Coping with Loss: Chekhov's Take on the Spurs

Posted on Wed 13 June 2012 in Uncategorized by Alex Dewey

Most of this week, we'll be ceding the floor to our resident Dewey and allowing him to examine NBA storylines through the vise of the first piece in the series, Chekhov's Compassionate Comedy of the NBA. In today's Part III, Alex will examine the complex and Chekhovian narratives surrounding the exit of his favorite team, the San Antonio Spurs.

It's time to deal with the Spurs. It's Chekhov Week here, and I think now is the time to plumb the Western Conference Finals for Chekhov's compassionate, biting comedy -- comedy that brews like an oil well right beneath the surface of the blog. It's a take as hot as the sun and we've been waiting for our emotions to cool down a bit.

Anyway, let's recap: The San Antonio Spurs have had the smartest, most effective players in the league for a decade. They have had the best coach, the best franchise player, the best management, the best scouting, and the best system for a decade and a half -- all of this despite limited financial resources. The Spurs dynasty in the Tim Duncan era has been nothing short of amazing. And, like all great things in life, everything hinged on a couple strokes of luck and a group of people that took full advantage of their luck, with the players and staff bringing to the table clockwork consistency and organizational excellence. This is the Spurs as a franchise, minus a few crucial instances when their key players and their role players took their play yet another step up to take basketball excellence into basketball transcendence seemingly through sheer force of will.

• • •

And recently, in the past few years, the Spurs have managed something more: They've completely reinvented everything about their basketball, and nearly as much about their personnel, without sacrificing a drop of their tremendous success. The Spurs have changed up their fundamental approach to basketball, moving from largely defensive squads with some great offensive players to offensively-dominant teams with some great defensive players. For those who understand basketball, the change is about as stark as any in the sport. One day they woke up successful but needing total change just to stave off stagnation, and, about a thousand days later, they woke up having made that change with as much success. A total tour de force: They solved a fundamental problem while simultaneously insulating themselves from most of the secondary problems that seem to inevitably arise with such fundamental solutions. The Spurs had (in ecologist Wendell Berry's terms) solved for pattern successfully. And, as this post-season dawned, the reputation had finally caught up to the reality and the Spurs had established their offensive brilliance undeniably, culminating in a dominant 20-game winning streak.

It felt like learning, just to watch. And maybe we really did learn something, after all of that. All signs -- save for some inauspicious 12-minute sandbagging borne of supreme confidence now and again -- seemed to speak with one voice: that they were probably going to get yet another title. This postseason, to continue the auspicious trend, many of the Spurs' other contenders fell to injury or the mires of lesser vision.

So, as the Spurs' greatness reached its zenith in a massive Game 3 comeback against the Clippers, thoughts moved to their biggest remaining concern: The Oklahoma City Thunder. In the Thunder you have a team that literally and figuratively came out of nowhere over the last few years. But, of course, the Thunder was not a team to tread lightly on: in about half a decade the team had gone from a troubled, owner-neglected (albeit fan-beloved) franchise in Seattle whose better days had passed to a team that was instantaneously on the Spurs' level as a similar model of organization, team culture, personnel, and intelligence. Not by coincidence, many of the Thunder's key personnel actually had come through the Spurs in the early stages of their dynasty, most notably Thunder GM Sam Presti.

And so it went that with these two teams and the values they organizationally represented, only one glaring difference (besides athleticism) presented itself. Yes, that's right: the Thunder organization was built in the fresh ashes of a great and legendary crime of sports fresh in everyone's minds for which their current owner was primarily responsible. Great twist, right? I won't rehash the whole Sonicsgate ordeal (and I'm deliberately excising the word "steal" from this piece), but for posterity, the relocation to Oklahoma City by the ownership group was one of those things that almost no one is defending, but that plenty of people are explaining, if you get what I'm saying.

The movement of the Seattle SuperSonics franchise to the fine city of OKC certainly wasn't uniformly negative (after all, relocation from one fine fan base to another is kind of a zero-sum interaction). But the whole sordid affiar of relocation raised so many ugly economic, social, and ethical questions about the provincial nature of sports (especially of the NBA) in a sometimes-capitalist society where, oh, by the way, you can ask for your host city's taxpayers to build you an arena and successfully carry out a threat to leave if not. The rent-seeking alone... Anyway, my lasting impression of the move is of a cosmic dollop of unfairness that is indefensible if you have even the slightest inclination towards class, sentiment, and the fan experience. The subject is still sore with swaths of fans, and rightfully so. But just to summarize: The Thunder were built on a legendary crime of sports.

On with the series: the Spurs held their home court for two games with characteristic dominance, and the Thunder appeared to be a team of the future, for now. After two games (one close but with a comeback, the second one anything but close), the Spurs looked to have a strong case for one final extension of their great dynasty, an extension that in one stroke would have validated not only all of their organizational virtues but their ability to turn these organizational virtues into an era-defining, historically-untouchable team, something that had yet eluded them. People have the remarkable ability to misunderstand the greatness right in front of them when they have any sort of way to avoid it, and only Jordan-level pathology is enough to finally and permanently break the public's will. The Spurs had never quite been as unsubtle as Jordan or his Bulls. But this season, the Spurs had finally reached the cusp of that kind of greatness.

But instead they lost in six to the Thunder.

Here's the comedy: The narratives of sports tend to be constructed precisely on differences in process being responsible for differences in outcome. So we focus on the differences between the teams and ignore the similiarties as memory fades. As noted, the similarities between the teams are so immense and numerous they're practically defining in scope. Both teams possess uncanny levels of intelligence and effort and luck and success. That's basically the whole franchise right there, no? The fact that these two franchises are meeting is an incredible story by itself, considering the ultimate rarity of such teams in the history of the league. By all rights, this should be the only story, with the victors celebrated for taking advantage of their opportunity in their own unique way and the losers celebrated for setting themselves on the right path to glory and giving a good go of it. But because the two teams have this key difference of a massive sports crime and little else, their areas of greatness precisely cancel each other out in the logic of sports and the main takeaway, the main difference that fans may get from all of this is simply that athleticism and relocating teams in the sketchiest possible way can end up winning out, and that good management and luck for a few years can completely cancel out the horrible karma and cosmic unfairness of something to the extent of the sordid Sonicsgate affair.

So there it is: From the most virtuous premise imaginable (with one wrinkle) comes the most sordid, butchered takeaway imaginable, that one ugly wrinkle subsuming the whole face. It's madness, but we also recognize that it's our madness: this is how competitive logic has to function. The logic of sports demands that when two identical twins fight to the death, the one that survives must have had something extra, and not just the benefit of luck. Sample size an issue? Okay, give them seven fights to the death - first to four wins. You don't look at your opponent as fundamentally similar to yourself when they beat you by a tenth of a second in the 100-meter dash. No, you look at the things that differentiate the two of you, because something had to account for that perfect quaver on the margin, even if you end up blaming the wind.

That Sonicsgate is at the heart of the narrative in the Thunder's victory over the Spurs won't be how GMs see it going into next season (one would hope!), but that may be the ultimate takeaway for many fans, just as the ultimate takeaway of the 2007 Suns-Spurs series was another act of apparent cosmic wrongness as the outcome-determining event (the Horry hip check; iconic albeit a billion times less wrong than Sonicsgate), that time on the Spurs' end. So there it is: we sit down to tell the story and the first thing we have to explain is how the victorious heroes started out in Seattle. And altogether that's high comedy, even though I'm not exactly laughing about it -- Chekhov might be.

• • •

This legitimizing of a terrible sports crime might be the narrative takeaway of sports logic, and it has some appeal, anyway. Plenty of Spurs fans and Sonics fans still licking their wounds could surely be forgiven for tapping into that well for a long while. But then maybe when that long while is over, we can look again and realize that for us, this is all an elaborate, merciful rationalization to explain how a team of destiny was fairly taken from us - without such mercy - by another team of destiny. After all, we have to live with this loss without letting it define our experience as a fan. We have to grieve without becoming the object of grief. Chekhov's settings are littered with remarkable characters forever held back by their grieving fixation on some unfortunate part of reality. But we're different, friends. We can and will find a way to move on. We have that power. So let's start over with the narrative. Let's flip the script.

First and foremost, we fans (not just of the Spurs, but of basketball in general) have imprinted on us memories of a wonderful season by the Spurs, filled almost without exception with brilliant basketball. I once described the Spurs' renaissance to a friend at one point as "better than fiction." And I meant it. The Spurs rolled through every opponent, testifying to the heights of which team basketball is capable. The quotes about the Russell Celtics and the '78 Blazers and the '86 Celtics and the Showtime Lakers seemed totally applicable to a team right before our eyes. It was truly amazing stuff.

Then fifty days were up, the 20-game streak ended, and four consecutive losses later, the season abruptly ended, disastrously. In the Thunder series, the Spurs played their hardest and they might've even been the better team over the course of the series. But even as the Spurs under-performed from transcendent to excellent, the Thunder certainly took advantage and over-performed from excellent to transcendent (and if Game 1 of the Finals is any indication, they're still on that plateau). To their credit, Oklahoma City figured out some facsimile of the Spurs' system on offense, including, yes, that pin-down play of legend and nightmare. The Thunder - thanks in great measure to Thabo Sefolosha's tenacity and to Kevin Durant's development as a defensive wing - found a way to stifle the Spurs offense just enough to outscore them with their own great offense. I turned the broadcast off when they interviewed Clay Bennett after Game 6, not because I'm biased, but because it's simply not his victory and I simply couldn't acknowledge otherwise. And I couldn't stomach seeing that guy's face.

And that's the end of it, the whole story of the Spurs' rise and collapse, without fixations or narratives. It's not exactly how I feel about it, but it's as close to the truth as I'm going to get as a fan. Feel better? Me neither. I really wish they'd won. But it's a start.

And so we turn from misery to coping. The takeaway. Remembering without having to experience, learning without having to dwell. Here's mine: Besides the great basketball, the Spurs showed us in long-form how you make an about-face in your direction as an organization over several years without losing face or admitting defeat, by mixing the proven and the unproven in a slurry of potency and intelligence, relentlessly culling and thoughtfully tending, every day, every detail. That's worth remembering, and, along with the unique players that made up that slurry and the coach, it's a lot of what I'll remember.

And that's about it. While I'd love to say that what you get from something like this loss is what you've decided to take from your experience with the team, I just don't know if that's true: After all, I was there. I know what I saw. I appreciated every moment, really. And as for the Spurs: They held no illusions or hubris about who they were and so had none to lose. No one got any lessons out of the Spurs' defeat and no one gained or lost any validation to anyone that was paying attention. It was just an jolting, arbitrary absurdity that unpleasantly ended an otherwise pleasant couple of months.