Editor's Note: Front-paged for a change of heart
There's a first time for everything. And from the first time I laid eyes on the San Antonio Spurs, I hated them. Everything about them. It was Game 4 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals. I distinctly remember sitting in those nosebleed seats 45 minutes before the game watching Tim Duncan shoot free throws, and directing as much sports-hate as I could his way. It didn't work. The Mavs would lose that game 102-95 and the series, in part due to Dirk's high ankle sprain, but also because the Spurs could do no wrong.
Just think of their history these past 15 years. David Robinson got injured in the 1997 season, enabling an otherwise good team to tank and end up with a 20-62 record, which landed them No. 1 pick Tim Duncan. They dominated the '99 lockout-shortened season and faced the 8th-seeded Knicks in the Finals, the first and only 8 seed to make it to the NBA Finals. They drafted two future Hall-of-Famers -- and two of the greatest international players ever -- in Parker and Ginobili with the 28th and 57th overall picks, forming a core that has remained elite for an unheard-of 10 straight seasons. The Spurs got past the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the 2007 NBA playoffs after the league suspended Boris Diaw and Amar'e Stoudemire for 2 games for leaving the bench during an altercation. The Spurs rolled on to the NBA Finals and swept the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. Hell, even when the Spurs lost, they did so in spectacular fashion -- on a ridiculous Derek Fisher shot with 0.4 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference second round (after Tim Duncan had just hit an incredibly falling-down 2 to give the Spurs a lead) and in an epic 2006 Western Conference second round series to Dallas in a Game 7 (that went to overtime courtesy of the greatest clutch shot Dirk has ever hit, bar none -- that beautiful and-one lay-up straight up the middle over the outstretched arms of Manu Ginobili).
More after the jump...
Spurs fans may complain, but these were all ridiculous strokes of good luck that contributed immensely to their "perfect storm" from 2003 to 2007. As a Mavs fan, this period (with the exception of that '06 series) was torturous to watch. We could be just as good as the Spurs in the regular season, sometimes even better, yet it wouldn't matter come playoff time. Nothing seemed to faze them and any playoff disappointment was quickly resolved the next year with a title. No heartbreaking collapses, no referee conspiracies, no accusations of softness.
They always had the defense, the coaching, the superstars, and the knowledge they were our "big brother." Seemingly random players would, when inserted into their lineup, thrive, contribute, and deliver for them time after time (examples: Stephen Jackson, Steve Kerr, Devin Brown, Beno Udrih, Brent Barry, Robert Horry, Michael Finley). And they were always there to spoil the party, whether it be the Mavs' or the Suns' or the Jazz's. And top of it all, they were boring as hell.
So as you can see, plenty of reasons to hate the Spurs. And I did. I also hated them for Duncan's blank facial expressions and general monotony, Popovich's curtness and generally douchey vibe, Ginobili's frustratingly ridiculous skill and smoothness, and Parker's relationship with Eva Longoria (back when she was fine).
But I don't hate them near as much anymore. Don't get me wrong -- when the Mavs are playing them, it's on...always. That will never change. But I just don't link these Spurs to the ones of that era, the ones that I despised and always rooted against. I don't know what changed. Maybe it's just because the Mavs won a title last year and the Spurs were swept in the first round (poetic since the reverse happened in 2007). Maybe it's because Pop changed their sleep-inducing offense to something sexier. It could also be that in the new era of super-teams, there are tons of teams more repulsive and hate-worthy than the Spurs (i.e. Lakers and Heat mainly, but you could argue for others), who don't pose and preen in front of cameras, are almost never a top media story, and just don't have obnoxious personalities.
More than anything, I've realized how similar we are to the Spurs -- we both share an intelligent front office (most of the time, at least), a great coach, an unselfish approach to playing, and a top-5 power forward to ever play basketball. They've just been a lot smarter for a lot longer, on top of being a lot luckier.
It might sound sacrilegious, but in these playoffs, I've been rooting for the Spurs. After so many years of hating them as a Mavs fan, I've now found it impossible, as a basketball fan, to not admire them. Their selfless passing, always-reliable three-point shooting, great development of role players, savvy coaching -- everything is just textbook-perfect fundamental basketball. Tim Duncan looked old, immobile, and in need of retirement as few as 2 years ago, and here he is dominating in the post, schooling young bucks like Blake Griffin, and leading his team their best run ever. Tony Parker, probably the most underrated NBA point guard ever, is destroying teams in the pick-and-roll, in transition, in the mid-range game, in the paint...basically everywhere. Ginobili, with that hilarious bald spot now, is still making great passes, flopping around on defense, and playing great off the bench. And Popovich is still in charge of it all, getting his team to come back from a 20+ point deficit yesterday and inventing the Disturb-a-DeAndre (based on the Hack-a-Shaq) at the same time.
If the Spurs win it all this year, it won't be because they played an Eastern Conference pussy team or won it in a down year or benefited from some crazy blessing from the basketball gods. It will be because they are the best team and, in fact, one of the most dominant in a long time. They've had to overcome struggle and pain the last few years, getting bounced by the Suns in 2010 and by the 8th-seeded Grizz last year, not knowing if their core would break up. And they have been written off or overlooked all year when, really, they had been quietly preparing and transforming just for this time, when they could show the world their legitimacy (sounds eerily familiar). As a fan of the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks, I can respect their story. Because we've gone through it.
These Spurs are different. But they're still not flashy. They're not the tank-to-get-rich Thunder, the trade-to-get-rich Lakers, or the sign-to-get-rich Heat (a vast oversimplification, of course, but they are the 3 teams I'm rooting against the most).
And they're not the 2003-2007 Spurs either. And that means I can't hate them nearly as much. In fact, I'm rooting for them to win it all this year. There truly is a first time for everything.