Things Make Sense Eventually

I didn’t love King of the Hill when I was a kid.

King of the Hill was boring. It was the worst kind of bait-and-switch for a kid. Animated television was about creating memorable moments detached from reality silly enough to capture the minds of young ones. Watching King of the Hill when I was 5 was like eating an apple only to find out way too late that a worm had already buried itself deep into the fibers and defiled the core. It looked the part of a kid-friendly cartoon, but the story, the pace and the morals weren’t meant for us youngsters. The Simpsons, as warm and charming and socially aware as it was, was the perfect caricature for little kids to giggle and grow into. King of the Hill offered little accommodation, which is why, for more years of my life than not, I paid no attention.

As much as I hate myself today for ignoring the show for as long as I did, some things just don’t make sense until you’re older.

I didn’t love the San Antonio Spurs as a kid. I didn’t love them in high school. Hell, part of me still feels guilty for loving them now. I’m a detached fan of the NBA with no true allegiance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it all came back to the Spurs crushing every team I’ve ever dared to love.

My first real memories as a fan came in 1999 when the Knicks fought their way through the Eastern bracket and improbably landed in the NBA Finals. There was balladry to their run as they toppled key and iconic rivals to get to the highest stage. There was real emotional weight to Allan Houston’s last second runner, full-court dash and subsequent fist pump in Game 5 of the first round matchup against the Miami Heat “ one of the indelible basketball images in my mind.

The Spurs crushed them in a cruel gentleman’s sweep, pitying the Knicks enough to give them one victory. I hated them for that. Duncan went about his dominance with that same dispassionate off-centered gaze. It’s a gaze I’ve never been able to escape.

The same gentleman’s sweep befell the 2004-05 Suns, the team that made me realize what basketball meant to me. I still assert that things would have been different had Joe Johnson not fractured his orbital bone in the Dallas series, but it didn’t matter. The Spurs found a way to crush me once more. I may never love another team the way I loved those Suns. And I’ll never truly be able to embrace the Spurs with open arms. I know what they’e capable of. And no one wants ever wants their heart broken.

But I’m a bit older now, and it’s hard not to accept, respect, and admire the Spurs and their ability to adapt while planting themselves firmly in a time-tested system.

Last night’s 40-point loss to the Blazers was maybe as good of an attempt at physical humor by the Spurs as the instant hack-a-Shaq in their 2008-09 season opener. There is something absurdly funny and charming about the Spurs’ (though more specifically, Gregg Popovich’s) devotion to their fundamental beliefs. What Popovich did was pragmatic. All-Star Weekend is coming up, and getting his best players the rest they need while getting his bench up to speed is a fantastic idea. One that no other coach would dare put into motion. But placing these fundamental set of ideals on the highest pedestal is what has created the immaculate machine of success that we call the Duncan-era Spurs. It’s what made King of the Hill such a great show. It’s also what keeps them both overlooked.

Despite the many different iterations of the Spurs team in the Duncan era, the way we frame our discourse hasn’t changed much. They’re still tedious and boring, which was largely due to their defensive reputation (though they are much better on offense than defense today). They operate in retrograde;”a betrayal of the league’s new era of supreme athleticism,” as Kevin Arnovitz put it.

But why do we continue to think that way? Why did we think that way? Today, we appreciate the Spurs a lot more, though partially due to a preemptive nostalgic guilt, as we’re mentally prepared to lose the league’s most resilient institution soon. We celebrate the way they’re still able to get it done with superior spacing and chemistry, knowing full well that a few years ago, we all hated them for it.

As effective as the system has been for the Spurs, it’s entirely at fault for the perceptions we have. How else could two of the most dynamic guards in recent memory go largely unnoticed for their careers? I hated Tony Parker without having much of a reason why. He’s as quick, as resourceful, as effective as most star point guards in the league. But somehow, he isn’t as fun. Manu Ginobili is the most creative wing in the game and easily one of the best two-way players. But the first thing that comes to mind is flopping. Parker and Ginobili provided quirkiness and improvisation to a set system, yet the image of the whole is more powerful than the individual. The Popovichean system drapes a grayish veil over the players, keeping them grounded as cogs in a larger work, but also keeps their dynamism largely imperceptible to the fan.

I’ve seen the King of the Hill series finale at least five times now, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. The show’s a lot more fun to watch when you can relate. In its 13 years, King of the Hill was often used as a stop-gap on Sundays to fill in for the absence of more showy, more excitable series. It carved out a niche for itself, staying grounded as only a show with Hank Hill as the protagonist can. The show sat in that 7:30 p.m. time slot so comfortably, it was easy to forget it existed at all. But those who were keen enough to tune in found a show with warmth and heart. It didn’t harass you with laughter, but its stories made sure you were smirking throughout the ride.

“We get guys who want to do their job and go home and aren’t impressed with the hoopla,” says Popovich. “One of the keys is to bring in guys who have gotten over themselves. They either want to prove that they can play in this league or they want to prove nothing. They fill their role and know the pecking order. We have three guys who are the best players, and everyone else fits around them.”

via The Tao of Pop | Sports Illustrated, L. Jon Wertheim (3/9/09)

There are only so many more years that the Spurs can stave off extinction. They can continue to reboot their supporting cast, but their main attraction is breaking down. Duncan carries the same dispassionate demeanor of his youth, but his body is wearing away. What are the Spurs without their ultimate embodiment, their protagonist? What happens when the Duncan leaves the game for good? King of the Hill’s finale provides us with clues, but no definitive answer. The torch was passed on at the end of the show as Hank and his son Bobby finally found common ground in their tumultuous relationship. But it’s a TV show. There was no doubt of that happening. Hank Hill was based on many men, and his relationship with his son was based on many family relationships. But in the NBA, there will only ever be one Tim Duncan.

Makes me wonder how we’ll remember these Spurs once they’re gone. They’ve killed a lot of beauty in their day. They’ve created a lot too.

Seth Carstens