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

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.

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    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN,, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?