After waiting for nearly an hour, the man you have come to see finally makes an appearance. Wearing a lab coat on top of a professional suit and tie combo, he looks every bit the authority figure you were led to believe. You offer your hand. He ignores it, gesturing for you to sit. Nervously, you oblige.
“Before we get started, I need you to understand something,” he begins, without looking up from the chart he has opened in front of you. Pausing to adjust his tie, he closes his chart and calmly stares at you.
“The San Antonio Spurs are boring,” he says, with a matter-of-fact certitude that you feel compelled to agree with. After all, he is an authority figure. He knows what he’s talking about.
“If you write anything about the Spurs, you must address this point. Every time you even think about the Spurs, that has to be what is on your mind.”
Years later, you sit down to watch the Spurs advance to their fifth NBA Finals since 1999 and their first since 2007. Despite shooting three pointers at a rate comparable to Knicks and possessing a team-wide passing game the likes of which a scrappy underdog team in a feel-good basketball movie aspires to, one thought dominates your mind: this team is boring. You’re not even sure if you agree anymore. The Spurs have been so good or so long that the mere thought of them not winning 50 games is as alien to you as basketball before the three pointer. In 1997-98, their first year under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs went 56-26. In all but one season since, they have won at least 50 games, and the one year in which they didn’t was shortened by a lockout, and they won the NBA title.
Since the Spurs started this run of excellence, nearly unprecedented in the history of the sport, Michael Jordan has retired, returned, retired, drafted Kwame Brown, been elected to the Hall of Fame and re-created the Charlotte Hornets. In 1998, Saving Private Ryan was the top film at the box office, while the soundtrack to Titanic was the top-selling album. When that first season under Popovich ended, MTV’s Total Request Live had yet to debut. The fourth and final Lethal Weapon film was released, marking Jet Li’s debut in American cinema. 1998 saw video game releases such as Starcraft, Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I said it before, and I’ll repeat it here: this level of continued excellence is essentially unparalleled in the history of this sport. Only Bill Russell’s Celtics can make such a claim, and this Spurs run has already lasted two years longer than Russell’s entire NBA career. One can only imagine how today’s NBA would react to eleven titles in fourteen seasons.
Yet, through all of this, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking, talking, or even looking at the Spurs from an outsider’s perspective is that they are somehow less interesting than the more explosive and dysfunctional super teams we’ve all become accustomed to. Even before Boston’s superteam made “collusion” a four letter word, the Lakers were the more entertaining alternative to the greatness of the Spurs, which makes a certain kind of sense. Watching Shaq and Kobe passive-aggressively dance around one another while Phil Jackson smirks makes for a more entertaining locker room than Tim Duncan calmly befriending his teammates and fostering a culture of respect and professionalism. At a certain point, this narrative (the only narrative the Spurs have ever faced, it seems) becomes so all-encompassing that I have to ask myself if the Spurs are even supposed to be good. Their goal as a franchise seems to be perceived less about succeeding and profiting than it is living up to some abstract notion of entertainment. Are they professionals, or are they entertainers? No matter how proficient, skilled or downright great the on-court product is, it seems the Spurs will always fall victim to what is now an ancient meme in the ever-powerful court of public opinion.
If you think there’s any confusion about this in the organization itself, then you just haven’t been paying attention. Gregg Popovich cares less about your opinion of his team’s watchability than you do about what he had for breakfast this morning. Surely he, and the Spurs by extension, have never had the most…charitable relationship with the media. One has to wonder if there’s a sort of chicken-egg situation going on here. Are the Spurs cold and withdrawn to the media because the media keeps calling them boring, or does the media keep calling them boring because the Spurs are cold and withdrawn? I should probably steer away from using such a catch-all term as “the media,” but it feels appropriate in this instance. The Spurs have generally been equal-opportunity in their disdain for all things newsworthy.
In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase that is the subtitle of said book, the idea that most evil is committed not by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who “accepted the premise of their state and continued with the idea that what they were doing was normal.” This idea was of course brought the forefront by the actions of Nazi Germany during the Third Reich, and the common defense of simply “following orders” used at the Nuremberg Trials and in countless other instances since. I bring this up not to go into any sort of depth on the Holocaust or even to claim that any of this has anything to do with “evil.” I bring this up because the premise of the Banality of Evil gave rise to a series of very interesting and very telling social experiments of the latter half of the 20th century. Among these experiments are Stanley Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience, the Zimbardo Prison Study and Ron Jones’ Third Wave experiment. These were all interesting exercises that said a lot about the nature of authority and pack mentality, but at the risk of drawing further from my topic, I won’t elaborate upon them. Look them up yourself if interested. I simply bring up these references to aid in what has recently become a bit of a theory of mine in reference to the NBA and how we, being enlightened people on the internet (lulz) discuss it.
Much has been made in recent months and years of the prevalence of the dreaded narrative in coverage of our favorite sport. I won’t argue that some of these narratives (specifically the ones that deal with such unmeasurable, fickle, and honestly silly things as “mental toughness” and “clutch”) are tiring to the point of nausea, the idea that even the most ardent sabermetricians among us would prefer basketball to be viewed as the statistical variance study it generally is, without the narrative, we wouldn’t care. Take the first round of this year’s playoffs, for example. Where Knicks/Celtics was interesting to a lot of people (even outside the respective markets), Pacers/Hawks was seen as dull and lifeless. The quality of basketball in those two series was essentially the same: bad. Because the Knicks and Celtics are filled to the brim with such interesting characters and at some semblance of history between the teams, it was seen as a gritty, albeit sloppy series where Pacers/Hawks was merely dull. To take this to a higher level, look at the reaction and discussion of the dearly departed Heat/Bulls series in comparison to, say, the Spurs/Grizzlies Western Conference Finals. Despite ending in fewer games, Spurs/Grizzlies was a much higher quality than Heat/Bulls (that is to say: any quality at all). Because of the Derrick Rose Saga* and the Heart Gristle McLeadership of high-quality basketball stalwart Nate Robinson, Bulls/Heat was seen as one team valiantly fighting inevitability where Spurs/Grizzlies was simply more consistent domination from the unstoppable tide that is the San Antonio Spurs.
*note to self: punch self in face as hard as possible for using this phrase
I don’t mean to sound judgmental, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I myself don’t prefer at least some sort of intrigue in my basketball viewing. All I mean to say is that we’ve become somewhat conditioned, either by the narratives we claim to have no use for or some strange form of peer pressure, to blindly follow the “Spurs are boring” train to the point that it has lost all meaning and has become nothing more than a platitude, a crutch to hold up a dead idea, a grassy hill to die upon for a cause long past dying for. It’s a meaningless phrase, a non-starter that adds nothing to any conversation and only serves to inform everyone around you that you don’t really care for making your own opinions or this whole “thinking” thing. The Spurs still might be boring to you, but that should be because you dislike constants and require a little more combustion in your basketball life. The fact remains that such determination should be made by the on-court product and not by what is now an ancient and mystical ritual by which we indoctrinate our new recruits.
I, for one, welcome our new Spurs-bot overlords.