Monday, June 16, 2014

Tim Duncan’s swan song

Without a doubt the greatest reward of the Spurs winning the NBA championship is that, with all the accolades and praise being heaped on Tim Duncan, maybe more people look at him and are inspired by what I and others admire deeply: a hard worker, a humble talent, a terrific basketball player, and a dedicated teammate; someone worthy of emulation.

When the Spurs won the NBA Finals by taking game 5, it felt twice as nice, because we weren’t just celebrating 2014. We were also celebrating 2013.

“We were a few seconds away from winning the championship and we let it go. ... We were in a great spot. We just gave them another chance and it hurts because it’s one of those moments where you’re going to be thinking about what we could have done better in the last few possessions, so many times, all night long, all tomorrow, until the next game. It’s terrible.” –Manu Ginobili

After 2013’s game 7 loss, Manu wasn’t sure if he would be with the team again. Retirement at the ripe age (by basketball standards) of 35 looked like a real possibility. Then, this:

Given his lengthy history of injuries and erratic performance in the playoffs, Ginobili wasn’t sure whether the Spurs wanted him back after last season’s performance. It took Spurs general manager RC Buford less than six minutes July 1 when the market opened to tell Ginobili that he was wanted and needed.

“That’s all I wanted to hear,” said Ginobili, who signed a two-year, $14.5 million deal. “After the finals, (I wanted to know and) understand they really wanted me back. Once I heard that, I said, ‘OK.’”

The Spurs’ last three championships have come after heartbreak. The 2005 title was preceded by the Spurs’ 2004 postseason effectively ending on a miracle Derek Fisher shot that my friend, who is a Lakers fan, and I still argue about. A year before the 2007 title, Manu fouled Dirk Nowitzki on a layup, sending game 7 into overtime, which they lost. Finally, before 2014 culminated, the Spurs gave up a 5-point lead with 28 seconds left in game 6 to the Heat, lost in overtime, then lost game 7. “Five-point lead” and “point-four seconds” are curse words in San Antonio because of the dark places Spurs fans went to to deal with losing so spectacularly.

Caleb J. Saen explains the catharsis:

I have been fortunate to see a lot of big playoff games in the last six seasons. I was in the arena for the insane Gary Neal shot against Memphis in 2011. I was there for Manu Ginobili’s game-sealing three in double overtime last season. I got to witness Danny Green’s explosion during last year’s Finals and was part of a cheering crowd as Manu Ginobili pushed through Game 5 to give the Spurs a 3-2 lead heading to Miami. None of those experiences compared to the sound of last night’s game. It was deafening. At one point, my friend Jacob leaned over to tell me something, and I couldn’t hear a thing. I felt like Tom Hanks in the opening of Saving Private Ryan, ears ringing as the roaring chaos of a thousand screams beat against my ears. It was pure, raw energy, coursing through rows and rows of fans, exchanging knowing glances, shouting with abandon. I finally heard what Jacob was saying. He was telling me, “release.” That was it. That’s what we were hearing. Thousands of broken hearts being mended, the pain of last year’s Finals replaced with the living memory of a title. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel that again.

The 2014 championship is bittersweet for me. Sweet because championships validate a fan’s investment over the years. Bitter because I fear I may have just watched Tim Duncan, my idol since I was 17, play his last game. Part of me doesn’t want it to be over. But another part of me knows that championships are hard to get, and this is the best way for it to end.

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