“We don’t care.”
Gregg Popovich said it with a snort, almost disdainfully. The dismissal was in response to a reporter’s question on how the Spurs aren’t getting much attention, despite all the winning. I was in the press gaggle of a meaningless Warriors game, a bit green to this business, a bit shocked to see Pop fulfill the stereotype up close.
“We don’t care.”
It’s a defensive pose, but one spat with such precision as to simultaneously beam a ring of verisimilitude. It has the aura of a man speaking of a long disavowed family member, where, “I don’t care what he’s up to,” can also carry a hint of, “We’d be close if he was smart enough to value me.”
We aren’t smart enough to value these Spurs, apparently. They very well could be the league’s best team, and few outside of Texas want to see them advance in anything other than age. Get off the stage, gramps, I’m trying to watch Russell Westbrook dunk his arms off. They dispatched the Jazz with the autopilot brutality of a seasoned sushi chef, ripping the tail out of a live lobster. It was an awesome display of basketball mastery that so few saw or cared about. Today is our time to bask in the glory of Chris Paul’s eventually doomed team.
Regardless of how many times you’ll hear a basketball writer insist that the Spurs aren’t boring, most fans find them exactly that. San Antonio is objectively boring, if the measure is what the average basketball consumer prefers. Call their dullness a myth, but it’s more truth than figment if the buying public refuses to like a brand they’ve been exposed to for 14 years. The Spurs don’t rate. Game 1 of the Spurs-Jazz series garnered roughly three fourths the rating of Game 1 from Thunder-Mavs. And then it got worse. To quote Sports Media Watch:
“As was the case five years ago, the Jazz and Spurs combined for ratings kryptonite on Wednesday. Game 2 of the Jazz/Spurs first round NBA playoff series drew just 1.811 million viewers on TNT Wednesday night, down 45% from Nuggets/Thunder Game 2 last year (3.292M), and even down 12% from Bobcats/Magic Game 2 in 2010 (2.066M). The game ranks as the least-viewed NBA playoff game on ABC, ESPN or TNT since Magic/Bobcats Game 4 in 2010 (1.678M).”
If Nuggets-Thunder puts Spurs-Jazz to shame in the television department, this might be as much a Spurs problem as it is a small market problem. Which is strange because, fans tend to get more interested in familiar faces and places. San Antonio seems to merely give viewers a familiar reason for tuning out.
But why? Popovich runs such an amazing offense. Those plod and grind Spurs teams are a thing of the past. Why won’t people finally let it go and learn to love the Tony-Manu-Timmy triumvirate?
The fallacy is believing San Antonio’s beautiful basketball to be inherently interesting. It’s only interesting to people who like beautiful basketball. Unfortunately, most people don’t like beautiful basketball. They like hero ball. Hence the demand for Miami to give LeBron the rock despite Wade’s mismatch versus Amar’e.
Fans want a superstar’s greatness validated by events, as much as they want a team to win. This is why Laker lovers cheer Kobe’s “five rings!” as though L.A.’s titles matter less than Bryant’s involvement. NBA fandom is about investing in individuals, more so than teams for so many people. Once you root for the success of a person, you tend towards wanting to see them as a conquering hero, someone who tapped into God-like power in a moment we’ll all cherish.
It used not to be such an unreasonable expectation. Back before zone defense was legalized, one-on-one was a wise option, depending on your matchups. Michael Jordan at the elbow again? Let’s do it. Today? That predictability is a death sentence, and the Spurs are the ultimate grave escapists. They rely on systemic precision, a “Motion Weak” offense that destabilizes defenses with perfectly timed screens.
“Impressive,” I say through a yawn, because I too find it hard to love the machine. The Spurs’ movements look like an aesthetically pleasing screen saver, running on loop. It can catch the eye before lulling lids over it. Hand the rock to LeBron, I want to see him conjure points out of a gnashing fray.
The Pavlovian addiction to hero ball is not a fixed quality. I hope to be detoxed of it one day. I hope we all learn to love the team game.
There is also blame on San Antonio’s hands, and a missed opportunity for the league. “We don’t care,” is a fine Popovich motto, but this Spurs run is a near-tragedy for those who want the NBA to expand and capture hearts for the right reasons. They never sold themselves, preferring to toil in monastic obscurity. That’s understandable, but it helps ensure that their European, collectivist style, goes largely unembraced. It helps guarantee that any Spurs Finals comes with a deflation of enthusiasm for the sport I enjoy. Why should the public want this? Popovich doesn’t seem to want them.
Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan are talented, and that talent is sublimated towards the greater good. This is the platonic ideal of sport, a testament to the collaborative concept of “team.” This is incredibly effective. It’s also quite boring.