For a couple of weeks in March 2011, we were all Aztecs.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, San Diego State University had been ranked as high as fourth in the nation. Despite having been in it a number of times in the school's history, they had never won a game in the Tournament.
But they did that year. They won their first and second round games before falling in the Sweet Sixteen to UConn, who went on to win the NCAA Championship. I had never really cared much for basketball, but for three rounds, for three games, the entire city watched, riveted. San Diego's moments in the sports spotlight are rare, but there's no city like it when they happen. We were all Aztecs. And leading that SDSU team was one Kawhi Leonard, who went on to be drafted 15th by the Pacers and immediately traded to the San Antonio Spurs.
At the same time as SDSU's magical season was making headlines, the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks were working on some magic of their own. When the NCAA Tournament ended, I was strangely left wanting. I wasn't ready to be done with basketball. Fortunately, basketball was not done with me.
My roots are in Texas, so despite being from San Diego, I gravitate to Texas sports teams. I remember turning on one of the first round Mavs-Blazers games and thinking - this team is exciting. They WANT this. They're done, until they're not - like that racehorse that all of a sudden moves in from the back of the pack to beat them all. Until this tall German guy and someone they kept calling "JET" just wills them back into it. I don't think I've ever fallen in love with a team or a sport faster than living that incredible Mavericks run to the 2011 Finals Championship.
And I couldn't have told you word one about the starting five other than Dirk. I didn't know what a pick and roll was. I couldn't tell you the difference between a point guard and a center. All I knew was I was watching something special, and that I was excited to see what the next season brought. I wish I had been a fan sooner, so I could have appreciated that Finals victory the way long-time Mavericks fans did.
But, back to Kawhi Leonard. Like everyone else, I watched the 2013 NBA Playoffs in awe. The grandeur of Stephen Curry. The Chicago Bulls' plucky effort in the face of injury after injury. The Grizzlies' "Grit ‘n Grind." The Pacers, in general. All of whom, despite amazing effort, still fell to the unrelenting preparation and perfection of the Heat and Spurs. And at the end, I watched, along with the world, what was likely (according to people who know these things) one of the greatest Finals series in NBA history.
As Tim so eloquently put it the other day, I didn't experience Michael Jordan, so I can't truly appreciate how good he was. But I watched Game 6 in dumbfounded awe. Last night, I watched LeBron James with an almost technically perfect shot to seal a hard fought Heat victory at the end of Game 7. The whole series I watched Kawhi Leonard grab rebound after rebound, hit shot after shot, and not let anything - the highs or the lows - get to him. And I remembered back to March 2011 when San Diego fell in love with a Kawhi-led upstart college basketball team poised to do great things. And how as a result, he made me fall in love with basketball and with the Mavericks - a team that, two years ago, also refused to let anything get to them.
We all know it's been a rough ride for the Mavs since reaching the top in 2011. But this 2013 Finals series - the sheer audacity of watching these incredible athletes and incredible teams do incredible things - it's why we still watch. It's why we're privileged to be basketball fans. It's why I will always be glad Kawhi Leonard is.