As a Spurs fan, it is somewhat heretical to act as if anything other than the postseason has any substantive value. The regular season exists so that the postseason may, and the postseason exists so that a champion may be crowned. Of all franchises, few are as unwaveringly teleological as San Antonio.
And then a game like last night’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers comes along. In May the game will be a footnote, a 5 second slice on an introductory highlight reel. Jagged images of Kobe’s dagger and elephantiasis, quickly juxtaposed alongside Mason’s improbable three-point play and outstretched tongue. For the average NBA fan, the game will be remembered for its final 12 seconds if remembered at all. But that isn’t how I will remember it. I’m going to remember last night’s game as the culmination of a slow and steady cathartic process that began in the waning days of the 2007-08 postseason.
There was a point during last season’s playoff run that I grew tired. I felt stressed and angry. Here, on the pages of 48 Minutes of Hell, I repeatedly exploded about missed foul calls and media bias. It was only when the Spurs finally lost that I found myself able to breathe easy; able to sit back and just enjoy the game of basketball. Since the conclusion of the 2008 Western Conference Finals I have been searching for how to make that feeling permanent. I have been searching for temperance. I have been trying to grab hold of a fanhood that has no telos. For some this is not a difficult journey, but for a Spurs fan it is nothing less than a rejection of the principles upon which our belief system is founded.
My experience of last night’s game was the fruit of my labor. A sign that the regular season is just as powerful a vehicle of drama and joy as any postseason struggle. It is a rivalry game, maybe even the rivalry game, but at this point is any Lakers-Spurs match-up really about bragging rights?
I won’t remember this game because we defeated a hated rival. I won’t remember this game because in front of a skeptical nation we made a statement. I won’t remember this game because I, for the first time all season, believe a fifth ring is possible. I’ll remember this game because I learned to forget all that and just let the game speak.
In the closing moments of the 3rd quarter Trevor Ariza nailed a three-pointer in the corner, muting the air of control the Spurs had cast over the game. The ball was quickly inbounded to Manu Ginobili, who raced up the floor with 4.5 seconds left. Dodging in and out of purples bodies, his pinball momentum made the court seem as if it was on a slight incline. With the seconds ticking away ever more quickly, he dribbled behind his back and hoisted a 40 foot shot into the air. As the buzzer sounded sharply, the backboard glowed softly and the net nervously flexed as it welcomed an unexpected visitor, the crowd uproariously reclaimed the air of control.
In my head it was crystal clear. I didn’t even need to watch to know the outcome. I saw him receive the pass and crouch into the triple threat position. Mason played him just a tad far off, betraying a concern for the drive that, although not unfounded, would prove near fatal. The camera angle showed the back of his head but I imagined his eyes. When many people look into the eyes of Kobe they see hardened focus but I see something very different. Or at least I pretend I see something different. I pretend I see thousands of little equations scrolling by, an inescapable web of calculus.
And then there is that moment. That startlingly static moments where Kobe allows his competitors to see their fate. In some ways he comes off as hardened, “cold-blooded” if you will. But in some ways he is surprisingly open. He is so honest about his intentions. And then, with a disorienting combination of suddenness and inevitability, his knees erupt, his arms compress and extend, and you don’t need to look anymore because you know how this scene always ends.
His shot is so elegant. He is the essence of a pure shooter. His feet are square. His hands are high. His body and the floor form a perfect right angle. He can stop on a dime and still go straight up. And even when being fouled, which obviously limits his ability to maintain such idyllic physical composition, the mangled forms of his shot shine through. You see each little puzzle piece working tirelessly to make sure the shot remains on target. Some might call it “focus” but I think it comes from something slightly different. It radiates from his confidence. Not just confidence. Charisma. Roger Mason Jr.'s late game heroics are like an unexpected baptism. Without warning You are awash in freezing river water and when you open your eyes you have the creeping sensation that what didn’t used to be possible now is.