I’m enjoying watching the Spurs lose. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
Certainly it’s more entertaining to watch a winning team perform over the course of an 82-game season than a team on a seven-game losing streak that appears to be lottery-bound.
For the past 22 years, the post-season has been a staple in San Antonio. Making the playoffs wasn’t the goal. It was the starting spot for the real season.
But for those of us who lived in San Antonio before the run of rings began, there are lessons to be learned from ineptitude. All of them aren’t bad, either.
I date back to the pre-David Robinson era when losing was the norm. HemisFair Arena was a grand place to take in a Spurs game. It was a time when the Baseline Bums actually sat on … wait for it … the baseline.
The arrival of David Robinson signaled the end of an era of Spurs basketball marked by both losses and characters on the roster. (SBG San Antonio)
There was an abundance of great stories and wacky personalities then.
When it’s not all about vying for championships, those stories become the essence of fandom. Only devotees or masochists are on the non-bandwagon when the team’s record is 28-54 or 31-51, which was the case in the 1980s when I covered them as the beat writer for a local newspaper.
One could make the case memories born out of a sub-.500 season are almost as precious as title tours, because to truly appreciate and fully savor success, one has to have endured failure. There was plenty of that in the 80s before the Admiral arrived. But there was inspiration too.
Who can forget Johnny Moore, the courageous former Texas guard who battled back after contracting a form of fungus called Desert Fever that nearly proved fatal?
Throw in Walter Berry, the Carmelo Anthony of that era, then subtract the three percent of Anthony’s game that incorporates defense. That was Berry.
He once got in a fight with another player history has not treated kindly, Alvin Robertson. The two had little in common, starting with work ethic. While Robertson later ran afoul of the law, he was a workhorse on and off the court. Berry wasn’t a big fan of exertion.
On one fateful trip to an exhibition game in Montana of all places, Robertson and Berry tangled in a hotel corridor. The essence of the dispute was Berry’s lack of motivation to play when he wasn’t 100 percent, which once included missing a game due to constipation.
The Robertson-Berry kerfuffle involved a butter knife that was snatched from a leftover dinner tray in the hallway. The players were separated before any sawing began.
Imagine a story like that emanating from the Spurs during the Gregg Popovich era.
Players like Bahamian Mychal Thompson -who may be best known for fathering Golden State sharpshooter Klay Thompson – Jon Sundvold, Tyrone Corbin and the late Kevin Duckworth made that era unforgettable. Not only did they lose enough to earn the right to land Robinson, but they also generated unbelievable tales on a regular basis.
Jon Sundvold played for the Spurs in the 1980s (Courtesy photo)
In that era, teams travelled via commercial airline, with veterans and coaches ensconced in first class. The rookies were relegated to coach, along with the media members.
On one transcontinental flight, veteran Sundvold, all 170 pounds of him, actually gave up his first class spot for rookie Duckworth, who checked in at 275 pounds. It was a simple gesture that struck this reporter as one of the most selfless acts he had ever witnessed. To Sundvold, who had a copy of the Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm, it didn’t matter where he read the day’s financial news. It was more important that the 7-footer had a place to actually put his legs.
Nate Blackwell may be long forgotten by all but the most devoted Spurs fans, but the second-round pick from Temple made a lasting impression on me.
One of the 10 games in Blackwell’s brief NBA career came on a rainy 1987 night in Indianapolis. It was common practice for the players and media to share cabs at that time. Even though the arena was just half a mile from the Spurs’ hotel, Blackwell, a couple other players and this ink-stained wretch piled in together to avoid the elements.
When it came time to pay the cabbie at the end of the $2 ride, the scribe was expected to dip into his wallet. Finding only a $20 bill, which the driver couldn’t break, an awkward moment arose. But there was Blackwell, finding a fiver to cover the cost, and in the process, becoming the only athlete in my four-plus decades as a media member, to ever have an athlete pay a penny on my behalf.
Another trip that year produced a rather unique first. Nursing a handful of injuries, the Spurs didn’t have enough players to practice. As coach Bob Weiss surveyed his empty bench, he landed on a sportswriter who happened to be wearing shorts and a T-shirt for a planned post-practice jog around the building. Instead, Weiss cajoled the reporter – okay me – into standing on the court for a non-contact drill.
That was a bad decision for a variety of reasons, none the least of which was Corbin’s tactic of letting the reporter know he had crossed a line that should never be crossed. When an errant shot bounced our way, Corbin boxed out the unsuspecting writer and sent him flying into the second row. That was the start and end of my stint as a practice dummy.
These were the same players who would lose money to their coach in free throw shooting contests when Weiss would either swish shots blindfolded or bank them in off the backboard.
If the Spurs were consistent winners, would they have hired Jerry Tarkanian, the former UNLV coach who never met an NCAA rule he couldn’t break?
Immediately upon being hired, Tark reached deals with seven restaurants, so he could dine for free each night of the week. Item No. 2 on his checklist was to find out who these NBA players were, since his entire frame of reference was college basketball. To that end, he “treated” a few sportswriters to dinner at one of his restaurants of choice.
Maybe because the scouting reports he received weren’t exactly up to snuff, Tarkanian lasted just 20 games, or 1,800 less than Popovich.
That was a different time, a period when a lengthy losing streak wasn’t cause for self-immolation, as is the case now.
So enjoy the losing. There will be some great stories for us to savor if the team continues on its path to mediocrity.