In any driveway or gym, the human eye is a keen observer. Youth bears witness to technique and instinct without even knowing: dribbling, shooting, pump faking, jabstepping, slashing. The slashing is key. And with every successful drive to the basket, a young athlete learns that not only can he do what his father does but he can do it quicker--precision be damned--gashing his way through an invisible veil, making the realization of the moment feel as effortless as a bulldozer burning through spiderweb. Driveways are full of big gaping holes between the past and the present.
I can still remember the first time I beat my father at basketball. He was broader in the shoulder than I. Taller too. And even when I drove past him, the risk of him blocking my shot from behind was still there, and not until I mastered the bankshot did I discover the proper angles for dissecting his old age, forcing him to come out and play me--only then could I blow by him without fear or hesitation. No game is played quite the same as the one in which you beat your father. It is a game played with hate and love and sweat pouring out from a place of yearning and dripping into something on the verge of understanding. For me, it was a game that felt like learning to run, like taking flight, like learning how to kill, and that's the part of the game so difficult to discuss or admit. When you beat a brother or a peer, more battles are always on the horizon--the duel feels eternal--but a game against one's father is wrecked with finality that most boys do not, and cannot, understand.
When I beat my father for the first time, I think I yelled and started to raise my hands before something in me tightened and pulled the rest of my excitement back into my lungs before it could leave my lips. The orange globe of a ball rolled slowly across the gray driveway and there he was, hands on his hips, sweating, with his shoulders more hunched than usual, and yelling no longer felt appropriate. When we walked into the garage towards the refrigerator, he put his hand on my shoulder, but for the first time I thought how I could easily do the same for him. As we sipped neon liquid from plastic bottles, I did not know what to say--how does one truly talk trash to their dad? And he told me I played well and also that he would get me next time.
With the exception of Russell Westbrook's block of Danny Green's practice attempt in Game Five, this OKC Thunder series with the San Antonio Spurs reminds me a great deal of playing basketball against my father. Games One and Two saw San Antonio out think and out maneuver the Thunder. The Spurs spaced the floor as well as America's breadbasket and Tony Parker's pick and roll swept over the lane like a tornado. The Thunder looked helpless, and many of us, myself included, were ready to proclaim a disaster of epic proportions. Then Scott Brooks told his young team to start hacking Tiago Splitter at the end of Game Two's third quarter, and the game slowed down.
Elegance and beauty were mauled into something more akin to pedestrian sidewalk crossings and awkward silences. For a team as young and athletic as the Thunder, it was as if they had found themselves at the dinner table in midst of an adult conversation and the only weapon at their disposal was mockery rather than respect and understanding. If either team must resort to butchery, before the series started one would have thought it would be San Antonio. After all, Gregg Popovich was the biggest proponent of the 'Hack a Shaq' philosophy. But what I missed--what most of us missed--was that in ruining the graceful ballet that was the Spurs' offense in Game Two, the Thunder were not bending their heads in frustration but in academic study. They were indelibly soaking up what it meant to be the offspring of the Spurs, and in Games Three, Four, and Five, their defensive rotations, offensive spacing, and decision making with the ball became as scientific and miraculous as the collision between sperm and egg--or as volatile as Cronos vomiting up Olympians.
Youth often learns through mimicry and plagiarism, which means what youthful genius produces is often only as good as what it consumes. Sports writers and journalists have often cited that Oklahoma City was built by R.C. Buford disciple Sam Presti, but until the last three games of this series, the Thunder have always played and acted more as an offshoot of the Lakers or even the Heat.
Their inoculation to the NBA Playoffs came two years ago against Los Angeles and changed the course of OKC's narrative as begrudgingly as a river's, when people began to view them less as a continuation of the Spurs small market (organizational) success and more as the successors to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol's offensive playmaking and dynamic scoring. This shift was embodied most by the budding rivalry between Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, as well as the fact that the debate over OKC's true alpha dog was a whispered prelude to the disputed claims between the Miami Heat's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The connection with the Heat was made even greater when both teams were japed time and again in last year's Playoffs by the team chemistry and sophistication of the Dallas Mavericks. This season then appeared to be more of the same (they led the League in turnovers) until the Thunder quit behaving as restless motors in a Taco Bell parking lot and began to quietly observe and steal the wizardry of San Antonio's style and composure, only the Thunder are much quicker and more athletic than their mentors, leaving Manu Ginobili to play bumper cars with Serge Ibaka on the break and Tony Parker to flop like a fish out of water holding his jaw in silence.
The Thunder may have at times behaved as prodigals, falling into disputes of ego and hubris over who should take the last shot, but their 2012 excursion from tornado alley to the Alamo has been as short and familiar and self-defining as a cracked driveway, a rusted hoop, and an out of bounds as thorny as any rosebush; and the only question left appears to be what does a 23-year-old Kevin Durant say to a 36-year-old Tim Duncan--because what causes a son not to celebrate too loudly and an old man to keep believing is the unspoken truth that each man's margin of victory has always been as wide and unjust as the space between generations, unmeasurable and incomparable.
Enjoy the exuberance of the Thunder now because one day they will have sons of their own whose sole purpose in life will be to usurp them.
In Bryan Harvey, In Father's Day, In James Harden, In Kevin Durant, In Manu Ginobili, In mythology, In NBA, In Oklahoma City Thunder, In Russell Westbrook, In San Antonio Spurs, In Teach, In Tim Duncan, In Tony Parker, In Western Conference Finals