My father has loved basketball ever since he was a kid. During the 1980s, his two favourite teams were the Lakers and the Celtics. Magic Johnson is still his favourite Laker, and he still firmly believes that Larry Bird is the best small forward to ever play the game.
My earliest memories of basketball are the Jordan years. There was something special about him. It wasn’t just about the clutch shooting, the suffocating defence, or the ability to completely ignore the laws of physics for yet another impossible dunk or hand-changing lay up, it was about the way he uplifted an entire franchise. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before him, Jordan put an entire city on his back and made them believers.
But basketball is a team sport. As great as Magic Johnson was, he didn’t win those championships alone. The Showtime Lakers won those championships, and they did it with phenomenal passing and an offence that you had to see to believe. There are very few things in the world as beautiful as watching the 1980s Laker burst out of their half with Magic Johnson handling the ball. I didn’t watch those games live (I’m too young), but I’ve watched tape of those games so many times. Likewise, Larry Bird’s Celtics were a team. Their team defence was renowned, and their three great big men (Bird, Parish, and McHale) were a front court that has arguably yet to be surpassed.
What stuck in my mind about Jordan’s Bulls was the absolute intensity with which they played. Jordan refused to lose, and he refused to let his teammates play at anything less than their best. There is an entire class of Hall of Famers who never won a ring because the Bulls were there to break the hearts year after year. The Bulls didn’t just beat teams – they demoralised them, leaving them burnt out, ruined shells of themselves. Just ask Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz.
After Jordan retired for the second time, I remember feeling lost. My favourite player had retired. But there were other players that I liked. I’d always been a big fan of David Robinson. Part of that was his nickname. Everyone called him “the Admiral” and that was what first got me interested since my father was a marine and my granduncle was a commodore.
David Robinson was very easy to cheer for. He was extremely athletic and skilled, but he was also articulate, well-mannered, and humble. He was exactly the kind of player that you wanted to do well. The only problem with David Robinson, however, was that he could never quite get over the hump and win a championship. Some people said he wasn’t nasty enough. Others said that he was a choker. I prefer to believe that the Spurs were one piece short of being good enough.
And then they got Tim Duncan.
My father always impressed upon me the importance of the fundamentals in basketball, and Tim Duncan was as fundamental as it got. He came into the league with all the moves that a big man could possibly want. He could bank the ball off the glass, nail shots off the elbow, and he was an absolute monster in the post. But his impact wasn’t just on the offensive end. He was – and remains – one of the best defenders in the NBA. His ability to read passes before they happen and anticipate the flow of an attack is exceptional. Lots of big men appear good defensively because of their athleticism. What has allowed Tim Duncan to remain an excellent rim protector and defensive player even after his knee troubles is his ability to couple his physical size and length with unmatched basketball IQ.
Tim Duncan led the Spurs to their first championship, and I almost cried along with David Robinson during the celebrations. Timmy would go on to lead the Spurs to three more championships (they won in 99, 2003, 2005, and 2007). Those early teams were characterised by two things: exceptional selflessness and stifling defence.
When Duncan arrived, Robinson could very easily have been offended and defensive. Instead, he saw the future of the Spurs in Timmy, and he set about teaching the younger man everything he knew. As good as Timmy is, I think he owes a lot to the Admiral. Robinson spent countless hours facing off against Tim and helping Tim hone his defence and his post moves. Robinson gave Timmy everything he had, and Timmy repaid him with championships.
But everyone gets old. Robinson slowed down and eventually retired, and for a few years Timmy had to carry the Spurs on his back. That 2003 championship run remains one of the most astonishing in the history of the NBA. Timmy had very little help that year, but he dragged the Spurs to their second championship while putting up some monster numbers.
But with the descent of Robinson came the rise of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Both arrived as relatively unknown overseas players, but both have made their mark. There are few point guards in the league who can finish at the rim and penetrate into the paint the way that Parker can. And even after all these years, I still have a hard time believing half the stuff that Ginobili does. I swear, I can go from wanting to stab Ginobili to wanting to throw him a parade in about thirty seconds.
But after the title in 2007, things took a turn for the worse. The Spurs continued to be good – they’ve never missed the playoffs during the Duncan era – but they were never quite able to get there. Dallas, Memphis, and Oklahoma all threatened to sweep aside the dynasty from San Antonio.
And then 2013 happened. Tim Duncan led the Spurs to yet another Finals appearance. They took a 3-2 lead against Miami and all seemed well until the last minute of Game 6 when everything fell apart.
I’ll admit that I was scared after the loss last year, scared because I know that chances like that don’t come around often, and every year that passes means that the Big Three are one year older. Tim Duncan is no longer a young man. Ginobili no longer has a full head of hair. 2013 felt almost like the ending of an era.
But the Spurs didn’t break. When a team loses like they did last year, they can either fall apart or come back stronger. The Spurs did the latter. This year, the Spurs unleashed what I consider to be the most beautiful offences that I’ve ever seen.
Every man in the Spurs offence this year knew what to do. The passes were swift, precise, and designed to carve open defences. The Spurs passed up on good shots to create great shots. They used ball movement and movement without the ball to leave defences wrong-footed and confused. If the Spurs of the late 1990s and early 2000s were a defensive juggernaut that relied too much on Tim Duncan to carry the offence, the Spurs of this year were a whirlwind of surgical passing and brilliant offensive execution.
This year’s Spurs also had a phenomenal bench. If you don’t believe me, look up how the Spurs’ bench stacked up to the benches of its opponents in the playoffs. It was a blood bath. If you still don’t believe me, watch the series against Portland, Oklahoma, and Miami where the Foreign Legion (San Antonio’s bench) left a trail of corpses in their wake. The Big Three can no longer carry the Spurs the way they used to, but they don’t have to. Not anymore.
What I love most about these Spurs is how they’ve taken players and made them better. Kawhi Leonard came to the Spurs a raw talent. They turned him into a Finals MVP. Danny Green was on his way out of the league, but at the Spurs he became a key 3 and D specialist. Boris Diaw was washed up only a few years ago, but he was instrumental in dismantling Oklahoma and Miami. Tiago Splitter has proven himself to be a superb defender with the Spurs, shutting down first Dirk Nowitzki and then Marcus Aldridge. And let’s not forget Patty Mills (go Patty!). The plucky, little Aussie came back this season fitter than ever before and Popovic rewarded him with more playing time and a bigger role. Mills responded beautifully, becoming a key component of the bench and showing the kind of shooting touch that let him top the 2012 Olympics in scoring. Even Marco Belinelli found a new home at the Spurs, becoming yet another contributor off the bench.
This year’s Spurs embody everything that I love about basketball. They play as a team and for each other. When someone does well, they all cheer for him. When someone is struggling, they all rush to help out. They are unselfish, moving the ball and always looking for an assist to set up an easy basket rather than trying to play hero ball. They are humble, never trash talking but instead preferring to let their play do the talking. They play defence, hustling for every ball, pressuring every single possession. They are a deep team, with every man contributing and knowing what he has to do.
In an era when the league seems more and more driven by individuals and superstars in search of glory, the Spurs are a throwback to the days when the team came first. They are a reminder that a great team is more than just the sum of its parts. A great team is like a great watch – every piece fits together perfectly and performs its own specific purpose perfectly, and the result is something beautiful.