In a rare moment of clarity I was able to step back and appreciate what lay ahead.
It was in January of 1994 and the Cowboys were about to square off against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. A few minutes before kick-off I began to think about how no matter what, win or lose, I was lucky to be in that spot as a fan. Of course it didn't hurt that Dallas went on to win the game en route to their 2nd consecutive Super Bowl title, but over the years I've often thought about that moment and that feeling. That sense of calm and gratitude is fleeting to say the least.
I was reminded of that cold winter day earlier this year when I took my daughter to a Spurs game just before their annual Rodeo Road Trip. It was a much closer game than it should have been, with the Spurs winning the game in the final seconds. I wrote about the experience and the unintentional lesson my then 12 year-old daughter taught me at Pounding the Rock.
Gregg Popovich started a guy named Shannon Brown (a free one for you trivia question buffs), and the game was tight throughout. Tiago Splitter made his return after missing 12 games with a strained right shoulder but the Spurs continued to be without the services of Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. The Kings took a seemingly commanding lead about midway through the 3rd and it appeared as if the Spurs would fight valiantly but come up short, again.
But with 8:33 left in the game, Patty Mills hit a three pointer to close the gap to two. The Kings called a time-out with the score 80-78 and the crowd was rocking. Then as if on cue the Coyote brought out his t-shirt cannon and thousands demanded that the roof immediately be raised. After the timeout Tiago Splitter made a reverse lay-up and Matt Bonner played the last few minutes like a man without a mask to hide behind and the Spurs held on for a two-point win and ended a three game losing streak.
It wasn't pretty, but damn, was it fun.
I took my daughter to the game and she cheered wildly during the entire sequence described above. I bought her a ticket close by in the section immediately above press row but it wasn't crowded that night so she sat in an empty seat next to me. She asked if it was ok to cheer or if she had to remain impartial. I told her to cheer her face off for the Spurs, and she did.
On the drive home my daughter fell asleep, content that she'd helped cheer her team on to victory and I was listening to REACT with Geoff Sheen on WOAI.
About halfway through, a caller caught my attention. He suggested that "it's time to end the experiment and trade Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili while they still have some value." He said he was extremely worried about the next decade so it's time to blow the whole thing up and start over.
And in that moment I realized his thinking wasn't even on the extreme fringe for some Spurs' fans. The Spurs had won only two of their previous six games and were losing ground in the chase for home court advantage to the Oklahoma City Thunder. While Gregg Popovich and the Spurs continually downplayed its importance, most knew that the Spurs needed home court advantage, particularly in a potential matchup against the younger, more athletic Thunder. So as the team treaded water and dealt with injuries to virtually everyone on the team, it was understandable for some fans to panic. And this was all against the backdrop of the looming Rodeo Road Trip...
...Historically, the Spurs have performed well on the road trip, using it as a time to coalesce as a unit and learn how to grind out road wins. But every year is different, and the bad luck that had befallen the Spurs this year seemed an ominous sign as the team prepared to travel the country for three weeks.
Of course, there was also the matter of Spurs fans having been spoiled.
Over the last 16 years the Spurs have been one of the most successful franchises in all of professional sports. And that, as we all know, is a vicious double-edged sword. It means we aren't supposed to have fun at a game and enjoy a last second win against the Kings, because we can't. There are just too many things to be worried about.
We have to be thinking about the next decade or how Timmy's knees are holding up or when Pop is going to retire or why can't Jeff Ayres catch a ball or, if given the chance, would Aron Baynes eat some of the smaller guys?
And if he eats all the guards, how would the guard play be?
Look, I don't profess to be the wisest or most tenured Spurs observer, but I know greatness when I see it. And if given the choice between having to take a clinical approach and dissect every deficiency and mitigate every shortfall or just cheering my face off for my favorite team, I'll join my daughter every time and silently cheer from press row.
I realized it's not going to last forever. Nothing does. So I promised myself to do my best to enjoy it all while it was right in front of my face.
But that promise is so, so difficult to keep. I break it several times every week, particularly during Tech games and when my fantasy teams struggle. I woke up this morning pissed-off at the Carolina defense and Steve Hauschka for costing me (and Gilbert) a win last night because I really want to win that stupid plastic trophy this year.
I worry about how Kingsbury will call the game and whether or not Mike Smith can teach his guys the fundamentals of "tackling the man with the football," quickly enough to make a difference in Stillwater, and can guarantee that my blood pressure will be off the charts for three hours Thursday night. I'll get upset at kids half my age and my mood at the office on Friday will be completely predetermined by the events from the night prior.
It's funny how we get to this point. We're so invested in the competitive nature of sports that that the only time we're happy is when there is actually no game being played. Our only times of happiness are in looking forward to a season rather than living in the moment during it.
Add to that the ridiculous and obscene personalities that populate the world in which we're so invested and it makes maintaining that fanatic cult-like worship even more inane. Jameis Winston, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, et al won't be the end of sports but their actions (and similar actions by countless others) chip away at what once seemed impenetrable armor. Sometimes it's just not fun to be a fan anymore.
Perhaps a suitable inoculant against those depressing thoughts is to draw on my younger, thinner, twenty year-old self or model my actions after my daughter and her innocent, unbridled joy in a simple win. Of course, doing so is impossible because sports is hard.
But just for a minute I'm going to pretend that everything in the world is pristine. Thursday night will be glorious and my fantasy team will never lose another game. The Spurs will repeat as NBA champs and Kingsbury will be the National Coach of the Year multiple times. Just for a minute I'm going to remember that for every Jameis Winston there is a John White. For every Ray Rice there is a Jim Kelly.
Because for all of the things that can (and do) go wrong, and all the obnoxious evil that we have to endure, it's still worth the ride. The hope in sports is worth the ride.