The Passion of Defeat

With 28 seconds left in game 6 of the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs led the Miami Heat by 5 points. Tony Parker had just made two incredible buckets to save the Spurs from the defending champs, all but clinching a win. The team up by 5 with under 30 seconds left wins it over 98% of the time, and the people of San Antonio could feel it. In a packed bar near downtown San Antonio, Spurs fans gave Houston, the Rockets, and Daryl Morey a preview of both the joy and the despair that comes with the NBA finals. 

The fervor and unconditional love San Antonio has for the Spurs is often overlooked. The Spurs are a quiet, calm team off the court, almost spartan in their desire to avoid media contact, hype, drama, and news cycles. The people of San Antonio are anything but. A city with only one major sports team, San Antonio rivals Oklahoma City in terms of rabid, unrelenting support for their team. Everyone knows the Thunder have one of the loudest arenas in the league, but it’s easy to see middling regular season attendance at Spurs games and assume Spurs fans are ambivalent. Quite the contrary; Spurs fans have just been around the regular season block enough times that they save all their excitement for the playoffs. And they have a lot.

It was standing room only at the bar, complete with hour-long waits for hamburgers at the food carts. Fans brought their own folding patio chairs to watch the Spurs play on a giant inflatable projector screen, at least thirty feet tall. No one dared wear a Heat jersey, and the majority of the patrons wore Spurs paraphernalia. Three Manus in a row here, a pink Parker shirt there, and a sea of Duncans populated the dusty outdoor bar. Statistics tell us that upwards of 40% of NBA fans are women, and in San Antonio that looked a little conservative. The stereotype of the white male sports fan was dwarfed by the sheer number of passionate fans who didn’t fit that description.

Even before the game, everyone in attendance knew that they were in for something special. They were more right than they wanted to be. Nobody knew that yet, though, and were simply enjoying the excitement of a potential closeout game. Cars honked as they drove past. The crowd shouted back. Police made the rounds, but did little more than give interviews with beaming fans to local news crews. Nobody had any interest in getting rowdy or unruly. Not yet. Not until the end of the game.

With the Spurs down three with only minutes left, the crowd began to get restless. There was still enough time for a comeback, but only just. Someone would have to step up and be a hero if the Spurs wanted a fifth ring. That hero would turn out to be Tony Parker. The fans exploded. As the Spurs built a five point lead with a mere 28 seconds left, nobody stopped screaming. What had been a full, if orderly bar had turned into a rock show. As timeouts were taken and plans unfolded, a fan in the middle of the crowd began pumping his fists, leading a chorus of “Go, Spurs, Go!” The assembled throng would stick with it through the first LeBron three pointer, only to be silenced by Kawhi Leonard’s missed free throw. The Spurs were all but in the victory circle, and the whole city was holding its breath, ready to celebrate.

And then Ray Allen took it all away. In what was one of the most exciting sequences in NBA history, the Heat came back from seemingly impossible odds to force an overtime. Ray Allen didn’t even seem to notice or care. The Spurs had just been Spurs’d. The mass of fans in the bar deflated instantly. A world of sports fans could not have been more excited by this game, this overtime showdown. San Antonio was a different story. The force of hundreds of humans in one place dropping off an emotional cliff was staggering. The distance between the joy felt only moments ago and the shock at overtime was shocking. People went back to their beers, and tried to act like nothing had happened. But everything had changed.

Overtime brought with it a new wave of hope, a possible redemption for an unthinkable disappointment. The Spurs scored first, and the throng rejoiced, but it wasn’t the same. Doubt had crept in, just like the Heat. At the end of the five minutes of overtime, the Spurs were down, and the referees could hardly be blamed. Aside from a no-call on Manu Ginobili’s last, desperate drive, there was little to complain about. There was just a loss, where everyone had prepared for a win. When the buzzer sounded, there were no shouted complaints, no angry mobs. Everyone immediately dispersed, shoulders down and lips sealed.

If you’re rooting for the Houston Rockets to make it to the finals, as general manager Daryl Morey clearly is, this is a preview for your heart attack. Only hope can give way to despair, and that’s the emotional nightmare Houston is hoping for. After nearly two decades of missing the finals, after three years of missing the playoffs entirely, Rockets supporters are asking for a lot of happiness, but a lot of misery, too. Houston’s game 6 collapse against the Thunder this year was a disappointment, but was only a shadow of what that would bring in a Finals game.

If you want another peek at what passionate highs and desperate defeat the Finals have to offer, make the trip to San Antonio on Thursday. Bury yourself in a sea of Spurs fans and listen to them and their excitement for one day. There’s no question that everyone in the Rockets organization, the city of Houston and the Rockets diaspora at large wants a trip to the NBA Finals. This year, next year, every year. But while no stage has more potential for joy, no stage has more potential for despair, either. Just ask the people in that bar in San Antonio.

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