Travis Hale

Travis Hale is a freelance sportswriter primarily covering the San Antonio Spurs and Big XII college football, most recently for SB Nation and currently for various independent sites. He resides in San Antonio with his wife and three children where he hopes to someday write a great American sports novel.

Haters gonna hate

By all accounts his heart is as pure as his jump shot, evidence of which was on full display during his speech in late May accepting the 2014-15 NBA MVP Award. In addition to heartily thanking the Warriors’ head of security and the team’s longtime equipment manager, Stephen Curry said this:

First and foremost, I have to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for blessing me with the talents to play this game, with a family that supports me day-in and day-out. I’m his humble servant right now. I can’t say it enough: how important my faith is to how I play the game and who I am, so– I’m just blessed and I’m thankful for where I am.

I love playing basketball; there’s no doubt about it. It’s something I’ve been doing since– what, mom and dad, two? With Fisher Price goals. My grandma’s here, we were talking about it yesterday. She used to be my commentator. She used to be Bob Fitzgerald for me counting down the scores, I hit a game-winning shot or whatever, and I’d stumble over and give her a high five, stuff like that.

Leading off your speech thanking God and Grandma is what good guys do. And there appears no one more humble, more down to earth, more deserving of life’s riches than Steph. This makes his imminent and necessary teardown seem particularly harsh. Unfair even. But make no mistake, it will happen. Why? Because that is what we do.

Someday most of us will hate Steph Curry without really even knowing why.

——

When perusing the Internet and social media it becomes clear that finding anything negative about the seemingly ethereal Golden State point guard is a nearly impossible task. In fact, 120 Sports has Curry at the top of their index for 2015, determined by “exclusive research, conducted in conjunction with Ranker, Millennials’ Athlete Index reveals the athletes mattering most to its target audience — Millennials.”

But our insistence on eating our own, on schadenfreude, on our inevitable pivot from adulation to despising greatness has always fascinated me, and Curry will not escape. No one ever does. To make matters worse, our pleasure in exacting a pound of flesh seem to have grown exponentially with the proliferation of social media—whose sole existence seems a vehicle for us to show how much better our lives are than everyone else’s.

Television cameras are always, always present to film the President of the United States as he descends the steps of Air Force One. Is it for some grand purpose, to capture a nation’s pride and patriotic fanfare directed at the leader of the free world? No, the cameras are there because Gerald Ford tripped and fell on the steps in 1975. So today every step is filmed just in case the President trips and falls again, and the image can be instantly transmitted around the world.

Our fascination with those that accomplish great things and our joy in watching them fail is why a man with a noticeable absence of flaws; with a profound, humbled sense of self; a ruthlessly competitive nature and a simple passion for the game will someday be torn down. Sadly Steph Curry will someday be hated.

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We will grow tired of his effortless style of play and family friendly persona. From Michael Kruse in BleacherReport:

Last year, after the rapper Drake included within the explicit lyrics of a song called “0 to 100/The Catch Up” a nod to Curry — I been Steph Curry with the shot, cooking with the sauce, Chef Curry with the pot, boy — Curry responded with a short, G-rated spoof video set to the Drake beat, showing Curry and his wife in the kitchen of their home literally cooking curry in a pot. Even their toddler daughter made an appearance. It felt very Stephen Curry. Street cred but family-friendly.

We will grow tired of the legend of the 77 straight 3-pointers, the way he incessantly chews his mouthpiece during breaks in play and of the tales of his unselfishness — of lifting up all boats. Again, from Kruse on a unique in-game strategy of his own making while at Davidson:

In a game in Davidson on Nov. 25, 2008, Loyola of Maryland used two guys to guard Curry wherever he went on the court. So Curry went to the corner. It was his idea. He just stood there. The rest of his team played four-on-three for the whole game.

Curry, who had hit for 44 earlier in the year against an Oklahoma team led by Blake Griffin and was averaging 35 a game, that night scored zero points. Barr hit six wide-open threes. Davidson won by 30. It stands in retrospect as a bizarre footnote in Curry’s college statistics. But at the time, for his teammates, it was an affirmation.

Hell, some have even grown tired of the sheer audacity he displays when bringing his young daughter Riley on the podium with him after playoff wins.

So the question is why? Why do we come to loathe sustained greatness but also take so much pleasure when greatness stumbles?

—–

In 1956, social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl published a seminal study entitled Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance in the Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. In it the two describe in great length their hypothesis of para-social, or one-sided, relationships. The idea that our society at large creates and nurtures fictional relationships with celebrities they don’t actually personally know. From Horton and Wohl:

One of the striking characteristics of the new mass media — radio, television, and the movies — is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer. The conditions of response to the performer are analogous to those in a primary group. The most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers; the same is true of a character in a story who comes to life in these media in an especially vivid and arresting way. We propose to call this seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer a para-social relationship.

Now this is not meant to present myself in any way a scholar, or that before last week I could have identified Horton and Wohl as anything other than characters from a Dr. Seuss short story. But, because I love to party, I spent a few days researching the two and the subsequent studies spun-off from the original thesis. Of particular interest is the idea that we build imaginary bonds with performers (athletes or otherwise) and project onto them often unrealistic expectations hoping to fill some sort of void in our own lives. If they stumble, we tear them down. But, more interestingly, if they are too successful in some arbitrary way, we will also tear them down.

Perhaps that’s where Curry’s conundrum lies: He’s as relatable to basketball fans as Michael, Jim or Pam from The Office. And his style of play is relatively new, in an old sort of way. Precision passing, sublime ball-handling and knock-down 3s are new again, particularly for a younger generation who only know basketball as a game played by giants that can somehow fly. Curry’s style is refreshing in the way Michael Scott looked into the camera for the first time and made viewers feel like they were in on a secret. The para-social connection, the relatable style of play is fun to watch. Playing below the rim is…exciting?

A few weeks ago Bill Simmons had WNBA star Diana Taurasi and Jalen Rose on what turned out to be his  final Grantland Basketball Hour to discuss among other things Steph Curry. All three agreed that he has the “best WNBA game” around. “Below the rim,” Taurasi said before pointing presumably to the crew and cameramen. “Step back 3s, there’s probably like … every guy in here could do that.”

It’s partly that level of sameness and how mere mortals can identify with Curry that help make him the most popular player in the NBA. Few can jump out of the gym like Blake Griffin or LeBron James, but many can stroke a jump shot now and then. Few can hit a drive as long as Tiger Woods but on occasion we can flush a six iron. Sure, Curry does it with much greater regularity, and better than almost anyone else on the planet, but that’s no matter. We can relate. “He looks like he’s 13,” his coach Steve Kerr said. “I think the vast majority of fans can relate to guards more than the big guys, and Steph is about as relatable as any player in the league.”

Curry’s identifiable persona, along with his smooth (admittedly anything but normal) style of play has elevated him to the point of being the leading vote-getter for this season’s All-Star Game, which is no small feat in a league full of verified mega-stars. But at some point we will get bored. We get bored with television shows, regardless of their uniqueness, and we will get bored with Steph.

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And fans’ willingness to associate with Curry won’t carry him unscathed if he doesn’t bring home the real hardware (meaning a championship) that elevate him, and thereby those that relate closely to him, hyper-para-socially in this world of memes and vines.

His star was already tarnished after a maddening disappearance early in this year’s Finals. LeBron James and the Cavaliers showed up to the party ready to play rugby in the mud while Curry and his teammates seem to be dressed for a nice afternoon of croquet on the south lawn. If Cleveland pulls off the unimaginable, Curry will shoulder much of the blame and we’ll knock him down a few pegs. The “Baby-Faced Assassin,” should’ve been tougher, more grizzled, a better leader, a “bring your lunch pail everyday kind of guy.” He should’ve been more like … LeBron, we’ll grumble.

On the flip side, if he does bring a championship to the Bay Area his national exposure will increase. He’s currently a bit player in the already tired State Farm twin commercials among a few others, but as his popularity grows so will the endorsement opportunities. And we will get tired of seeing his face. We will get tired of him selling us stuff; tired of Steph Curry telling us what to do. He can’t win, even if he does.

Entertainment reporter Tirdad Derakhshani argues, “When celebrities sell us commodities, they are in fact telling the public how they should live their life.” And in a subsequent article he argues, “Perhaps what’s most dismaying is that so many consumers have become sophisticated enough to know they are manipulated, yet choose to remain passive.”

Now, after a perfunctory glance at Derakhshani’s work, I can tell that I don’t necessarily agree with his abiding views on capitalism, but I do agree that seeing LeBron James taking a nap in his Kia is both annoying and patronizingly unbelievable. Perhaps James’ continued exposure in so many commercials adds in some part to the negative feelings he invokes in so many.

——

It happens to the best of them. LeBron. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Tom Brady.

Either by their excellence, exposure, or at times a combination of the two, all went from upstart to superstar; superstar to quasi-pariah. Sure, some the best suffered from self-inflicted wounds. James’ Decision, Jordan’s gambling, Brady’s various “gates” and Bird’s general hick-ish aura of superiority made them beloved locally but despised almost everywhere else. But Peyton Manning, Tim Duncan and Troy Aikman have more than their fair share of detractors, for no other reason other than presumably being really, really good at their jobs.

Curry hasn’t reached the tipping point where he’s either a slit-your-throat champion or the-guy-that-can’t-get-it-done-in-the-clutch, but he’s close. Through three games in the NBA Finals, Curry is looking more like the MVP not ready for prime-time, but he still has time to rip out the hearts of every person in Cleveland. As of now he’s only doing that to the fans in yellow and blue.

His subpar performance in Game 2 that carried over into the first three quarters of Game 3 was overshadowed by James’ mastery, but the combination of both left Cavs’ fans with more than just a glimmer of hope. And Curry will most certainly be the villain of Ohio if he regains his All-Star form and finds his effortless shot in time to save this series for Golden State.

——

His decline in E-scores won’t happen all at once but will rather start one city at a time and the disdain will spread from there. His appeal this summer in New Orleans, Memphis and Houston has presumably declined, and if he can bounce back in the next few days, the entire city of Cleveland will follow suit. As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller pointed out in the aptly titled You Will Come to Hate Stephen Curry, sports-hate is borne in the cities of teams a superstar brings to its knees in defeat.

Most importantly, though, villains and legends are made in the playoffs. LeBron is reviled in Boston, Chicago and Indiana because of what he’s done to those cities’ teams in the postseason. MJ is hated in Salt Lake, Seattle, New York and Cleveland because of his triumphs. Kobe is booed in Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix and Portland because he won. And long before Durant had detractors nationwide, he was not well-liked among basketball fans in Memphis, L.A. or Texas.

Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but call it the General Sherman effect. While Bill was an otherwise charming and handsome man, you’d be hard pressed to find any fans of his in the state of Georgia.

—–

The NBA has had an incredible run of luck in their most recent MVP. Despite the fact that LeBron James decided to play a few years in Miami, and concurrently pissed off millions, he’s a really good man. And though Kevin Durant flirted with a persona makeover last winter, he’s a good man, too. Now Steph Curry is in a position to out good them all, on and off the court.

But in this world where we are conditioned to hate Johnny Manziel because he’s so bad while simultaneously hating Tim Tebow because he’s so good, Curry’s run as the most popular sports figure around will be surely, and confusingly, short-lived. In the end it doesn’t matter how good or bad the character is, it’s how quickly we get bored with his job performance; it’s how quickly we get tired of him telling us what to do. And most importantly: it’s how quickly we get tired of him kicking our favorite team’s ass, or in his failure to do just that.

However we get there, we’ll find a damn good reason to hate Steph Curry long before the next good/bad phenom comes along to sell us a new Kia and squash our wildest sports dreams. Because sadly, that is what we do. Just ask the grizzled leader bringing his lunch pail to work these days in Cleveland.

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    The Spurs are dead. Long live the Spurs.

    Gregg Popovich walked a few feet from the bustle and sat on one of the closely aligned, thickly cushioned black folding chairs that compose his team’s bench. Lost in thought he rubbed his forehead and top of his head with both hands while the world around him, largely of his own creation, celebrated.

    On the court Tim Duncan was asked by ESPN’s Doris Burke how the Spurs had done it, how they had climbed the mountain to win their fifth NBA championship. “We remember what happened last year and how it felt in that locker room,” Duncan said, recalling their devastating loss to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in 2013. “We used it and built on it and got back here. It’s amazing.” Then, his voice cracking with emotion, he finished his answer, “It makes last year OK.”

    It was in that moment of triumph last June that the Spurs pulled back the curtain, just a bit, and gave the world a rare glimpse inside. It was the first real admission there was something extra, something beyond fundamental basketball and precision passing that had driven them to that point. The Spurs were in fact human and were hell-bent on revenge in 2014.

    —-

    Every fall, the Spurs, along with 29 other NBA teams, gather for camp prior to the start of another long season. And, every fall, reporters ask Popovich what theme he has for the coming grind, what motivational tactic he will use to persuade his guys to make another run. And, as with virtually any question asked of the coach, he casts its relevance aside, preferring usually to grumble something about how they are well-paid, grown men that don’t need him to tell them how to get ready. So it was with no surprise that his answer was the same last fall as it was in all training camps prior.

    But Popovich’s seeming (or, more likely, carefully crafted) ambivalence to the importance of emotion as a motivating factor came crumbling down during large stretches during the 2014-15 season and his team’s first-round match-up with the Los Angeles Clippers. Age played a role, for sure. Seeing Manu Ginobili sitting on the end of the bench at the end of playoff games has to stir melancholy in even the most cynical fans. And the maddening disappearance of Kawhi Leonard for the balance of the series has to be a cause for concern for the Spurs going forward. But despite their individual failings or triumphs (Duncan played masterfully), the giant, collective chip on each of their shoulders was gone during the season and in their lone playoff series, likely never to return.

    Missing also was a sense of fairness in the series: It was too good to be the first round. The Clippers secured the third seed in the West by winning 56 games in the regular season, including their final seven and 14 out of their final 15. Their efforts were rewarded with a first-round match-up against the defending NBA champions, who themselves finished with quite a flourish, winning 21 out of their final 25. And the late-night starts meant that much of the country, most of the kids in the country who spend weekends playing in league tournaments of their own, didn’t get to witness the greatness on display, some of which might never be seen again.

    However, chronicling what was missing from this year’s San Antonio Spurs, and the idiocy in the NBA’s seeding process and television contracts, should in no way diminish what Los Angeles was able to accomplish. Blake Griffin overcame early series shakiness (if you can call a triple-double combined with a late mistake “shaky”) and Chris Paul’s heroic play on an injured hamstring in Game 7 will go down as one of the great individual performances in NBA playoff history. Their play in the clutch deserves to be applauded, regardless of what the Spurs were, or were not, able to muster.

    It was also almost poetic to watch as the Clippers found a way to harness the intangible that had fueled the Spurs just a season earlier. They used their emotion to out-hustle and outplay San Antonio, particularly in the pivotal Game 6 and 7 close-outs. Paul had playoff demons to slay, and he did. Griffin heard the whispers. Perhaps he and his teammates were physically imposing but emotionally soft; they were all steak and no sizzle. He quieted the doubters, forcefully, in keeping with his now famous style.

    The Clippers’ growth in the series was also worthy of note. After the Spurs won Game 5, the Los Angeles Daily News’ Mark Whicker wondered if the Clips were trying too hard, unable to control their emotion, which ultimately led to late-game mistakes that allowed the Spurs to steal two road wins:

    The law of gravity is usually a no-brainer. It works fairly reliably on this planet.

    But when Blake Griffin’s go-ahead basket rolled around the rim and finally showed signs of falling through the cords and down to earth, DeAndre Jordan felt obliged to help it.

    Whistle. Offensive goaltending. San Antonio winds up winning Game 5 of this first-round series, 111-107, and taking a 3-2 lead going to Texas on Thursday night.

    Maybe that’s the way we’ll remember this Clippers era, if it ends without an NBA or Western Conference championship. They might go down as the team that tried too hard.

    (Clippers coach Doc Rivers) talked beforehand about the Clippers’ need to use “emotion without being emotional,” a tricky thing. Chris Paul, who also didn’t hit a 3-pointer and was held to 19 points, felt he got fouled and reacted by getting a technical. This is not to say the Spurs don’t act out their emotions. Duncan has been called for very few fouls over the years that he felt he actually committed. But it’s a matter of managing emotion, desire, all those things that every team has but few can channel properly.

    In the wake of Game 7, an exhausted Rivers summed it up: “I’m a better person because I went through this series. I guarantee you that.”

     —–

    A certain sense of inevitability fell over the series in the seconds following Jordan’s basket interference call on Griffin’s shot that likely would have fallen regardless. Jordan’s touch and subsequent free-throws by Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard sealed the Clippers’ fate in Game 5, as they fell behind in the series to the Spurs, kings of close-out games at home. It seemed that the predetermined natural order of things was playing out. The NBA’s royalty would again prevail.

    In the New York Times best-selling book “Natchez Burning,” author Greg Iles writes of a conversation between the aging, frail, aristocratic town matriarch and the novel’s central character, Penn Cage. Cage is concerned that the old woman is in danger from a group of ambitious and dangerous men desperate for control. Iles masterfully explains why the old woman shows no concern. “They’re peasants in their bones,” she explains to Cage.

    That passage roiled in my mind leading up to Game 6 on Thursday night and a variation of the feeling was heavy in the air inside the AT&T Center. Few, if any, in and around the organization thought the series would be extended. But it was. Chris Paul and his team were unwilling to let the story play out as so many expected. Instead, the Clippers likely closed a chapter on the Spurs as we know them.

    Of course there is the chance that they will rise again in some other form with a bevy of tantalizing free agents available. But the most recent iteration of the Spurs, the core of the team that’s been together so long, has most assuredly laced them up together for the final time. Popovich admitted as much in his year-end press conference on Monday. “The team will probably look considerably different than it did this year,” he said. “We want to try to start, not exactly over again, but these last four seasons have been a grind.”

    The Spurs are dead. Long live the Spurs.

    —–

    Sean Elliott was a member of the Spurs first NBA Championship in 1999. He is also one of only seven former players to have his jersey retired and hanging from the rafters. For the past several years he’s been employed as the color commentator on the team’s local Fox Sports affiliate. He is a Spur, through and through, which garners both praise and derision because of his unabashed “us against the world,” mentality when calling games.

    On Saturday night after Chris Paul’s last second shot secured the series win for the Clippers and the onset of an offseason of uncertainty, Elliott’s broadcast partner, Bill Land, asked Sean for his thoughts on the series and his former team as the final broadcast of the season wound down. In a plaintive voice Elliott described how proud he was of his friends and former teammates before pausing. And then his voice cracked as he struggled to finish his thoughts, just as Duncan’s had the year prior.

    The raw emotion from each sounded similar, even if both were borne from a different place. Duncan’s shaky voice last June was of redemption and relief. Elliott’s on Saturday was more about remembering what once was and will likely never be again. Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan will soon decide if they have anything left to give. Danny Green will be a free agent and as a sharpshooter that brings rare perimeter length and defensive prowess, he will potentially command more than the Spurs can pay him. Kawhi Leonard will field offers from those with the deepest pockets before deciding where to sign and Tiago Splitter might prove expendable with the looming availability of a few big-splash big men. And even though Popovich said after the game that he, Duncan and Ginobili would return because “the paychecks are pretty good,” his future prowling the sideline is anything but guaranteed.

    So it was in Elliott’s pause and subsequent cracking voice that you could hear the proudness he has in being associated with those men, the profound joy he feels in having watched their excellence for so long, and the fearful uncertainty about what’s to come. Elliott’s words conveyed his belief that it was not that the Spurs had grown complacent, but more perhaps because they had nothing left; nothing left to prove, nothing left at all.

    And thousands, millions even, joined Elliott in wondering how we got here. How did 18 long years pass so quickly? To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the end for these Spurs came in two ways: First gradually, then suddenly.

    The comfort of feeling small

    It was a quiet cadence that he continued to repeat, rarely venturing beyond five simple words:

    “Uno … dos … tres … quarto … cinto.”

    Cade, my 5-year-old son, counted on his small, chunky fingers — often whispering incorrect numbers in Spanish to himself, seated next to me as I watched a San Antonio Spurs game. New to kindergarten this year, he’s been exposed to an entire new world of learning, a big part of which involves immersion in the Spanish language. E-mails from his teacher come in sets  —  one paragraph is written in English and the message is subsequently repeated in Spanish. All communication in his school is delivered similarly. Each directive is relayed verbally or in writing in both languages.

    To be completely honest, his educational environment, and the journey he’s only just begun  — one that already looks and feels a lot different than the one I took —  is a bit daunting and occasionally unsettling. He is growing up in a rapidly changing world, one in which knowing Spanish is now more necessity than luxury, particularly here in South Texas. Though that newness, that unknown, at times gives his mom and me pause, this is the life we have chosen for our children.

    This is life in San Antonio.

    San Antonio is a delicious mix of culture and grit. It’s Fiesta and rock ‘n’ roll. It is diversity and discipline; borracho beans, machismo and schnitzel. Almost 60 percent of residents in San Antonio are Hispanic/Latino according to the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation. That demographic breakdown gives credence to visions of swirling, glorious China Poblana dancers and the masculine, majestic Mariachi bands that populate tourism brochures and crowd the famous River Walk. Those flamboyant displays give San Antonio an identity and help make the city the No. 1 tourist destination in Texas. But there’s richness to the culture that’s deeper than a sea of reds and greens and flowered crowns worn by latin princesses.

    Beyond the spectacular color and sound, there’s a sense of family and community rarely found in a city so vast. Every metropolis has its tribal tendencies  —  a desire from its residents to grab hold of a common bond. Though there are San Antonio Spurs fans all over the world, there is no more concentrated legion of Spurs fans than here within the city limits. While other cities rightly claim a rabid fan base of their own  —  look no further than Boston’s recent celebration of the Patriots in three feet of snow, or Seahawks fans who literally move the needle on the Richter scale during a big play  —  the passion in San Antonio is a bit different, a bit more personal. Fortunes and spirits rise and fall with the Spurs. With rare exception, hearts and loyalties belong to the Spurs.

    San Antonio doesn’t have the glamour and shine of Dallas or Austin. It’s America’s seventh-largest city by population but pales in comparison to the urban sprawl and never-ending highways that cut through and concurrently bind Houston. San Antonio is unique because, for all its size and people, it’s a really small town. And despite the celebrities that call the Alamo City home — from George Strait to Eva Longoria — San Antonio is at its core a blue-collar city.

    U.S. Census Bureau data shows median income well below that of other major Texas cities and in the bottom third of the 25-most populous metropolitan areas nationwide. But there is a wonderful pride taken in that.

    Translated, “puro” means “pure,” and it is the single-word battle-cry to describe life here. For all our struggles, challenges and pitfalls, life in San Antonio is pure. And, regardless of race, income bracket, or neighborhood, all San Antonians take a measure of pride in our puro. The Spurs have their own identity, their own beautiful brand of basketball. San Antonians have a uniqueness, too, and that fierce independence so alive in both has made the love affair strong. The blue-collar city beautifully pairs with her blue-blooded basketball team.

    There is smallness here. It’s not immediately visible, particularly on the drive into town on Interstates 10 or 35 as the seemingly endless suburbs and strip centers unfurl all around, but the smallness begins to tease soon thereafter. Several of the radio stations are owned by local media conglomerate iHeartMedia, Inc. (formerly Clear Channel Communications) so the same, familiar voices can be heard on channel after channel. Traffic reports are done from inside a studio rather than from a helicopter, and it is painfully obvious when the reports are farmed out to a sister station in Houston as the newscaster reads the (often dated) update, flubbing the most common San Antonio street names. “Culebra,” is mispronounced CUH-LA-BRUH or “Potranco Road” is laughingly referred to as POT-RAN-CO with a complete dearth of rolling ‘r’s. That’s not puro.

    San Antonio is also dominated by a single grocery store chain, H-E-B, which has the local market cornered. Their massive stores dot the landscape every few square miles, and their real-estate ventures ensure the company owns vast swaths of land across South and Central Texas.

    A tremendous community steward and advocate, H-E-B’s budget for charitable events and sponsorships is quite impressive. Furthermore, their annual television ads released in October and featuring members of the Spurs have become the most anticipated media launch in town. H-E-B understands and exploits the concept of familiarity, promoting smallness and family, above all else. From an article by Roger Dooley in Forbes:

    We are inclined to like people more when they seem like us. As a Texas-only store, H-E-B works the Lone Star connection into every aspect of its marketing. In their extensive private label selection, Texas references abound. Many products are branded as “Hill Country Fare,” a reference to the Hill Country area of the state. Coffee varieties have names like, “San Antonio Blend.”

    This strategy would help in any area, but is particularly effective in Texas. That state has an unusually strong sense of identity, and most Texans are proud to emphasize their association with the state. Driving around residential neighborhoods, it’s not uncommon to see the majority of houses sporting some kind of Texas symbol  —  a five-pointed star, or a state outline.

    The sentiment isn’t unlike an allegiance to a sports team. Perhaps it’s not strong enough to induce Texans to paint their faces or wave banners every day, but it’s a pervasive feeling in the state.

    It is organizations like these and countless others that limit options while breeding familiarity. And that contributes to a perpetual shrinking feeling inside a city of over two million people.

    But make no mistake: Nothing binds those who live here quite like the Spurs. Nothing makes the town smaller than the Spurs.

     

    More than banners

    The San Antonio Spurs were created in 1973 under peculiar circumstances. The Dallas Chaparrals were a struggling ABA franchise and its ownership was looking for an exit. A group of San Antonio investors led by Angelo Drossos, a former dance-instructor, and Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, the colorful entrepreneur and co-founder of the aforementioned Clear Channel Communications, “rented” the franchise from the Dallas ownership group and moved it to San Antonio for a three-year period, with the option to buy the team at the end of the term. Drossos and McCombs made the decision to purchase after just one year, when the newly formed Spurs posted higher attendance figures than their NBA counterparts in Houston.

    Their ABA existence lasted just a few years, highlighted by “Dime Beer Nights,” James Silas’ often late-game heroics, and the presentation of a live horse named “Tuff Julie” to Freddie Lewis, the winner of the MVP Award in the 1975 ABA All-Star Game held in San Antonio.

    Oh, and there was also the game against legendary coach Larry Brown and the Denver Nuggets when fans showered the court with avocados and Coach Brown with beer. Puro.

    In 1976, thanks in large part to Drossos’ negotiation skill during the NBA Summer Meetings, the Spurs were one of four ABA franchises accepted into the NBA. And arguably the world’s biggest little city had arrived.

     

     

    Al Sturchio and the Sound of the Spurs

    The HemisFair Arena days featured trumpet player Al Sturchio and his seven piece band, regaling the crowd with rousing renditions of “San Antonio Rose” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

    “We had so much fun over there,” Sturchio told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express News in 2013. Red McCombs shared his memories with Orsborn as well. “The great thing was the whole city showed up — West Side, North Side, East Side, South Side — with one common goal: Kill the opponent,” McCombs said.

    And more from Orsborn:

    When the team needed a boost, Sturchio played “Charge!”

    “Al got everybody riled up with that trumpet,” Gervin said.

    Between the third and fourth periods, the band serenaded the crowd with the Spanish ballad “Volver” as a spotlight fell on the Bum’s “Dancing Harry” while he waltzed with an imaginary partner.

    “Al and the band played real San Antonio music, music you wouldn’t hear anywhere else,” former Spurs coach Bob Bass said.

    Said Sturchio: “It was an atmosphere of joy.”

    And one that screamed South Texas.

    That was on purpose,” Wayne Witt, former director of communications for the Spurs said. “We wanted that identity. That was all part of the aura, of opponents saying, ‘Oh, geez, we got to go to San Antonio and play in that place, where all they do is play that loud Mexican music.’”

    The Spurs recent accomplishments are well known. Five NBA titles in the last 16 years and a slew of Hall of Fame players have called San Antonio home. But here’s a little-known secret: The Spurs are so much more than banners and shimmering, golden Larry O’Brien trophies on display. Sure, the championship seasons are fodder for the best memories. But more than anything, those banners serve as validation for a city whose inhabitants often feel overlooked in favor of the larger, shinier cities in the state.

    Those championships are grand, but so were the nights in HemisFair Arena when cigarette smoke wafted through the rafters and Al Sturchio played his horn. The raucous crowds of HemisFair and then later the cavernous AlamoDome have in large part been squeezed out in favor of corporate seating and a better-behaved audience. It still gets loud and rowdy, but the exuberance now is kept to an NBA-sanctioned, acceptable level.

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    Remember the Alamo?

    Common on the glossy brochures promoting the city and living inside the imaginations of little boys (and girls) with a penchant for adventure, is the legend of the Alamo. The worldwide symbol for bucking the odds and standing one’s ground can be found in downtown San Antonio, unceremoniously situated across the street from the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum.

    The famous battle took place at the fort in late February and early March of 1836 between Texan forces and General Santa Anna’s massive Mexican Army, with the final siege occurring in the pre-dawn hours of March 6. The siege and ultimate slaughter of almost everyone inside was over in a matter of minutes, but the legendary bravery of those men, from William Travis to Davey Crockett, endures. Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna a few weeks later at the Battle of San Jacinto, securing Texas’ independence, but the small force that fought at the Alamo remain San Antonio — and Texas — heroes. A description of the aftermath from that fateful morning from sonofthesouth.net:

    Thus fell the Alamo and its heroic defenders; but before them lay the bodies of five hundred and twenty-one of the enemy, with a like number wounded. At an hour by sun, on that Sabbath morning, all was still; yet the crimson waters of the aqueduct around the fort resembled the red flag on the church at Bexar! The defenders of Texas did not retreat, but lay there in obedience to the command of their country; and in that obedience the world has witnessed among men no greater moral sublimity.

    Within the city’s bylaws is the directive that no building can ever be built that will, at any time during the day, cast a shadow on the Texas landmark. It is a true treasure and hallowed ground. Yet, almost without fail, when anyone lays eyes on the iconic site for the first time their first reaction is always, “Is that it?” The chapel that remains is immeasurably smaller than the legend itself.

    The smallness is there.

     

     

    West Side, North Side, East Side, South Side

    A few blocks south of the Alamo grounds is HemisFair Park, home to HemisFair Arena, which was torn down in 1995. The Spurs moved across Highway 281 into the massive AlamoDome following the 1992–93 season and played there for a decade. Just a few hundred feet north is E. Houston Street, and the stretch of road to the AT&T Center (where the Spurs now call home) is just a tad over three miles. The segment of road is a straight shot through neighborhoods with barred windows, yet no one seems afraid to sit on the front porch and visit. A few houses are decorated with homemade Spurs signs or pictures of any combination of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. At Christmastime the decorations are sparse but poignant.

    City leaders decided to build the new arena east of downtown in an effort to revitalize the area. It hasn’t worked as well as originally hoped. The sparkling arena and its well-manicured landscaping seem a bit out of place among the weathered warehouses and parking lots that populate the land around AT&T Center Parkway.

    To the northeast of the AT&T Center along I-35 is the city of Converse and one of San Antonio’s many military facilities, Randolph Air Force Base. San Antonio is known as “Military City, USA,” and for good reason. The expansive military presence gives the city a strong sinew built from discipline and control. Perhaps it is that presence that makes the Spurs  —  as they are currently composed — so well respected in town, and so well understood. Sure, the success of the franchise is a factor, but Gregg Popovich understands the warrior class and more importantly, the warriors understand him.

    About five miles to the west of downtown along Highway 90 is the area of the city that will always be true San Antonio for me. When I moved my family here a decade ago my office was located on the corner of General McMullen and Castroville Road, across the street from the San Fernando Cemetery. It was there where I saw the vendors open shop, often out of the trunks of cars or under a canopy on the side of the road, on any major holiday to sell roses or valentines or poinsettias or tiny American flags for loved ones to lay in the cemetery.

    The green grass and grey concrete slab headstones are covered in vibrant reds and blues almost daily. It was also there where I was introduced to Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the dead) and the elaborate altars created cemetery-wide to pay respect to the deceased. Common offerings in the altars include candy and a shot of tequila.

    I’d often eat lunch at Taqueria Vallarta just down the street. Ordering was sometimes difficult, but I learned how to get the carne asada and iced tea in broken Spanish well enough. It’s a great place to watch old couples from the neighborhood enjoy their lunches in virtual silence and black Spurs T-shirts.

    Just south of Highway 90 and a few miles further west are two more Air Force Bases: Kelly and Lackland. The roar of F-16s and the slow, majestic rumblings of the massive C-130 cargo planes fill the skies overhead. To the northwest, up along highway 151 is Westover Hills, one of the fastest growing areas of the city. What was farmland just a few years ago is now filled with strip malls and restaurants, whose consumers consist of west-side residents and military personnel.

    Highway 151 intersects with Loop 410 in the middle of all the growth. Traveling northeast and cutting back through what is now the central part of the city are a few Red McCombs car dealerships, several H-E-B’s and Henry’s Puffy Taco. Henry’s is a terrific local establishment with the best Taco Nortenos in town and is where a waitress once asked my family if we were Norwegian. “No, we’re just pale and blonde,” I replied.

    My daughter was three when we moved here and one of the most disconcerting habits of old-time San Antonians was their propensity to approach unannounced and softly touch her head before quickly moving on. It seemed to happen everywhere. Restaurants, H-E-B, everywhere. It was a relief to learn later that the act was out of respect and admiration, and an attempt to not curse her with “El Ojos.”

    Ojos means “eyes” in Spanish, and legend holds that if you stare at something of beauty for too long you’ll curse it. To break the spell you have to touch the object. These older men and women around town were telling her how beautiful they thought her long blonde hair was without saying a word.

    Further east on Loop 410 is Broadway, which cuts south through Alamo Heights, home of the 09ers and old money. The 09ers, named for the last two digits of the area’s zip code, are usually the fans with courtside seats at Spurs games. The neighborhoods are stunning with beautifully crafted homes and gnarling oak trees that often join to form a tunnel over the roads.

    A couple of miles east of that is Austin Highway and Earl Abel’s Café, with the best fried chicken in town and where the waitress will do her best to sell you a pie or two to go. Austin Highway crosses Harry Wurzbach, and just off to the left of that intersection and behind an H-E-B is the George Gervin Youth Center. It’s a charter school and academy for troubled youth and home to basketball tournaments for teams from all over South Texas, founded by the Spurs legend in 1995. With my daughter’s love for basketball, we spend most weekends in one of the center’s three gyms and it’s not uncommon to say a quick hello and endure an appendage-swallowing handshake from Gervin himself.

    A few miles south of the Gervin Center is one of the most breathtaking sites in all of San Antonio: the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery and its thousands of perfectly aligned, simple white headstones. I never pass without feeling profound gratitude and sadness for all those brave souls that gave their lives to protect us all. There’s an overwhelming sense of smallness when trying to comprehend their discipline and sacrifice.

    Back to the west is the community of Terrell Hills, with more historic neighborhoods and well-appointed homes. A few miles north, just off of Highway 281, is the Mariscos El Bucanero restaurant, where construction workers and day laborers feast on fantastic, creamy Gobernador shrimp tacos or spicy steak ranchero.

    Interstate 10 cuts into the city from the far northwest side and then makes an L-shape through the center of downtown, heading east towards Houston. The Dominion neighborhood is on the northwest side of I-10 with its rolling hills and mansions of stucco and terra cotta roofs. The Dominion is home to George Strait, some members of the Spurs and lots of new money. Five miles further west is Helotes and the legendary John T. Floore Country Store, where on any given night Willie Nelson just might show up and play. It’s a true Texas experience to gorge on their homemade tamales and drink cold beer while listening to live Hill Country music under massive oak trees.

    Back towards the heart of the city along NW Military Drive is the Jewish Community Center that continues to sponsor adult basketball leagues for weekend warriors wanting one more taste of glory and several neighborhoods that are home to a large portion of the city’s Jewish population. The H-E-B in the center of it all has a terrific kosher selection and delectable Cuban sandwiches.

    Further south, and back toward the east, are the airport and a seemingly endless number of large banks and hotels, en route to Interstate 35 and back towards downtown near the Alamo and River Walk.

    Traveling the different corners of the city can be done in a couple of hours, depending on the time of day and traffic. But regardless where you find yourself, San Antonio’s uniqueness will overwhelm. Every place has a feeling, an emotion. Every city can be personified. New York and Houston are in a hurry; Santa Fe and Austin are artistic; Seattle is elegantly gloomy and Detroit is down on her luck. And as Hondo Crouch — the legendary Hill Country poet, former mayor of Luckenbach and “imagineer” — said, “Dallas smiles too hard.”

    For San Antonio, it’s family. San Antonio is blue-collar and pure and small. San Antonio is home.

     

     

    Fiesta & reluctant exuberance

    In August, there’s a greyish haze in the air and the oppressive heat threatens to never relent. In January, there might be a translucent brown cloud covering the city composed of cedar pollen and pure evil. But the best time of year is in late April when Fiesta is underway, the grassy medians that divide the city’s roads are covered in bluebonnets and the Spurs are about to embark on another playoff run.

    For the uninitiated, Fiesta is quite simply a party, nearly a month long, that begins in mid-April. There’s an Oyster Bake, and the ceremonial crowning of a king (El Rey Feo). Then there’s a crowning of a dog (El Rey Fido). There are “Nights in old San Antonio,” a River Parade and a Battle of Flowers. And weaved into all of these events are two things: beer and gorditas (think tacos but with a puffy, deep-fried yet softer outer shell).

    As for the Spurs, their playoff charge has become an annual event, as well. Businesses all over town hang huge GO SPURS GO! signs on their buildings and the mood is festive. It’s after the pollen and before the heat, and a city that adores celebration is ready to once again live and die with its Spurs. The cars traveling along the highways described above are equipped with at least one black Spurs window flag, but, more often than not, at least two. What Friday nights in the fall are to tiny, West Texas towns and high school football, April is that for San Antonio and the Spurs.

    But April 2014 was different. The usual bravado from a city home to a team with four trophies was replaced with caution. The Spurs themselves were quietly confident in their march, but the city was reluctant to believe again.

    June 2013 was a devastating betrayal for those that love the Spurs. Not by the team or organization, but a betrayal by their own hearts. So many allowed themselves to be vulnerable, to believe that a group of aging veterans had one final run in them and they came so painfully close on a steamy summer night in Miami. Spurs fans have been preparing themselves for the end of the Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili era for several years, so it truly was a traumatic experience to have what many believed would be one final championship for these weathered veterans so quickly ripped away.

    It was incredibly difficult for the fans all over, but particularly for the residents of San Antonio to jump back on board after such heartbreak as the team trudged along through the regular season last year. It was evident from the start that fans were reluctant to fully embrace the possibility that this team might be able to climb back to the top of the mountain. But slowly they did. Even after the pain from the summer of 2013, they did. The Spurs themselves methodically marched back toward their goal, and one by one, the fans fully gave themselves back to their team. The city wasn’t ready last April, but by June the familiar machismo was back.

    In 2014, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs went out and did the impossible. They somehow found a way to use the devastation from 2013 to fuel them to another championship. They pulled themselves off the mat and continued charging forward, carrying a reluctant fan base and city on their shoulders who were quite naturally kicking and screaming in protest until the very end. Fiesta usually ends in April, but last year it carried on through late spring and for the entire summer.

    I had the privilege of covering the Spurs last season during their championship run. I’ll carry with me countless memories from that magical time: Gregg Popovich’s piercing, all-knowing, yet oblivious stare; Tim Duncan’s pre-game routine of shadow boxing Kawhi Leonard; and Danny Green wandering the halls beneath the arena looking for a snack. And the length of the cathartic roar during Game 5 of the NBA Finals after Leonard made a pull-up 3-pointer to give the Spurs the lead for the first (and last) time will stay with me forever.

    But perhaps my favorite came during the fourth quarter of Game 1 against Miami. During the regular season, the gameday press corps has a spot on the east end of AT&T Center looking down on the court. But as the playoffs progress, temporary seating is built for the throng of reporters on the west end in the H-E-B Fan Zone. The platforms are very high and the seats are essentially in the center of the arena so the view of the court is great. Game 1 was the now infamous night when the air conditioning went out and LeBron James struggled late with leg cramps.

    It was indescribably hot inside the arena that night. I noticed the heat just as I got to my seat before the game started. At first it seemed a result of the extremely cramped temporary seating, but it wasn’t long before we heard that the air conditioning was out. The players struggled mightily on the court and the game was excruciatingly close throughout. The constant motion of the thousands in attendance fanning themselves with game programs distracted from the play on the court. But during the fourth quarter, as the temperature began to impact everyone, those fans inside relentlessly urged the Spurs to finish.

    The chants of GO SPURS GO! would start high in the rafters on one side of the arena and the other side would soon follow. My seat was a perfect spot to hear the synchronization  — to my left the chant would start and seconds later the fans to my right would begin. The two sides would continue, seconds apart, but sync together and eventually make the tiny hairs on the back of your neck tingle. At one point, their roars prevented the famous Spurs Coyote from completing one of his bits, which never happens; the Coyote runs the show, but not on that night. It was organic and spectacular. And it was solely the work from the most die-hard fans in the cheapest seats in the arena.

    I can imagine there were several thousand who spent more money than they should have to be there but had no regrets. They were the fans from all corners of the city that at one time probably enjoyed dime beer night at HemisFair, or sat up near the massive curtains at the Alamo Dome. Hell, some may have even thrown avocados at Larry Brown so many years ago. And it was those same fans that felt the most joy when the Spurs won on that steamy night and days later secured their fifth title.

    It was those, and the thousands of others, that shut down the major highways and small neighborhood roads near downtown on Father’s Day 2014, to celebrate a championship in a way that only San Antonio can and that I’m most happy for.

    Just before midnight, after the Spurs defeated the Heat and won their fifth title and the last of the press conferences had wrapped up, I walked out onto the court. The floor was covered in confetti and people, but it wasn’t fans or VIPs who were celebrating. It was the ushers and vendors and paid staff of the AT&T Center taking pictures and making snow angels in the piles of confetti on the floor. It was employees of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, celebrating an NBA championship on the hardwood of the AT&T Center late into the night. It was all the people that make the machine run, but few ever see. It was the Spurs Family. The nameless, faceless “little people” that make the big things possible.

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    The smallest details

    Of course, if you were to ask those inside the Spurs’ organization they’d probably shrug it off.

    Sure it’s an important part of the evening, but it’s nothing special. It’s just another piece of the machine, part of the myriad operations that churn out success night after night, year after year. Like so many components of this franchise, there is an underappreciated precision in carrying out such a small, simple task.

    There is a group of men assigned to it, rotating throughout the game. Sure, these men have other duties to perform, but taking care of it is just as important as anything they will do during the night. There is nothing fancy about it. It’s just an unassuming paper Gatorade cup. Actually it is two cups stacked together, doubled for stability and to prevent sweating. No bells and whistles. No rock ‘n’ roll.

    Late in the fourth quarter of a game in early spring, Gregg Popovich called timeout with the lead. The cup was filled to halfway and placed gently atop a folded Gatorade towel on the edge of the scorer’s table as players left the court. The assistant coaches joined Popovich on the court several feet away to diagram plays. Boris Diaw sauntered off the court and prepared to take his regular seat on the edge of the scorer’s table. The cup was pulled to safety as Boris effortlessly plopped down. The feeling of relief from the cup men was palpable.

    Soon after, Boris stood and joined the huddle. The cup was placed back on the edge, in its rightful spot. But suddenly Boris returned to lounge once again.

    Pull the cup! Quickly, pull the cup!

    Again the cup is pulled to safety just in time. No need for Boris to concern himself with its safety. He’s got a job to do, as do the cup men. Boris sits where he pleases and pirouettes on the court, while the men take care of the cup. Everyone knows their appointed role, no matter how small.

    As the buzzer sounded and the players returned to the court, the chaotic symphony reached a crescendo. Popovich’s timeout chair was handed to Coach Engelland, who leaned it up against the scorer’s table behind the bench while all others scurried for their spots.

    The NBA is a glorious wonderland but the space available during a game is minimal, ridiculous even. Giant men cramped together, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee.

    But it’s even more crowded for the support-staff that sit behind the team. A young trainer attempted to return to his seat with a tray full of water bottles. He’s a man of slight build, which is of critical importance. The distance between the last chair on the bench and the scorer’s table is a few inches at best and a larger man wouldn’t fit. His challenge was to navigate the opening while not disturbing Pop’s cup, which was sitting precariously on the edge of the scorer’s table atop a towel, leaving it completely vulnerable and unbalanced. He’d done it a thousand times but the butterflies never go away. It’s almost as if the cup was placed in that exact spot as some sort of test. And on that night, and during that particular timeout, the slight young trainer experienced the scare of his life.

    He nudged the cup with his tray of bottles, almost tipping it over. Fortunately the nudge proved harmless and the cup didn’t spill. Everyone assigned, and even those that weren’t, took notice. That was too close.

    As play resumed, Popovich walked past the cup and wandered a few feet down the sideline. He barked orders to Tony Parker and made a gesture with his hand, similar to a parent making shadow puppets for his kids. The defense was set. Popovich returned to the edge of the scorer’s table and looked absently at his cup. In the midst of wondering whether he had the right personnel and defense he took a quick drink, swishing the cool water in his mouth. The game resumed and he set it once again on the towel.

    In one fluid motion it was refilled by one of the nameless cup men as Coach Popovich turned his full attention toward the play on the court. The moment went unnoticed by the thousands in attendance, but the routine, like so many other tiny, seemingly irrelevant tasks, are part of the bigger picture. The Spurs seem to do the small things better than most and the microcosm in that moment has always stuck with me.

    And so it goes for the San Antonio Spurs.

    Gregg Popovich’s expectations dominate the organization. He expects excellence from his players, coaching staff and those responsible for the tasks not usually seen. His pursuit is unending and, by his sheer force of will, the smallest things converge to create a series of very big things. Five of them in fact.

    Or as my son might say, “cinto.”

     

    The smallness in it all

    And so it goes for my city.

    Differences in our cultures and the length of our winter are both small. My son cautiously taking small steps into a brave new world, counting in Spanish on his tiny fingers. The familiarity and routine found in the nation’s seventh-largest city, making it feel so little. The absence of a physically imposing structure downtown to match the history and allure of the Alamo, whose ghosts seem to come out in the spring shortly after the battle’s anniversary to celebrate with the rest of us. And the majesty and awe found in a military cemetery and the overwhelming realization that there are things, there are moments, there are movements bigger than all of us.

    For 42 years the city of San Antonio has loved her Spurs. And the Spurs have reciprocated by bringing us closer together, making San Antonio feel like a family. Making everything feel smaller.

    And, once again, it’s almost April.