The Mercy Rule

Hearing the Spurs

By David Roth


Photo via Flickr user Keith Allison

The story of my parents’ lives can be read, or at least inferred, through their record collection. There is a long period of album purchases that suggests they were pretty fun to spend time with during their college years and immediately afterward. There's rock, preppy folk, and a lot of very good jazz records; a few edge right up to Nixon-era avant-garde, without ever crossing into the sort of Pharaoh Sanders zone that would imply a prolonged and serious dalliance with hallucinogens. Then the collection peters off abruptly right around the time of my birth. Some Springsteen albums were purchased after that, and a great deal of Handel and Bach and other things that well-educated adults of their generation played in order to get their kids to stop screaming for one goddamn minute, please.

And then my sister is born, and it's just over, virtually nothing for a decade. Later, there's a series of strange impulse buys and NPR recommendations—a long and unbroken line of A Country Christmas Anthology Vol. VIII’s and Lucinda Williams records. It isn't that they stopped being interested in interesting things, I don't think, and it isn't that they gave up, although keeping two neurotic kids in Umbros and orthodontia presumably cramped their style somewhat. I think, looking back at the story those records tell, that it might have been something as simple as things just starting to sound different to them, their ears tuning themselves to different, more parental frequencies. Their taste didn't evaporate so much as it aged. And this is fine. That is what I tell myself, at least, when confronting the fact that I have come not just to admire but enjoy the San Antonio Spurs and the way they play basketball.

There has always been plenty to admire about the Spurs, who have spent the last decade and a half as one of the NBA’s best teams—they've won four championships during that time—and also one of the league’s quietest and, frankly, dullest. Their future Hall of Fame forward, Tim Duncan, is known for his deadly midrange bank shot and ceaseless silent imploring of refs; he is as exciting to watch as unbuttered toast is to eat. There is also a crazily quick but faintly bat-like French point guard Tony Parker and mercurial, balding Argentine wing Manu Ginobili and a rotating crew of supporting professionals that brings significantly more to the table in terms of defensive rotations and savvy on-court decision making than they do in terms of personality. Their coach, Gregg Popovich is an impatient, sarcastic, supremely brilliant tactician who looks like a grouchy lieutenant demanding Michael Madsen's badge and gun in a shitty Showtime thriller—he refuses to deal with the media as most other coaches do and once gave an interview in which he only said four words. If the team never quite evinced the ulcerous Patrick Bateman-ian seethe of the New England Patriots, the Patriots still seem a reasonable enough comparison: the Spurs are also just as relentlessly efficient and effective, and as colorful and stylish as miles and miles of khaki extending into the distance.

It was natural, almost reflexive, to loathe them at their apex, and to resent the way in which they took this wild, expressive game, turned it into an especially virtuosic exercise in cubicle-bound Minesweeper, and won. The core players from the 2002–03 championship season are still there, all older without actually seeming at all old (or maybe they were old back then too), and the Spurs are still playing the same style of basketball at a similarly high level. They move the ball until an open shot emerges, never panic, play great team defense and have a seemingly never-ending supply of productive players they pick from the NBA trash heap and the lower ends of the draft. It's can be frustrating, if you have a partisan inclination toward a particular franchise, because the Spurs are almost certainly a better basketball team than the one you care about. But mostly it's just annoyingly dry, all this lockstep excellence. Yes, they're tight, smart, fearsomely close to perfect for dauntingly long stretches of time. But there's no life in it; imagine a very good wedding band playing your favorite songs, note-perfect, poker-faced, and be-cummerbunded, for hours on end. The music is objectively very good, but you simply can't dance to it.

That was how I used to view them. But the Spurs have become a team I no longer merely grudgingly appreciate, but actually, actively like. It's fun to watch them work, to recognize the patterns as they pull them from the game's basic state of ordered chaos; it's bracing to see the shapes and plays they make from and for each other. In San Antonio's series against the Golden State Warriors, this year's resident playoff upstart and a team that plays whirling, gunning, unconscious basketball—albeit with an itchily blessed-out Fellowship of Christian Athletes vibe—I've had the strange experience of feeling not just the usual grouchy awe but actual delight in the Spurs' perfect unity of conception and execution. I want them to win. It seems like they deserve it. My ear is retuning itself; I can finally hear something other than “ugh” watching San Antonio play, which is cool except how it parallels suddenly finding a Rod Stewart Sings the Standards record soulful and great.

But it has happened, I am on the Spurs' wavelength. Their version of basketball is suddenly not just dignified to me but actually graceful, humble, and kind of elegant. In their last playoff series, the Spurs dispatched the Warriors without trouble in six games. The younger team gunned and surged and flubbed manically while the Spurs simply moved the ball around until opportunities opened up, then took adavantage of them. They weren’t made up of flailing but talented parts, they were a single elegant whole. It's fun to watch, it really is. The shock of it is finally hearing that hook for the first time.

@david_j_roth

Previously: Leave Derrick Rose Alone

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