sports blog by andy shenk

Silver and Black Chronicle: From Admiral Adulation to Adulthood

In Musings, San Antonio Spurs on July 1, 2012 at 10:32 PM

Earlier this year, on January 27, my wife, Nikki, and I drove up to the Target Center in Minneapolis to attend our first-ever San Antonio Spurs game. 23-years-old, I’d waited my entire life to watch the Silver and Black in person.

I grew up in Springfield, Ohio, the son of a Mennonite pastor with a deep love for basketball. Dad cheered for the Philadelphia 76ers, but gave his children the freedom to choose their own affiliations. Following after my older sister, Joanna, I decided to root for the San Antonio Admiral and his upstart team in south Texas. My earliest Spurs memories are of lying on our living-room floor, examining the Springfield News-Sun sports section, particularly the space reserved for the San Antonio boxscore. Amidst an MJ-crazed world, I spent summer afternoons dreaming of hitting the game-winning shot for San Antonio in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I’d hold the ball at the elbow, back to the basket, then spin and shoot, attempting to duplicate David Robinson’s deadly turnaround jumper.

I collected basketball cards and Robinson always came first in my prized binder. Most of what I knew about him and the Spurs came from those cards, with their glossy photos and snapshots of David’s life crammed on the back, just above his career statistics. I gleaned a few other tidbits from any NBA books that I could find in the local library. I read about the Iceman and that the Spurs had never won a championship. Primarily, though, I soaked up the Admiral’s life story: child prodigy, late-blooming basketball star, Navy man, and born-again Christian.

Through the 1990s David Robinson meant more to me than any other famous athlete. My sports world revolved around the NBA and two of its greatest players, David Robinson and Michael Jordan. I adored Robinson and hated Jordan. Michael always won, cruising to title after title, while my idol failed again and again to vindicate his talent with a ring. The painful accusation that the Spurs, with Robinson at the helm, would never good enough to win a championship hurt as only such things hurt someone so young and fragile emotionally. Jordan, meanwhile, just kept winning.

Underneath my NBA fanaticism lay a personal love of basketball. When I was six or seven I remember deciding one morning that I would make one thousand shots in a day. I got up at 6 am and sometime in the early evening finally canned my thousandth shot on the small cement court in our backyard. When my dad returned from church that night, I could hardly contain myself as I told him about the day’s exploits over Mom’s homemade pizza.

The irony is that I don’t remember watching more than a handful of NBA games in the 1990s. I know for certain that I did not watch a single Spurs game until the 1999 playoffs. We didn’t have a TV at home and my parents tolerated sports within the confines of a limited budget. While they invested in pouring concrete for our backyard court, watching NBA games was not a priority. That meant no trips to a friend’s house or restaurant to watch important games, much less a car ride to Cleveland or Indianapolis to watch the Spurs. I gleaned what I could from the basketball cards and library books, and savored the annual trips to my grandparents’ homes in Indiana and Pennsylvania where I could watch weekend NBA games on NBC.

This early American childhood came to a sudden end, when, at age eight, my parents moved our family to a mountain village in southern Russia. I regretfully left behind my basketball card collection, the Springfield News-Sun sports section, and countless hours playing hoops behind the garage. Now, my younger brother, Jonny, older sister, Bekah, and I spent free time exploring the valley ridges and mountain rivers near our home and pitching in with the many chores our new lifestyle required. Traipsing through the orchard behind the village one day, not long after we’d moved to Russia, I stumbled upon shiny foil packaging, its size and color identical to the packs of basketball cards I treasured back in Ohio. Allowing myself to dream, I flipped the packaging over. To my disappointment, an oatmeal cookie, not cardboard depictions of NBA players, had been the previous tenant. For the next two years I completely lost track of the NBA.

By the time my family returned to the United States, this time settling in northern Indiana, I was ten years old, soon to be eleven. While only in fifth grade, I’d developed intellectually during those two years in Russia, thanks to a voracious appetite for books. Able to finally resume my American sports habit, I took much greater interest than before in the makeup of my favorite teams’ rosters, as well as their game-by-game performances. My adulation of David Robinson, though still strong, became secondary, as I learned to appreciate the entire team and pay closer attention to their results.

Connecting emotionally to a franchise, however, as opposed to idolizing one heroic player, requires commitment and several intangible factors, such as proximity to the team and the ability to regularly watch or listen to games. With very limited internet access and no television, I had no way to connect to San Antonio, beyond the boxscores and league standings in the newspaper. I knew no other Spurs fans (by this time my older sister, Joanna, who’d initially sparked my interest in the Admiral, cared little for the NBA), and the local newspaper and radio stations never talked about them. Perhaps it makes sense, then, why I would save my quarters in fifth and sixth grade so that I could buy one USA Today newspaper a week. At least that sports section offered a few tidbits on the Silver and Black every day.

About this time, my passion for the Cincinnati Reds began its ascent. In contrast to San Antonio, my family lived close enough to Cincinnati that we could attend at least one game each year. More importantly, our hometown of Goshen, Indiana picked up the Reds radio station, 700 WLW. Beginning in early March with Grapefruit League games from Sarasota, my brothers and I regularly tuned the dial to AM 700. In addition to listening to Reds’ broadcast duo, Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall, we often lingered for the post-game talk shows, which made us feel a part of the Reds community, even if we never called in. Inevitably, the number of emotional ties to the Reds quickly surpassed the fondness I felt for the Spurs. If my first sports memories are of gingerly fingering my Robinson card collection and mimicking his moves on the court, then the immediate post-Russia years bring to mind evenings spent throwing frisbee in the front yard with the Reds game playing in the background and summer road trips to Cinergy Field in Cincinnati.

The NBA Playoffs offered me the best opportunity to connect with the Spurs. That’s when my dad would occasionally take us kids over to Grandpa’s house to watch big games. We’d pile plastic bowls high with chocolate ice cream, pour some 7-UP, then settle in the musty living room, where my dad and his brothers used to roughhouse, to watch the game. The 1999 playoffs, which began just four months after we’d returned from the Russian boonies, provided some of my favorite Spurs memories.

Four memories, one for each round, stick out most vividly. The Spurs, top seed in the Western Conference, met the eighth-seeded Timberwolves first in a best-of-five series. I didn’t watch any of those games, but when San Antonio lost at home in Game 2, I can remember the confidence I felt that they would bounce back and ultimately advance. In the second round the Spurs met the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers submitted meekly in four straight games, the young Bryant-O’Neal duo still a year removed from their run of three consecutive championships. The image of a Lakers fan holding up a sign at half-time of Game 4, the first of two games I recall watching during the playoffs, proclaiming something to the effect of “We Still Believe,” is indelibly etched in my mind.

The Western Conference Finals witnessed another Spurs sweep, this time, the talented Portland Trailblazers the victim. My two brothers, Jonny and Nathan, cheered for the Blazers in those days, because forward Brian Grant, a graduate of our favorite college team, Xavier University, starred for Portland. Watching Game 2 together at Grandpa’s, we saw the Blazers jump out to an early fourteen-point halftime lead in San Antonio, only for the Spurs to storm back in the second half. With twelve seconds left on the clock, Spurs legend Sean Elliot canned an unexpected ‘3’ from the sidelines, later named the Memorial Day Miracle, giving the Spurs a one-point lead, and, ultimately, the win. I went crazy with glee, while my younger brother Jonny cooled off his anger by riding his bike into a pond as soon as we got home.

A few weeks later, the Spurs finished off New York in five games to win the NBA Finals. My dad asked me the next day how it felt for my team to have won the championship. I don’t remember what I told him, but I remember a certain disappointment. I sensed that the journey to the title was more enjoyable than the post-championship euphoria, and that I’d not appreciated the season enough while it was happening.

In hindsight, I was absolutely correct. Sadly, twelve years passed before I would follow another Spurs team with even the same level of passion as I did that ’99 squad. Thirteen years until I’d enjoy true devotion to the team I’d always followed, seasoned by a deep appreciation of the franchise, rather than one superstar alone.

In the years between, from 2000-2010, my interest in the Spurs and the NBA, as a whole, gradually waned, reaching rock-bottom in 2006, the year I entered college. My family returned to Russia for four years during my middle-school and early high-school years, wiping out the first Spurs championship. When I returned to America for the second, and final time in 2004, my passions had decidedly shifted toward the more accessible Xavier Musketeers and Cincinnati Reds. I watched a bit of the 2005 playoffs and celebrated a bit, too. Still, with David Robinson’s retirement two years before, I’d lost all personal attachment to the team. Half-heartedly, I named Manu Ginobili my new favorite Spur, but simply could not catch any excitement, three NBA championships and counting notwithstanding.

Soon after the ’05 championship, I also turned decidedly away from the NBA for a time, privileging college ball over pro ball. The Xavier Musketeers, beginning in  the winter of 2006, began a run of thrilling Atlantic-10 league and tournament play, coupled with outstanding performances in the NCAA Tourney. Plugged in to a fun online Xavier community, Xavier Hoops, I focused during the winter almost exclusively on Musketeer basketball. I occasionally attempted to find similar online Spurs’ families, but never quite found the right fit.

Between the 2005 NBA Finals and the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, two key experiences shaped my Spurs’ world. First, my freshman year college roommate, Morris, an earnest Houston Rockets fan, began the process of restoring my interest in the NBA, and, consequently, the Spurs. It started with the little things. After classes, we’d often watch the Top 10 plays from the previous night. I learned to admire anew the much higher athleticism and skill that the NBA offered in comparison to Division I basketball. Morris turned his obsession up a notch, too, when he ordered a Fathead poster of Tracy McGrady and plastered it on the wall above his bed. It sounds silly, but the league felt cool again. Coinciding with the emergence of such greats as Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony, I found it easy to get swept up by NBA marketing. After several years of indifference, I once again wanted to watch NBA broadcasts on TNT and ESPN.

The spring of my freshman year, 2007, I watched several Spurs’ playoff games by myself in the dorm lounge. I had very little free time between running track and classes, plus no one with whom to watch the games, but I knew that I wanted to become more of a fan. Unfortunately, several on-court incidents during those 2007 playoffs, as well as the following 2008 playoffs, dampened my enthusiasm.

In 2007, during a heated San Antonio-Phoenix playoff series, the Spurs’ Robert Horry aggressively checked Suns’ point guard Steve Nash to the ground, bouncing him into the scorer’s table. Coming near the end of a physical Game 4, Suns’ players Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw jumped off the bench and onto the court to confront Horry, garnering automatic one-game suspensions for their actions. They were two of Phoenix’s most important pieces. Without them in Game 5, Phoenix lost, then suffered elimination in Game 6.

At the time, the Suns were popular for their frenetic offensive style, spearheaded by league MVP Nash. Following the Horry body check, the Spurs took on the role of NBA villains for the first time in my life, garnering the hatred of not only Suns fans, but also the many basketball fans who preferred Phoenix’s sexy offense to San Antonio’s plodding, yet aggravatingly effective defense. Worst of all, I despised Horry’s body check, too. In the dark as to the reaction of the Spurs’ players or coaching staff to Horry’s play, I assumed the worst and suffered the shame of rooting for a team that I felt played dirty.

The following year I lived with another roommate, also an NBA fan and avowed Phoenix Suns admirer. Throughout the regular season he occasionally disparaged the Spurs: Bruce Bowen’s devious and dangerous defense, Manu Ginobili’s flopping, and Coach Pop’s encouragement of slow, methodical play. By the time the Spurs bumped the Suns from the playoffs once again in 2008, I’d unwillingly internalized many of his criticisms. No longer, in my mind, were the Spurs the classy franchise I’d once known.

Two more busy years of college behind me, I approached the beginning of the 2010-2011 NBA season with these two experiences foremost in my mind. On the one hand, I loved the NBA and wanted to follow the league more closely. On the other hand, I still carried a bad taste in my mouth of the Spurs from the ’07 and ’08 seasons. I never wavered in my support for San Antonio, but by the fall of 2010 it’d been so long since I had deeply cared about their success that I didn’t bring much passion to the opening of yet another Spurs’ campaign.

Working forty hours a week, I found I had much more free time in the evenings than I’d ever enjoyed while in school. As a result, I spent many November and December evenings enjoying Spurs games streamed illegally from the computer. Soon enough, their regular season success drew me in even further. One game, a road contest in Denver, sticks out most vividly from the first half of the season. To watch the end of the game I stayed up well past my usual bedtime and the Spurs rewarded me with a hard-fought victory in front of the rabid Denver crowd. Despite turning off the computer and heading upstairs, I had difficulty slowing down my racing testosterone. My few memories of the clutch road wins in Dallas and Phoenix of years past came flooding back. I knew then that I still loved these Spurs and their ability to shut up the Western Conference road crowds year after year, no matter how much their stars aged.

As the season progressed, my excitement for the playoffs mounted. Now, improbably, twelve years after I’d last invested in a Spurs playoff run, Coach Pop, Tim Duncan and the boys might give it another go. This time, I knew, I wouldn’t miss it. Though I still knew little about the players themselves, my Spurs pride provided enough passion to fire me up. Through the ebb and flow of my Spurs fandom, hatred for their chief competition, the Mavericks, Lakers, Suns, and more recently Celtics, Heat, and Thunder, had never waned.

Ironically, the Spurs’ collapse in the first round of the playoffs that year against Memphis proved the final spark necessary to fully re-awaken my love for San Antonio. Pained deeply for the first time in my life by a Spurs’ playoff exit, I, nonetheless, gained a deeper emotional connection to the team by suffering with them more than I ever had before.  More importantly, in watching several post-game interviews, I caught a glimpse of the team’s shocking, hilarious honesty, which would win my heart completely in the season to come.

Manu Ginobili, who throughout the series refused to assign any of the blame for his struggles on the broken hand  he suffered in the last game of the regular season, delightfully recounted for reporters how he made a crucial game-saving three-pointer in Game 5: “To tell you the truth I didn’t [think it would go in]. I didn’t even see the rim…I just got lucky – that’s the truth.” Such humility, coupled with the Spurs’ effusive praise for their opponents following elimination, did much to restore my respect for the team.

When the post-Thanksgiving announcement came that players and owners had finally negotiated an agreement to end the 2011 NBA lockout, I looked forward to the upcoming Spurs season with genuine excitement for the first time since the last lockout in 1999. Best of all, my wife, Nikki, and I immediately purchased tickets to the Spurs-Timberwolves game on January 27 in Minneapolis, ensuring that I would finally get to see the team in person.

Leading up to that game, Nikki and I followed the Spurs as best we could despite no television and spotty internet. We listened on the radio to the early January game against the Wolves in which Ginobili went down once again to injury. Though we couldn’t see many games, we did manage to watch online video recaps most of the time. Better yet, I finally connected to a fantastic Spurs blog, Pounding The Rock. Their community, named after the team’s organizational philosophy, combined witty Spurs analysis with passionate fan devotion. Most importantly, the blog’s members proved genuinely welcoming and kind towards new registrants in a manner I’d never seen before on the internet. After twenty-three years of going it alone, I’d finally found my Spurs’ “home.”

The long-awaited day in late January arrived. Nikki and I drove to Target Center prepared, equipped with a Spurs poster she had designed earlier in the week. Though the team lost by eight, and Tim Duncan suffered through one of the worst games of his career, the time we spent before and after the game observing the players ensured we did not go home disappointed. Courtside during warm-ups, I marveled at the Spurs’ size and athletic grace. The NBA players I’d seen on TV so many times had suddenly come to life. Horsing around just a few steps from where I sat, I saw them as normal human beings, stripped of their artificially-imposed television aura.

Following the game, Nikki and I wandered behind the Target Center, to the area where the Spurs’ buses waited, ready to drive the players immediately to the airport and their team jet. Holding our poster up proudly, we hoped that the exiting Spurs might now see our handiwork and appreciate our devotion to their play on the court. Oh, to be known by the famous and successful! Player after player hustled through the chill Minneapolis night air, offering barely a glance at us, or any of the other twenty-some fans gathered. Near the end, when only a few players still remained inside, Coach Pop came walking out from the brightly lit Target Center garage. Though thirty feet away, he happened to look directly at us, then, noticing the bright orange poster plastered with his likeness and favorite motto, he broke into a grin and pointed approvingly. Nikki and I drove home content, our first Spurs game a smashing success.

The next two months of the season flew by, our attention from the Spurs diverted not only by Xavier basketball, but also by the play of our alma mater, Carleton College. When Xavier’s season ended in late March, however, we returned in a flash to San Antonio and the memorable run of success it had just begun.

This time around, unlike the 2010-2011 season, I coupled interest in the games with curiosity about the guys who so effortlessly dominated NBA competition night after night. I watched post-game interviews frequently, often chuckling over Pop’s sarcastic responses to reporters’ dull questions. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green’s emergence provided increased admiration for the Spurs’ front office. Stephen Jackson’s arrival, especially his description of how he rejoined the team he’d won a championship with in 2003, fit perfectly with the story-tale season of redemption the Spurs had thus far enjoyed. Then I found this video of Matt Bonner offering a Cribs-esque tour of his Canadian home. By the end of the regular season, I’d become a Spurs fanatic.

During the 2012 playoffs every dream came true, only for the worst nightmare to play out in the final hours of the night, snuffing the Spurs’ hopes for the elusive fifth championship. Through it all, I ate, drank, and breathed Spurs basketball. My wife and I stumbled through many days of work this spring, thanks to late night Spurs’ victories that took forever to unwind from. During their Game 2 victory in the Western Conference Finals on May 29, when the Spurs blew out Oklahoma City at home, I almost exploded in the kitchen where I watched the game from our computer. Nikki was at a Twins game that night, and we texted back and forth the status of our games: The Twins trailed until the 9th, while I reported that the Spurs were winning, yet not by a significant margin. Then, Josh Willingham hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th and the Spurs dismantled the Thunder in the third quarter. Jumping and screaming, sprinting from room to room, after Tony Parker drained a wide open three-pointer, I can’t recall having ever felt more ecstatic watching sports.

That San Antonio ultimately fell in six games to the Thunder, failing to reach the NBA Finals, fades slowly from memory. The joy in seeing them execute selfless team basketball, dismiss slavish questions concerning their team’s “winning attitude,” “toughness,” and “heart of a champion,” and collectively turn their noses up at such ephemeral status symbols such as winning streaks or endorsements, does not, however, fade. Those qualities speak to my own life, encourage me in the way that I wish to live. Of far more importance to me than playoff performances and win-loss columns, the Spurs are helping to sort out my journey into adulthood.

I became a Spurs fan in the early 1990’s thanks to the Admiral, David Robinson, one of the kindest people to ever grace an NBA court. Twenty years later, I’ve fallen in love anew with a new San Antonio generation, one that also inspires with surprising maturity, dignity, humor, and grace. I don’t why I’ve been so lucky, but I treasure the chance I have now to enjoy the franchise. Go Spurs Go!

  1. I admit that I don’t entirely read every column, but when it looks like more personal information is forthcoming, then I do. I wonder if our boys, your cousins, had so many feelings about sports (and life) that I never really knew about.
    Lol at Jonny riding his bike into the pond and very impressed with Nikki’s poster! Also sent the video clip of that Spurs’ player’s house tour to Sam and Anne, since they are currently househunting. One other thing – your words “artificially Imposed television aura” is a great description of something I had noticed while watching division 1 college football in person and on TV some years ago but couldn’t quite describe.

    • Thank you, Libby! I’m glad you enjoyed my personal stories. I’d guess that some of what I wrote would be a surprise to my mom, too.

  2. Just reading this one now. Go Spurs!!! Great stories imbedded in the post! The Jonny pond ride really made me laugh 🙂

    • Yes, Jonny always does make us laugh:) Thanks for the feedback, and, as I mentioned early on, for inspiring me to be a Spurs fan!

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