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Are You Pop Enough?

May 25, 2012


The San Antonio Spurs, by way of their own choice or our neglect, have always been difficult not necessarily to appreciate but to love. I differentiate between these two terms because, after all, what is every San Antonio Spurs article other than a lament about how they are always underappreciated, overlooked, or devoid of style, which in essence means that they are actually appreciated, or at least respected. However, in merely respecting a team formalities abound and politeness chains the narrative to a collection of cliches: Tim Duncan is eternally fundamental, just one of the guys--always--and his coach and teammates love him dearly for it, but never the fans.


And, perhaps in the relationship between Popovich and Duncan is where much of the discomfort with the San Antonio Spurs begins. The relationship between a coach and his players, like all relationships where one party is the elder, boils down to a figurative representation between parent and child, father and son, mother and daughter, and the relationships between most NBA superstars and their coaches (as well as ownership) unfold like four-year old tantrums in the checkout line of the supermarket. Kobe Bryant pouts until he is given the right toys for a supporting cast, or Dwight Howard cries on command when he needs extra attention. NBA franchises, their owners, their GMs, and their coaches often treat basketball players as spoiled brats and then act surprised when players meet their expectations--the same can be said of many parents--but the San Antonio Spurs have never quite done so with Tim Duncan. And a large part of that difference is Gregg Popovich.

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, Chris Ballard describes Popovich, usually viewed as a cold dictator, as a man who "tears up" when describing how he and Tim Duncan's relationship began. Ballard goes on to describe their relationship with diction usually reserved for marriages: Popovich and Duncan are "committed" to one another as "'soul mates.'" These two men are not the first of their game to share such sentiments. The relationship between Dean Smith and Michael Jordan often comes off as that of a husband and wife, albeit the marriage would parallel that of Hugh Hefner and one of his many buxom blonds, but Dean Smith was Jordan's college coach, not his professional sage. In the world that Popovich and Duncan inhabit, Duncan should pitch a fit every time Popovich derides him in public or says, no, put that back where you found it, but he doesn't. Rather than stomp his feet and scream, Duncan suckles every criticism for every drop of milk it has to offer, which leaves most watching the Spurs with a different sense of awkwardness than what we are accustomed to. Instead of looking away from the classic image of a young child in revolt, we are forced into taking offense at a franchise so close knit it breast feeds in public.

Basketball fans (as is much of the American public) are made uncomfortable by a form of love that is so full of devotion most of us find it incomprehensible, and while we keep waiting for Popovich's players to ween themselves off his teat, they continue to suckle, never aging, never rebelling, never moving on as the rest of the League's superstars reside in a state of constant flux (see Shaq, KG, LeBron, etc). Also, not only do the Tim Duncans, Manu Ginobilis, and Tony Parkers of the world not ever leave the parents' bed, but they keep making room for others to join them. The list of those who have served as members of their supporting cast continues to grow like a family that is paradoxically reckless and steadfast. At the bosom of Gregg Popovich, a clutch player like George Hill is dispensable because Pop's love will make a Gary Neal or a Danny Green into reliable NBA commodities, or look no further than the prodigal experience of Stephen Jackson, a player who has lived as a renegade everywhere except for his time swaddled in silver and black.

The image of Popovich as a nurturing mother is somewhat jarring. His face is always stern and grizzled, and his nickname suggests that he is a father figure out of the 1950's, making the idea of him as a living, breathing Notre Dame almost impossible to fathom, but what also makes this concept difficult to grasp is that buying into this notion spotlights the consequences of good coaching beyond the fact that good coaching often results in defeat for the opposition. The Spurs' winning has often relied on what other teams have viewed as spare parts. These players have been foreign born, drafted from midmajor college programs, and served as role players on lesser teams, and the success of the Spurs, especially as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili age, should, if it does not already, prompt other teams and their fans to ponder why do these risks pan out for the Spurs more times than not and no one else. Call it the Duncan factor. Call it the system. Call it good coaching. Call it love. The fact is the San Antonio locker room contains a different element than most in the NBA, and because somewhere in the love between Popovich and his team there exists a unifying naivety--a belief in something beyond themselves--making his teams an easy target for pessimism.

I will not tell any parent when it is time to no longer have their kids beside them in bed, but at some point, the child's presence becomes unnatural and separation becomes inevitable, and perhaps the Spurs, as a cohesive unit, are not loved because everyone knows how socially awkward a family can become when it holds onto certain habits for way too long and how the rest of us have to deal with that awkwardness when the kids get shipped off to school, become your roommate in college, or can not gain successful employment. Is Gary Neal valuable on any other team? Does Matt Bonner have a career without the Spurs' system? Whatever happened to Malik Rose, Rasho Nesterovic, or Devin Brown? What will happen to Danny Green if he signs elsewhere this summer? Can these players truly survive away from Gregg Popovich?


Right now, the Spurs bother everyone because no one else's team or franchise possesses their cohesion--the Thunder, despite the Sam Presti connection to San Antonio's front office, are still closer to an organic version of the Heat than they are to Popovich's harmonics--which can prompt a very bitter and strange kind of jealousy that goes largely unspoken and unthought. However, in the future, the risk of ineptitude when these players leave the nest makes everyone in the League uneasy, raising the question: would the League have been better off if Pop had been one hundred percent Tiger Mom? Maybe then his team would have burned out years ago rather than creeping all of us the hell out by continuing to exist as one nebulous blob that refuses to fall apart like every other American family.

(Let it be known that the author knows nothing about being a mother, but he is a Spurs fan.)


1 comments:

Bryan Harvey said...

I regret having ever tried to write this piece.

June 7, 2012 at 11:28 PM

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