season in team history, winning 67 games and losing just 15. In most years, the Spurs would have been the best team in the NBA—except this season saw the concurrent success of the Golden State Warriors, who followed their 2015 championship by breaking the league record for wins, with 73.
The Spurs exited the playoffs earlier than many fans and experts predicted, but they will likely remain contenders next season, seeking their sixth title since joining the NBA, in 1976. Only three other teams in the league have won more. To make the “race for seis” even more notable, the Spurs’ five titles have all come since 1999, when Gregg Popovich coached a squad led then by the august David Robinson and the young power forward Tim Duncan to its first ring.
A lot has changed since that first trophy, in 1999, across the nation and the state. The latter, for one, has grown to include some 27 million people, 7 million of whom have never lived in a state without a legendarily good basketball team playing in a strikingly unassuming way, in a strikingly unassuming city. The Spurs may not be the most exciting basketball team, and they have never been the most dramatic, popular, or visible group, even here in Texas. But they are, without question, the best franchise in the NBA, if not American professional sports: the most successful, the most consistent, and the most admirable.
One trait that makes the Spurs unique is the duration of their excellence. It’s almost unheard of for a professional team to remain a title contender for seventeen consecutive years. The other standout NBA teams of the recent past—Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, James’s collection of mercenaries in Miami—have all slipped back into mediocrity or, in the Lakers’ case, the cellar. This is normal enough. Success in sports is cyclical. Stars age and decline or get hurt; teams eventually make bad trades or draft bad players—all seemingly except the Spurs, who quietly, even stoically, just keep winning.
It’s possible that Duncan, who turned forty in April and has spent his entire professional career with the Spurs, will retire this offseason. Guard Manu Ginobili is said to be considering the same decision. Pop had once been expected to coach the team only until Duncan’s retirement but indicated last year, when the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge to a four-year deal, that he intended to stay with the Spurs through the duration of that contract, meaning that he would leave the team prepared for Aldridge and forward Kawhi Leonard to lead the next chapter.
There’s good reason to think that the team’s future, thus equipped, will remain bright. Leonard was an obscure and untested rookie back in 2011, drafted fifteenth overall that year by Indiana. The Spurs’ offer to trade the popular guard George Hill as part of the deal for Leonard was considered risky at the time; several years later, it has come to seem characteristically prescient. The same could be said of the team’s effort last year to bring Aldridge, a onetime star at Seagoville High School, in Dallas, and the University of Texas, back to the Lone Star State. After nine seasons with the Portland Trailblazers, Aldridge was an established star, and an expensive one: to free up funds for his salary, Duncan took a pay cut. Those efforts reflect an approach to management that might be better described as stewardship. And the same vision can be seen all down the Spurs roster; the team includes players like Patty Mills, the first indigenous Australian to ever win an NBA championship, and Boris Diaw, once a standout in the French professional league who had become a forgotten man in Charlotte until the Spurs scooped him up in 2012 after he was waived by the Bobcats.
Yet despite being Texas’s all-time greatest professional sports team—tell me why I’m wrong, Cowboys fans—the Spurs retain the modest, down-to-earth, hardworking ethos of chronic underdogs, or perhaps a community bowling league. They just quietly go about their business, even eschewing media attention. Some years ago,Texas Monthly’s Brian Sweany, now the editor in chief, managed to score an interview with Duncan and thus captured one of the best players in league history in what might be considered, by either man’s standards, a display of wretched excess: having met Sweany for lunch at Chili’s, Duncan ordered two chicken sandwiches, accompanied by two glasses of pink lemonade.
Since then, however, we have been rebuffed. In 2014 my colleague Michael Hall was politely denied by the team’s public relations specialists after sending a letter proposing a proper feature story on how the Spurs became the best franchise in American professional sports: “It’s not our style to talk about our own success.”
The team’s aversion to publicity presents a somewhat awkward predicament for those of us who are, as it happens, both journalists and Spurs fans. In my professional capacity, I think it would be fair to diagnose the team’s position on this matter as ultimately untenable: if the Spurs aren’t comfortable receiving praise or credit, they should have thought of that before they decided to be such a comprehensively good team for the better part of my lifetime. At the same time, it would be rude of me to ignore their preferences after all the Spurs have done for me. I had just finished kindergarten when my dad was assigned to Randolph Air Force Base; San Antonio was the fifth place we’d lived in those five years and the first city where a professional sports team was so integral to the community that even a child could recognize it. Only in retrospect did I realize that the team I would come to love during the next several years was a team that deserved it, having earned its fans not merely by its success but by its winsome virtue.
I won’t praise the Spurs, then, if they’d prefer not to be praised, but I am a little hard-pressed to come up with a reason to fault them. I suppose it could be said that they aren’t guaranteed to win any given game and that they’ve occasionally gone years without winning a championship. Some of their losses, in fact, have been painful. All Spurs fans remember game six of the 2013 finals, when the team, less than a minute from another title, squandered a five-point lead with 28 seconds to play and lost in overtime. It technically wasn’t until game seven that the Miami Heat won the championship, but it was the end of game six that cast everyone into despair and would prompt Pop to confess, some months later, that he had spent the summer in a “lugubrious” state of mind. But then, in true Spurs fashion, they came back and won the title the very next year.
Perhaps the more telling loss came in 2015, when the Spurs were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers. It was a tough series and ended with the Spurs’ getting edged by the barest of margins, 111–109, in the seventh and deciding game. At a bar in East Austin, a group of friends spent several moments in stunned silence, until one ventured that it was, perhaps, for the best: the anxiety had been overwhelming. I heard myself, through a fog, disagreeing: of all the things that elicit concern in life, the Spurs are, in my experience, the most worthwhile.
In retrospect, that sounds overly churlish, and so I should probably clarify what I meant. There are plenty of people I worry for, pray for, and lose sleep over, and all of them deserve my concern, but I don’t particularly imagine that my efforts on their behalf are of much use. The Spurs, meanwhile, take care of one another and the team’s business. In a league once characterized by flamboyant behavior—and frequent misbehavior—the Spurs go to work, year after year, and acquit my adopted home city, and my adopted home state, with a level of commitment and dignity we should aspire to emulate.
That is, I think, what makes the team so great. As a Spurs fan, I’m not exactly bored of winning, but it’s possible to be sanguine about loss. Regardless of the outcome of any given game or season, I know the fundamentals are strong. The Spurs’ success isn’t contingent on the physical health of a single superstar. It’s due to the team’s well-diversified bench, its humble and hardworking approach, and its genuine commitment to a common purpose. At a time when our politics brims with boastful, ill-tempered incompetence, the Spurs are an example to us all.