Black Coffee, Steely Dan, and the Bland, Refined Flavor of the San Antonio Spurs

Photo by atilla acs on Flickr

Tuesday night’s winterization of the Clippers by the Spurs was comprehensive. They shut off their water, emptied and cleaned their swimming pool then covered it with a heavy duty tarp, brought in their garden furniture, unplugged the coffee maker, drained their plumbing and filled it with antifreeze, and set a little timer to make their living room lights come on between 6:30 pm and 11:45 pm. When all was said and done, the Spurs walked away with a 108-92 victory and a 1-0 lead in the best of seven series. And it didn’t really seem that close. The Clippers went on a run early in the fourth to cut the deficit to 8 with 8:42 remaining, but the Spurs tightened up again and never looked back after that.

This was either something to be admired, more a work of craftsmanship than pure sport, the purest expression of the artistry of the Spurs or else it was just another mind-numbingly boring display of the interminable snoozefest that the Spurs pass off as basketball. Myles Brown said “Why do people think watching something that works well is so boring?” and then twenty minutes later Netw3rk said, “The Spurs ‘brand’ has been more or less in place for over a decade … and the sports fan at-large doesn’t want it. It bores them.” For a long time, I agreed with the latter. One of my first articles for this site was, after all, about Tim Duncan and was titled “More Like Power Bore-wards.” But beginning with when I took a closer look at the layered and deceptively simple way their plays work, I began to turn the corner on the Spurs. Suddenly, I was looking forward to watching them play the Clippers, and the reason is plain: the Spurs are an acquired taste, like black coffee or whiskey.

The essence of an acquired taste is that you have to want to acquire it before you actually know if you like it. This is supremely counterintuitive. But there aren’t very many people who get their first taste of black coffee and say, “Man, this is what I’ve been missing!” No: you ease yourself into it with drinks that please your sweet tooth, with frappucinos and other things that are more like milkshakes than coffee. And a lot of people will stay right there, enjoying their coffee with whip cream and chocolate syrup, but some people will eventually decide they want to be discerning about their coffee not as a drink, but as coffee. As an experience unto itself. Things like getting your coffee beans whole to grind yourself becomes important. Having a coffee maker that keeps the water at the right temperature and ready all the time becomes important. In some ways, it means not just liking the thing but liking that you like it.

So it goes—if you’re not someone who just grew up with them—with the Spurs, and Kevin Arnovitz hit on this in his excellent post about their motion weak offense. It’s a beautiful explanation of how the Spurs subtly derange the defense by having Tony Parker hand the ball off on one wing and cut through the paint to receive it on the other wing. In essence, Arnovitz’s case is that this shouldn’t be boring because almost anything can happen at any point in the play. This set gives the Spurs so many options: if the defense is napping, Parker can get the handoff back and drive the lane; if Duncan has good position on the low block, he can get the ball and back his man down; if the swingman at the top of the arc is Bonner, he can shoot the three if he’s open; and on and on and on. It sounds great on paper, but there’s a problem with how it’s received by the average basketball fan, and Arnovitz actually points it out himself. “The final resort of the Spurs’ signature set,” he writes, “looks like the first strike from most teams — a simple angle pick-and-roll on the left side with a variety of drive-and-dish options for Parker.” All that motion, all that glorious stuff, can end up looking like what most teams start with, and that’s why it seems boring. If you can’t see the intricacies that got Parker the ball on the opposite wing, if you can’t see how it’s gotten Duncan better post position on the weak side or how it’s freed up a wing at the top of the arc, then it just looks like noise.

But this is just another part of an acquired taste because the onus is on you to understand it, not on the object to become more likable. If someone says they like whiskey and then goes on to say they drink Southern Comfort, someone who’s actually into whiskey will point out that Southern Comfort is technically a whiskey-flavored liqueur. And that’s the thing: a taste that requires acquiring is not about figuring out what you like about something. It’s about learning something new outside yourself, about bringing that thing into your understanding.

Outside of consumable items, acquired tastes pop up most often in music, so it’s also natural for people to reach for band comparisons in trying to explain the Spurs. I compared them to Menomena, a band that builds its songs into complex machines out of simple melodic units. Netw3rk compared them to Fugazi on Tuesday night.

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/netw3rk/status/202608476864774146"]

It’s an apt comparison in a lot of ways. Fugazi cared not for mainstream acceptance and had no interest in signing to a major label after they became successful. All their CDs bore the text “This CD is $8 postpaid from Dischord Records” at a time when most CDs were $17 at Sam Goody and all their shows were all ages and $5. And as Chris Ballard’s Sports Illustrated story on Duncan makes clear, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, as the pillars of the Spurs for the last 15 years, have no interest in anything other than what works on the court. “I could be more accessible and be the darling for everybody,” says Duncan towards the end of the piece. “I could open up my life and get more endorsements and be out there and be a fan favorite. But why would that help?” The Spurs are about basketball the way Fugazi are about music, and that hardcore devotion will always alienate some people.

However. Fugazi are also indelibly cool. By eschewing the machinery of the music industry, they endeared themselves to–and in many ways created–the independent-minded music community. The Spurs’ approach has earned them no such cachet and they remain resolutely unhip and old. So while the way they play the game might be Menomena-esque and the way they approach the game might be Fugazi-esque, the way the public at large views the Spurs is probably most like the way they view Steely Dan.

Technically immaculate, disciplined, with an ever-critical eye towards getting the right players to to do the right jobs, with moments of unalloyed brilliance, their approbation sadly consigned to the province of fellow professionals, completely at home being the background music at JC Penney: this is Steely Dan and the San Antonio Spurs in a nutshell. My freshman year college roommate was a huge Steely Dan fan, and I couldn’t square it with the rest of his personality. He also loved The Smiths and R.E.M.; A Tribe Called Quest and Common (back when he was Common Sense); Sartre and Kerouac. And yet he adored this band that sounded like cheesy elevator music to me, the one with pseudo-jazz sax solos, a band where everything felt scrubbed clean and soulless. The one the dad in “Say Anything” listens to. Where was the fire? The grime? The ragged edge that made the music I liked feel alive? In essence, where were the dunks? The alley-oops? The fast breaks and circus lay-ups? The highest highs and the lowest lows? All Steely Dan were giving me was great footwork, textbook pick and rolls, bank shots, and championships. Steely Dan weren’t  a band I was missing out on, they were a band I wanted to miss out on. As soon as I heard Fugazi in high school, I knew I had to like this band, but I was content to mock Donald Fagen and company until the summer after my junior year.

Something just clicked that summer. But the thing was, I had to go to them. I had to want to become a Steely Dan fan and so I did. I bought Citizen, which neatly collected all their works into one box set, at the record store I worked at and that summer, as my band drove all over Massachusetts playing shows, we listened to a lot of Steely Dan. I slowly developed a taste for their ultra-smooth music, began to appreciate the way it was almost like soul music deconstructed and reconstructed by aliens. Their narrators were seedy, empty, often desperate and I began to see how the music’s coolness, its spotless polish, was a mirror of the facade the song’ characters were living. And once you acquire the taste for something, it draws you in ever deeper.

And so it goes with the Spurs. They’re running the same action I yawned at for most of this season, but suddenly it all looks different. Like a lot of people, I tend to key in on certain players during games, watching how Kevin Durant is getting loose from screens or appreciating the way Derrick Rose can slice through defenders like they’re standing still. But watching the Spurs now I see all the players as just players, as cogs in the machine of Popovich’s offense. I can see those possibilities that Arnovitz outlines in his article arise and come to fulfillment and I get satisfaction out of that seeing. Here’s just one play from Tuesday night’s Game 1 against the Clippers, and it’s a supremely simple one:

Duncan sets the high screen for Parker, who gets doubled. Duncan rolls to the paint where he screens Boris Diaw’s man (Blake Griffin) and Diaw catches it with space. He doesn’t shoot but instead drives into the paint where he finds Duncan wide open for the easy lay-in. So simple, but everyone does exactly what they should do, and that suddenly seems beautiful. And in terms of opening up multiple possibilities, Diaw taking an open three or midrange jumper would have been a fine choice, as would Duncan dishing it back out to Kawhi Leonard because Leonard’s man had collapsed on Duncan.

And so on Tuesday night I sat watching, squarely on the side of those who admire the clean precision, the footwork, the easy way the Spurs kept getting open looks at three-pointers. I’ve acquired the taste for Spurs basketball but I’ve also realized it takes more than just appreciating good fundamental basketball play; it takes appreciating the appreciation of those things—the very essence of acquired taste.