In the modern era, the Spurs have never had to prepare for a season after a potentially franchise-defining loss. After watching the team choke away the last two games of the NBA Finals, I thought my interest in the NBA would never be the same. I had wholeheartedly attached myself to the Spurs as the last crusaders for all that was right in the NBA. Just watching highlights of last year’s series against the Heat and seeing that configuration of black, white, red, and yellow still brings back all the dark feelings. Whether you want to blame Tony Parker’s hamstring, Ray Allen’s uncalled traveling violation, Manu Ginobili’s extended out-of-body experience, or you're just a LeBron truther, we all have to move on.
Instead of pulling away from the NBA, I have chosen to enter this season with higher hopes than ever, with the ultimate rationalization: The Spurs will actually have an easier time getting back to the NBA Finals. I won’t invest in another season letting the media bully me into thinking that the Spurs are too old, or that the supplemental role players are eventually going to let the team down. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the Western Conference is up for grabs. These are the reasons the Spurs will cruise back to the 2014 NBA Finals, and probably even win.
"Hey, basketball's back. The Hawks played tonight."
A friend said this to me, but I didn't look up to see who it was. I was sitting on the floor of a bar, hat partially over face, watching texts from lifelong friends fly in, most echoing the same sentiment: "What did we do to deserve this?" It's the only thing left to think at this point. It can't just be the athletes who are at fault. Somehow, the real fans — the diehards who are sprinkled about throughout the transplant-riddled Southern metropolis — have begun to believe this is simply our fate. The "selling our soul for the '96 Olympics" theory? That's one. There are others. But ultimately, no one knows.
Still on the floor, I searched for the Hawks score just to look for something positive and found the answer that I expected.
Over the weekend, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took to his blog — normally an outpost for stock investing advice, third-way political observations, and Shark Tank updates — to explain not just the Mavs' current offseason but the entire series of decisions he'd made since they won the championship in 2011. The complaint from a noisy section of the fan base is that he let most of the team's talent leave so Dallas could pursue the white whale of future cap space — or, if you believe the more conspiratorial arguments, to coast off the championship win and save money.
Cuban's post didn't have a lot to say that he hadn't already said in the press. But its format (sort of like a misguided apology e-mail you'd send your ex-girlfriend late at night to explain why you'd been such a dick) and its timing (Mavs season tickets, on sale now!) require some sort of notice.
The New York Knicks, generally speaking, have a certain stylistic method to their player acquisitions. It’s something like equal parts money, mothballs, and nostalgia. Splashy names like Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Kiki Vandeweghe, Xavier McDaniel, and Rolando Blackman all sounded pretty good as long as you didn’t happen to notice what the current Gregorian year was. This is nothing new. The Knicks tried to lure a 40-year-old Wilt Chamberlain out of his surely sexy-time-laden retirement in 1975, because, hey, it’s WILT CHAMBERLAIN AND HE SCORED 100 (on us, 13 years ago)!!! It’s like New York GMs throughout history have been picking players as if flipping through a bin of greatest-hits records. “Ooooh, Penny Hardaway! I loved those commercials! A little scuffing around the jacket and the sleeve is missing, but it might still play.”
So here we are, digging in the crates yet again, when, say — what do we have here? A Metta World Peace, née Ron Artest, released on Tru Warier Records in 1999. And, dude, this is my JAM. Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, y’all!
Let the record show that we always made fun of Ubuntu. The gradual disintegration of the Celtics’ Big Three era — which hit another milestone this weekend with Doc Rivers bouncing on Boston to try to make sure the denizens of Lob City play nice — might lead you to believe it’s only in hindsight that the rallying cry of the 2008 champions seems dopey as hell. Trust me: It always seemed dopey as hell.
Let’s travel back in time. The year is 2007, the city is Rome, and Ubuntu has just been born. From ESPN The Magazine’s cover story on the newly minted power trio: “‘Ubuntu!’ the Celtics shout as they break their huddle after practice. Coach Doc Rivers says he chose the chant over the typical ‘1, 2, 3, Celtics!’ after reading about Bishop Desmond Tutu over the summer. ‘Ubuntu,’ from the African Bantu language, stresses collective success over individual achievement. And maybe it's already having an effect. Boston's starting five all sported shaved heads in Rome, and Garnett bought each rookie three custom-made suits. The players hung out together nearly every night, cracking on one another for hours one evening on the Spanish Steps.”
Then, on opening night, when the new Big Three romped all over the Wizards, the heretofore unproven ameliorative effects of the work of Archbishop Tutu on basketball psychology appeared to have been confirmed, with much élan. As the team rattled off wins (8-0, 20-2, 29-3), these were, for Celts fans — grounded, after years of Vin Bakerisms, into sunken-eyed indifference — heady times. A manufactured all-star patchwork wasn’t expected to jell this quickly; this was almost an embarrassment of goodwill. But two things helped them avoid the post-Decision vibes that hurt the Heat. One was that KG, Paul, and Ray were just past their primes, which meant their team-up felt noble and selfless rather than craven and calculating. The other was that the big-grinning Doc, the ultimate players’ coach, had been handed his appropriate mound of clay and appeared to be molding it into elite, defense-first, team-basketball perfection. So yeah, sure, why not: Ubuntu, motherfuckers.
Since the late 1990s, the San Antonio Spurs have built an army of obnoxious, elitist fans whose heads are filled with so much paranoia that most of the team’s misfortunes can only be explained by conspiracy theories. It is probably the most complex fan identity in all of sports, without the strength in numbers to perpetually remind everyone else how obnoxious we are. Very few fans of any team get to experience such a sustained period with their team in serious contention for a championship. The process has resulted in a hyper-educated fan base that looks down upon the rest of the NBA. "Enjoying the Spurs" still remains a local experience that usually feels disconnected from the media context in which "the NBA as a series of topical narratives" is presented. Spurs fans are so crazy that they actually hate everything that most people like about the NBA: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, the rise of new teams, "interesting story lines" that the media pounds into the ground during the regular season, and any alleged "changing of the guard" are empty and fake.
If you truly want to know what it feels like to root for the Minnesota Timberwolves, all you have to do is watch the NBA draft lottery. The lottery plays out the exact same way every year. The night starts off with a feeling of dread, as you recall the disappointing season that's led to this moment: all the errant passes, the fluke injuries, the missed dunks. Then the ceremony begins — those stupid ping-pong balls start bouncing around in that dumb plastic bin — and no matter how hard you try to fight it, you can't help but fantasize a little bit. You start to think maybe this is the year the Timberwolves' luck changes. Maybe this is the year they jump up in the draft and get that missing piece they need. Maybe this is the year they reach their true potential. Then suddenly all those stupid ping-pong balls are taken out of that dumb bin, Cleveland is handed the no. 1 pick, Minnesota hasn't moved up in the draft at all, and we're back to feeling that familiar sense of dread.
It's the five stages of lottery-related grief. Welcome to Minnesota.
Brett Koremenos: The Arsenal-Everton showdown today has massive implications for the Champions League. Bottom line, if my Toffees can't even manage a draw, you can kindly wave good-bye as they fade into your rearview mirror. Should they win, however, both our clubs are going to be part of a crazy, four-team chase for the final two spots in the top four. How are you feeling about your club's chances heading into this match? Or have you not been able to think about it because you're still mourning the fact that the Andrei Arshavin era is ending this summer?
netw3rk: Rooting for Arsenal has amply prepared me for crazy late-season jockeying for Champions League spots. Or, as I like to call it, “The Arsenal Cup.” So I’m feeling pretty good; Arsenal sits third, one point above Chelsea and Spurs, and four points clear of Everton, entering Tuesday. Still, it is Arsenal, and I’m just as ready for a collapse as I am for a Champions League place.
So on Sunday night I get a text from Phil about fascists.
Phil is my designated friend for casual abuse around the sporting arena. We share text messages full of sarcasm and invective that may well act as a social service for those around us, by being a valve for expressions of frustration and negative emotional energy that would otherwise find its way into incidents on the subway. He supports a Premier League team that's not as successful as they used to be, but one that gets by on faded grandeur and the occasional cup win. I support a team whose name appears on the Wikipedia page for the phrase “Yo-Yo club” (since I started supporting Sunderland, they’ve been promoted eight times, relegated seven, and have been eliminated in the playoffs three times — suffice it to say, the season run-ins are usually lively one way or another).
Seen from the outside, my exchanges with Phil about the respective “fortunes” of our teams could be likened to the cast of Downton Abbey riding a small model train that’s going in sedate circles, with occasional breaks for ice cream, during which the oversize passengers exchange hurled rocks with waifs on an adjacent ceaseless roller coaster (waifs who’ve ceased throwing up and are now mostly in a troubled, fitful sleep except for the jolt of the tracks every time they pass “Go”).
Sometimes the only way to deal with Philadelphia sports fandom is by imposing a Philadelphia Sports Boycott. Surely, others have come up with a similar idea and put it into practice; I just happened to name it and capitalize it for posterity. The definition and causes of a PSB remain necessarily vague, but in short, they stem from events that occurred intermittently throughout 2003 and 2009, usually in October or May. In these scenarios, a confluence of failures among Philly’s major sports teams triggered an unshakeable sense of doom that made it far easier to simply check out emotionally.
Inherent in all of this was the idea that you had to Boycott these teams for a couple of days because you simply couldn’t avoid them; they were successful and in a major media market. Truth be told, I miss those days as I type. As far as 2012-13 goes, you can either unintentionally participate in a Philadelphia Sports Boycott by missing SportsCenter three days in a row or just decide to take the entire year off for your own health, in which case “Philadelphia Sports Boycott” can be renamed “Bynum.”
To those looking for the signs, Brian Urlacher’s time in Chicago ended about two months ago. Lovie Smith’s departure certainly didn’t help, but it was Rod Marinelli’s decision to turn down an offer to stay on as the team’s defensive coordinator that likely sealed Urlacher’s fate. I’m not saying that to raise any new hypotheses — the regime change in Chicago has been cited by nearly everyone who’s looked back at Urlacher’s Bears career. I’m saying that for some of us, there was time to prepare. And it still wasn’t enough.
The timing of Urlacher’s arrival in Chicago perfectly positioned him to become the city’s central sports figure. Two years removed from Michael Jordan, in a town without a World Series in 83 years, for a franchise defined by its middle linebackers, when the Bears drafted Urlacher ninth overall in 2000, it was a match made in jersey-sales heaven. That bald head and that inability to smile made Urlacher the clear heir apparent to Butkus and Singletary, and from the beginning, he was.
The past 10 months of Chicago Bulls basketball have been an exercise in expectations. When the 2012 regular season ended, those expectations were that the no. 1-seeded Bulls — one year older, one year wiser — would give Miami all it could stand come the Eastern Conference Finals. When Derrick Rose crumbled to the court in the first game of the first round of the playoffs, those expectations changed.
This season — without Rose and without much of a bench to allow them to survive for stretches in his absence — came with its own expectations. When the Bulls were threatening to overtake the Knicks for the no. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and with Rose’s return supposedly on the horizon, those expectations changed again.
The reaction to Rose’s comments yesterday is a consequence of those changing expectations. The thought became that if this team can win without Rose, imagine what it could be with him. After a year spent reconciling being jettisoned from the contender ranks, Bulls fans immediately wanted back in. This is the disconnect between expectations and reality. In October, there was willingness for patience. That’s now gone, and it’s without reason.
The Celtics have one game left before the All-Star break, and you gotta imagine it can’t come soon enough. After playing the Bulls tonight, Kevin Garnett will head to Houston for the All-Star Game, Rajon Rondo will continue prepping for surgery, and Paul Pierce will drive home, where he’ll be enjoying a relaxing All-Star snubbee weekend by (presumably) playing a whole bunch of Just Dance 2 for Wii. Meanwhile, Danny Ainge will try and make sense of what was about as odd, heartbreaking, and bonkers a first half a team can have.
When Rondo went down, I wrote there wasn’t much of a silver lining: Any relief provided by an uptick in play and a corresponding rash of wins would be tempered by sad chatter that “maybe this team doesn’t need Rondo all that much anyway.” Well, this team, as it has an inclination toward, outdid itself. It wasn’t just an uptick; it was a blood-pumping, shots-fired, kill-’em-all, “is this your pen?”-esque annihilation spree. When the Celtics toppled Denver on Sunday night in triple OT, they muffed out the Nuggets' nine-game winning streak, stretched out their own seven-gamer, and coronated themselves as THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE LEAGUE [air horn] [air horn] [air horn].
Every year, Forbes puts out a list of the 10 most disliked athletes in sports. Usually, that list is pretty much what you’d guess. A year ago, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and Plaxico Burress stood (or sulked) at the top. In this year’s version, released yesterday, the top three again didn’t provide much of a surprise: Lance Armstrong (cheater, Oprah interviewee, all-around dickhead), Manti Te’o (fake dead girlfriend embellisher), and Woods.
The surprise, at least to me, comes at no. 4. With an approval rating of just 21 percent, Jay Cutler is the most disliked athlete in America who’s never given a nationally televised mea culpa. Listen, I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t see anything regarding Cutler with clear eyes, and that the guy kind of seems like an asshole. But is he really more of an asshole now than he used to be?
The Dunkin' Donuts Turkey Sausage Wake-Up Wraps are tasting a little bitter in Boston this week. Rajon Rondo’s out for the season, and out with him, in no particular order: all gorgeous, mind-boggling passes whose lanes could have only been spotted by no. 9, having briefly entered the fourth dimension; all team outings to the Roller World in Saugus; and, of course, all rational hopes for another Celtics title run.
Now usually, in this kind of general “elite player out” situation, there’s a silver lining. With the hobbled fellow a totem, the team rallies — all grit and heart and Michael Jordan’s secret stuff — and becomes a scruffy lovable underdog. (You know, like Varsity Blues). And on paper, there’s no reason why that can’t happen. Imagine: Pierce, pumped to still be in Boston despite trade talks, and KG, pumped to be anywhere at any time always ever, lock into a newly spirited level of basketball. Leandro Barbosa, enjoying newfound playing time, does it big for São Paulo. Jason Terry sells his soul to Satan and regains the ability to play basketball. The Celts squeeze into the playoffs, give someone a scare, maybe even win a series.
But this being Rajon Rondo we’re talking about, things can’t be quite that simple.