Sports

There Go the Spurs

From left: San Antonio Spurs players Tony Parker, Tim, Duncan, and Manu Ginobili celebrate winning the 2014 NBA Finals in San Antonio, Texas. (Mike Stone/Reuters)
The NBA franchise’s conservatism deserves our recognition.

Like John the Baptist eating locusts in the wilderness, like a certain unlucky Uruguayan rugby team, the American conservative must take his sustenance where he can find it. Yet so unappetizing has been the food of our cultural isolation — our sad insistence, for example, that Celebrity X, Y, or Z must secretly be one of us! — that readers will have to forgive me for cooking up another plateful. In anticipation of that absolution, here it is: Despite the fact that the National Basketball Association is so ostentatiously “woke” that its next expansion team could well be the Seattle Gender Pay Equity, its winningest franchise over the last 20 years is not only the most conservative team in professional sports but the source of a profoundly conservative fan experience that deserves to be celebrated.

I speak, perhaps counterintuitively, of the San Antonio Spurs. And if the sound you hear right now is progressive scoffing, it isn’t entirely without reason.

The Spurs, after all, have long been led by head coach Gregg Popovich, whose public excoriations of President Trump (a “soulless coward” who has made the U.S. “an embarrassment to the world”) have given succor to many a left-leaning headline writer. It is true, furthermore, that the Spurs organization is not above contriving the occasional pre-game social-justice stunt, as last season’s Jumbotron slide show calling for “real change” (fake change being unacceptable) illustrated.

Yet, as with many another successful corporation, the Spurs’ veneer of institutional progressivism can’t quite hide the conservatism undergirding the main structure. In San Antonio’s case, that foundation has three layers: a commitment to continuity, a reliance on skills-based immigration (seriously) in the form of a pioneering foreign-scouting department, and an attitude toward success — winning when? to what purpose? — that flies in the face of a utopian ideology that will one day destroy professional basketball altogether if left unchecked.

If the last of those notions requires a bit of explanation, the first is easy enough to understand. For 19 glorious years, from 1997 to 2016, the Spurs were anchored by future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward ever to don a uniform (I am, admittedly, a partisan) and an athlete of unparalleled selflessness and humility. Alongside Duncan for four of his five championships — the Spurs raised banners in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014 — were Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, international imports who are themselves bound for Springfield when their playing careers conclude. Though the pieces around these three stars changed according to the team’s needs and the evolution of the game, the trio won a record 575 games over the course of 14 seasons (no three players have ever partnered more profitably), reached the playoffs every year, secured more postseason victories than any threesome in history, and consistently competed for championships even in “off” years. More important, they provided fans with a sense of stability that is increasingly rare in an era of shorter contracts and increased player movement. During the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili run, I finished college, got married, went to graduate school, moved five times, began my career, and fathered two children. (There may have been some weight gain and hair loss as well.) Yet, at their core, the Spurs remained essentially the same — an island of constancy in the tossing seas of contemporary life.

Foreign players occasionally captured scouts’ imaginations in the ’80s and ’90s, but the Vlade Divacs and Peja Stojakovics of the world were dramatically underrepresented in a league whose bread and butter remained the American college star.

Which is not to say that the team has been stagnant or has broken no new ground. As longtime NBA fans can attest, the Association has not always been the cosmopolitan, globe-scouring organization of today. Foreign players occasionally captured scouts’ imaginations in the ’80s and ’90s, but the Vlade Divacs and Peja Stojakovics of the world were dramatically underrepresented in a league whose bread and butter remained the American college star — the University of North Carolina being easier to access than, say, Kraljevo, Serbia. Though the Spurs didn’t upend the old game alone, they were arguably the most violent of the early table-wobblers, embracing diversity (in the form of enhanced international scouting) for exactly the right reason: not to fill a quota or impress the chattering classes but to exploit a market inefficiency that had seen other teams ignore a staggering source of human capital. The choicest fruits of that commitment were, of course, Parker (Paris, France) and Ginóbili (La Rioja, Argentina, by way of Bologna, Italy), but the 2014 championship team included players from Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well.

Like any other team, the Spurs have seen peaks and valleys in the last two decades, though their lows — the occasional first-round playoff exit — have been as high as some franchises ever climb. Throughout the leaner years, and especially during the long championship drought between the 2007 and 2014 titles, the team resisted mounting pressure from sportswriters and commentators to trade their veteran stars, rely on younger players, and intentionally do poorly for a while in order to take advantage of the draft, which grants higher picks to franchises with inferior win–loss records. This practice, known as “tanking,” has become something of a plague in recent years, with uncompetitive teams trading or benching reliable veterans lest they win too many games and jeopardize their draft position. In theory, tanking makes sense: Drafting a once-in-a-generation star is, after all, the fastest way to win multiple championships. But the practice is nevertheless a poisonous, unsportsmanlike blight — a destroyer of regular-season competitiveness and a raised middle finger to fans, whose money, let’s remember, is what allows the NBA to exist in the first place. That some fans, caught up in the grand strategy of it all, now embrace tanking makes not a bit of difference. It is still — to the extent that anything in sports occupies a moral plane — wrong.

To their credit, and perhaps because they’ve won so many “meaningless” games over the years, the Spurs have always seemed to understand a principle that is lost on the average team (or, for that matter, the average Trump or Sanders voter): To burn down the very good in pursuit of the perfect is not only self-defeating but immoral. There is no perfect, and all you’re doing is starting fires.

Tim Duncan is long gone these days, and Manu Ginóbili is likely to follow him into retirement this summer. Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets a few weeks ago, and hope-for-the-future Kawhi Leonard recently forced his way out of San Antonio via trade. If ever the Spurs needed a bit of luck to keep the train running, this is the season.

So let’s all put aside our normal basketball allegiances and cheer on these (probably inadvertent) heroes of conservatism.

They deserve it.

Graham Hillard — Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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