Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Our One Noble Function

Dear Coach Popovich,

Here’s my theory, which probably isn't original at all: Every single decision a player makes in a basketball game offers him a choice between being selfish and being unselfish. Every play. On D, the selfish choice often requires less effort and leaves a player less vulnerable to ridicule. That’s the appeal: if your teammate’s man is driving the lane, it takes more energy to help him than to stay with your man, plus you run the risk of getting dunked on. I know I’m preaching to the choirmaster here, but let me keep going with this. On offense, the selfish choice isn’t really about effort. Speaking from my pick-up and sub-JV basketball experience, I’d posit that most basketball players only feel tired on defense. Miraculously, at least in my experience, we forget how tired we are as soon as the ball is back in our hands. The motivation for the selfish offensive choice is simple: the attention/ glory/ personal satisfaction of shooting and possibly scoring. That's for all levels of basketball, but for the NBA there’s an added element: money. Any decent behind-the-scenes NBA book makes it clear that most professional basketball players equate points with money. And understandably so. Points are the bedrock measure of a basketball game, and if you want to stay in the league, thereby being able to make money for yourself and your immediate family and your extended family and your hangers-on, then the most obvious way to do that is to score points. I’m gonna get mine is the underlying motto of a great many NBA players, which seems pretty obnoxious from the vantage of fans like myself, until I think about what I’d do if the quality of my family’s lifestyle was directly tied to how many baskets I made. (I’m ignoring the fact that personally I've always jacked up a lot of threes even when my family’s welfare wasn’t on the line.) The unselfish decision requires you to give the attention/glory/money to someone else in order to get your team a higher percentage shot. Except if (and only if) you’re the team’s acknowledged go-to guy, in which case you may be required on occasion, especially in fourth quarters, to make decisions that appear to be selfish—shooting the ball more, taking control—for the benefit of your team. And even this kind of seeming selfishness is unselfish because, as with certain kinds of good defense, it can open you up to ridicule. (Don't know about you, but I'm thinking of LeBron right now, Coach.) So everybody knows that the primary job of an NBA head coach is to get players to consistently make the decisions that will require more effort, cost them more money, give them less glory, and open them up to ridicule. It’s one of the hardest tasks in all of sports, and much more difficult than coaching football or baseball, where roles are more clearly defined. And again, I’m sorry to tell you all this stuff that you already know, but I’m saying all this to set up this one point. Here it is: I watched your team’s first round series over the last week, and I’m truly amazed at how well you continue to pull off this borderline impossible task.

You and R.C. Buford have assembled a group of guys who consistently make the unselfish choices, especially on offense, and it’s a joy to watch. Really is. I’ve seen very few teams share the ball the way this Spurs team shares the ball. It’s awesome. In the two games and change that I saw over the last week, I think I witnessed more possessions where at least four guys touched the ball than ever before in my basketball-watching life. I’ve seen so many possessions where somebody made the extra pass, guys foregoing an acceptable shot so a teammate can get an even more open one. I’m not a coach or a staunch basketball purist; I just like watching exciting basketball more than boring basketball, and this kind of basketball is exciting. Miami and OKC are jawdropping in transition, but the dirty secret of the NBA is that in half court, these marquee teams can be downright boring. But your Spurs team—against their longtime reputation—is exciting almost all the time. The 2012 Spurs run a lot and move the ball really well in transition, but they also make half court look like a pinball machine, passes darting around at all angles. I love it. Your offense this year could be described by this line from On the Road: "We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move." That's what all your players do. They leave the confusion and nonsense of other NBA teams behind and perform the one noble function of basketball: to move around on offense and defense and move the ball. Just move. Obviously it helps that you have a former superstar bigman who still plays great D and doesn’t care about having the ball in his hands all the time, not to mention a current superstar Frenchman who is as exciting with the ball in his hands as any player in the entire league and who has finally made the unselfish decision to take on the role of the team’s acknowledged go-to guy. And you have Ginobili, who is still Ginobili, only with a slightly bigger bald spot. But my favorite aspect of this Spurs team is all the role players, the unselfish guys who also end up being the recipients of unselfishness: Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, the redhead Bonner, your extremely veteran-like rookie Kahwi Leonard. I’m hoping to continue to see these guys shoot open threes and layups for the rest of the playoffs. All championship teams have a bunch of good role players, and the Spurs have the best role players of any team I’ve seen this year.

Now here comes the basketball-as-metaphor-for-life part, Coach. Is it possible that in in life, too, every single decision is a choice between selfishness and unselfishness? This occurred to me recently and kept occurring to me as I've thought about your team and your coaching. I think it may be true. And it’s an idea that scares me, because I think that in this sense I might be more of a Carmelo than a Duncan. (Have you seen the huge painting of Carmelo’s face that Carmelo has in his living room, by the way? You should look it up, Coach. I laugh at it, but then I worry that in my mental living room there’s a similar painting with my face on it.) How many selfish decisions do I make each day because they require less effort? A lot, Coach. A lot. And how many times in my life have I chosen not to help someone out because it left me less open to ridicule? How many decisions have I made based on attention or glory or personal satisfaction? And how many times have I deferred to someone else in a pressure situation so as to avoid blame? You don't wanna know my real answers to all these questions, Coach. Trust me. I don't even really wanna think about it. But I need to, and I appreciate the way your team and your coaching have brought all these questions to mind. And my question to you is this: I know you and the organization make a well-known effort to sign only players who are, in your words, “over themselves,” but besides that, how do you get your teams to play this way? How do you do it, Coach? I need to find out. Because I need to start coaching myself the way you coach the Spurs. No kidding.

In conclusion, allow me to bring up my favorite line from Owen Wilson’s character in Zoolander: “Sting. Sting would be another person who's a hero. The music he's created over the years, I don’t really listen to it, but the fact that he's making it, I respect that.” Over the last decade and a half or so, the Spurs have been my Sting. I’ve always respected you guys, but I haven't had any interest in watching you play, unless it was to see you get beat by the Rockets. The received wisdom was always accurate for me: the Spurs were truly boring. But not this year. What I love most about what you’ve done this year isn’t simply that you’ve gotten a group of professional basketball players to play unselfishly, as you've done every single year since I was in high school. No, what I love about the job you've done this year is that you’ve gotten your team to play unselfishly and it’s actually fun. It’s fun to watch this Spurs team and it’s obviously fun to be a player on this Spurs team. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier bench.) And this, too, is a basketball-as-life inspiration: Your coaching this year is a reminder that the unselfish decision can be thrilling, that the selfish decision is often less interesting than the unselfish one, though it requires less effort. So thanks for showing me that, Coach, and good luck in the rest of the playoffs. Whether you win or not, these Spurs have truly been a pleasure to behold.



P.S. Let's not forget that Parker was the 28th overall pick and Manu was the 57th. I'm not sure you get enough credit for this. There's a lot to be said for a guy who can see talent where no one else can.