Sunday, June 10, 2012

Taking Fan Heartbreak to a New Level

Just like that it was over. A postseason run that started out so promising with 10 straight wins, had suddenly been abruptly ended by the Kevin Durant led Oklahoma City Thunder. The deep, talented, and veteran Spurs after jumping out to a 2-0 lead, had been sent to four straight losses, and an earlier than expected postseason exit by the younger, more explosive, and more athletic new kids on the block. I felt pain and sadness Wednesday night, for my latest love affair, the San Antonio Spurs.

I've been a sports fan for as long as I can remember. My first sports fan memory is one of my Dad and I watching our beloved New York Yankees winning the World Series over the Atlanta Braves in 1996. Just like all great fans and die hards, I am very passionate about my teams and extremely loyal. When your team is playing well you are along for the ride with them on an emotional high, and when your team lets you down, you feel their pain, their sadness, and sometimes anger.  That first World Series I saw with my Dad was amazing, but it set me up for failure because more often than not your team is not going to be the last one standing.

I have experienced some great moments as a fan including seeing my Yankees win 5 World Series, seeing Ohio State win the National Championship in 2002, Donovan McNabb finally leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl, the Jets upsetting the Patriots in the 2010-11 playoffs, and seeing the Robert Morris Basketball team make the NCAA tournament my freshman year. I've experienced my fair share of heartbreak too though, including the Yankees blowing a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox, the Jets losing to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game (twice), and Robert Morris losing to LIU in the NEC Championship game (twice.) When it comes down to it, more often than not, your team is going to finish the season on a loss. But the pain and sadness I felt and experienced tonight, for my latest love interest, the San Antonio Spurs, ranks right near the top of my list for moments of heartbreak as a fan.

For die hard sports fans, the relationship with your team is a lot like a relationship that one would share with their spouse in a marriage.  Some are born into their fanhood, and similar to an old school marriage where the people directly involved didn't necessarily have a choice, you are stuck with each other. Others float around and get into the game a little bit later, making what they think is a better choice for themselves personally as their team, or in the case of marriage their spouse.  The only difference between a marriage and a sports team is your favorite team cares even less about your opinion than your wife does. But even though we know that, in both cases, we don't let it affect how much we love them right?

My marriage with the Spurs began when I chose to move to San Antonio for the summer for my internship as a New Business Consultant.  I had always liked the Spurs. I always thought they were a first class organization, had a great coach in Coach Pop who ran a tight ship, played great team ball, and won four championships. Plus they had Tim Duncan. A classic quiet guy who always let his play do the talking, my kind of player. But I would never say I was really a fan of them. My first memory of the Spurs was seeing them knock off my New York Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals. However once I got hired, I began to read about the Spurs daily, checking out the box score after every game, following every player transaction, and I knew the bio of every player on the roster.

Once I actually got down here to San Antonio my love for the Spurs was in full effect.  I was ready to chant "Go Spurs Go!" with the rest of San Antonio and I watched them close out the Utah Jazz in my first night on the town.  My orientation was that Monday and the staff and organization couldn't have been more friendly and welcoming. The organization is one of a kind in my opinion. I haven't worked for another professional sports team so I realize I am biased, but it is hard to imagine one that preaches and even more importantly upholds the values that they believe are vital to running a good business. They place a real emphasis on staff interaction, building a culture, and maintaining an identity of a family atmosphere.

We had to wait about a week before we knew who we were playing, and finally we found out the Los Angeles Clippers were coming to town. I'll admit the first game I was a bit star struck.  It was pretty crazy to see Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get off the team bus no more than 20 feet away from me, as we were eating our staff dinner. It was even more surreal when I walked by Kawhi Leonard in the tunnel and realized he might not be the biggest player on the floor but he is MUCH bigger than I am. The atmosphere in the arena was electric. I got chills during intros when they played Party Rock Anthem and Tim Duncan was introduced. It was my first NBA game in 10 years and it certainly didn't disappoint. The Spurs dominated from the start, and ran right through the bruised and battered Clippers winning that first game 108-92, and sweeping them 4-0 to secure our spot in the Western Conference Finals.

The atmosphere for the Western Conference Finals was even more amplified than it was against the Clippers. I had become a little less star struck but I still thought it was pretty cool to walk by Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins in the tunnel on my way to dinner in Game 1.  After being down for much of Game 1 the Spurs exploded for a 39 point 4th quarter, while my favorite player Stephen Jackson shut down Kevin Durant down the stretch to help ensure the victory.  Some people may think Stephen Jackson is an interesting choice for a favorite player since he is a bench player, and somebody who is a supposed thug, on a roster with three future Hall of Famers. But as Jonathan Abrams on Grantland pointed out, there is a lot more than what meets the eye when it comes to Captain Jack. The Spurs completed the comeback and came away with a thrilling Game 1 victory.

In Game 2 Tony Parker turned in a vintage Tony performance. He was efficient, exhilarating, and unstoppable. The Spurs never trailed and we were up 2-0 for the series. The team was looking great, our win streak was at 20 straight. We were playing good team defense, great team offense, knocking down big shots, and the young Thunder looked shell shocked. San Antonio was ready to celebrate.

Than we went on the road to Oklahoma City and the series turned. The home court advantage was undeniable, but we just looked bad. The Thunder did their best to turn it into a track meet and we couldn't keep up. The Thunder made quick work of us and sent it back to San Antonio tied 2-2.

I wanted to have confidence coming back home, but I was definitely worried.  The atmosphere was great again, and we even broke out white shirts for all the fans to make a white out. For the first 3 and 1/2 quarters of Game 5 the Thunder picked up right where they left off. But than suddenly down 13 with 5 minutes left in the 4th the Spurs sprang to life and began an improbable comeback. Tim Duncan led the Spurs to within 2 and they needed a defensive stop.  But the next time down the floor James Harden hit a cold blooded step back 3 that broke the hearts Spurs fans everywhere. It was undoubtedly the dagger and sent the fans to the exits.  The fans were worried and we were going back to Oklahoma City for Game 6. We just couldn't keep up with them.

The Spurs wouldn't go down without a fight though. Tony Parker came out of the gates hot and the Spurs built a lead as large as 18 points at one point in the first half, before heading into the break up 15.  However even that lead proved to be not enough to beat the Thunder. Kevin Durant took over in the second half, Tony Parker slowed down, and the Spurs just couldn't keep up.  Durant and the young Thunder were headed to their first NBA Finals.  It was a sad, sad night in San Antonio.  The office was very quiet on Thursday morning.

Despite the common perception that this team is too old, the window of opportunity for another championship hasn't closed.  As long as Coach Pop is running the show, R.C. Buford is making the calls, and Tim Duncan is in a Spurs uniform I think it would be wrong to not give them a chance. They will reload, get better and they will be back.  My internship is still moving along in full force. Still sales to make, and it's time to focus on Silver Stars. No time to dwell on the loss from a professional standpoint.  But for now from a fan's perspective this one hurts. The fans know how good this team was, and that an opportunity for a championship slipped away, and being a part of the Spurs family made it that much tougher.