The abrupt end of the NBA Finals on Sunday left me with no other option than to dedicate all my sport-watching energy to the World Cup. This transition has felt uncomfortable. I root for players I have never heard of. For countries I am ashamed to say I previously did not know existed. Watching the games, I feel like the cliché ugly American tourist, lost and confused amidst the international community of lifelong soccer hooligans. If these feelings have crystallized one thing for me, it is this: I miss the NBA. Before we, as Americans, immerse ourselves too fully in the unfamiliar culture of world soccer, let me take a minute to appreciate the recent resurrection of the San Antonio Spurs.
In the last three games of their series against the Heat, the Spurs played basketball at such a high level it looked like they were playing with six men. They shot from the field better than any NBA Finals team in history. On defense, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard was a beast, stealing the ball from his opponent seemingly at will. With their fifth title in 15 years, they crowned themselves as the best NBA franchise post-Jordan.
Their championship is most impressive considering where they were a year ago, when they performed the most epic collapse in NBA history. In Game 6 of last year’s Finals, the Spurs were ahead 3-2 in the series, up five points with 28.2 seconds left. They let up two offensive rebounds, two threes, and Kawhi Leonard missed the free throw that would have sealed the game. They lost Game 7 two days later.
Grantland Editor-In-Chief Bill Simmons writes about Tim Duncan during Game 7 of last year’s Finals:
“You might remember that sadness drifting into the final minute of Game 7, right after Duncan missed what would have been a game-tying bunny over Shane Battier that he’s probably made 24,326 times in his life. Duncan jogged back downcourt in abject disbelief, like someone staggering away from an accident. Miami called timeout and Duncan sank into a despondent crouch, remaining that way for a couple of seconds, finally slapping the floor with two open hands.
Everyone in the arena could read Duncan’s mind. How did we blow this? How? How did that happen? The great Tim Duncan thought he had squandered his last chance.”
Another Grantland NBA writer, Andrew Sharp, tells the story of last year’s Manu Ginobili:
“A year ago this week, we were watching Manu Ginobili self-destruct on national television. We were watching the end. While the whole world remembers LeBron losing the headband and turning into the Incredible Hulk in Game 6, and then Ray Allen’s 3, there was also Manu. He helped lose the game just as much as those guys won it. He finished with eight turnovers, including a bunch of crucial mistakes in the fourth quarter and overtime… In Game 7, he had four turnovers in the fourth quarter, the last of which killed the Spurs’ comeback attempt for good.
‘I am trying to put things in perspective,’ he said then. ‘But it’s very hard. And the next few days are going to be very hard.’”
A year ago, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili had to endure intense feelings of sadness born from their failure. Last night, the two of them raised the O’Brien Trophy with their teammates on the San Antonio River in their citywide championship parade. Thousands of people cheered their names.
The emotional trajectory of the Spurs over the last year illustrates a human trend: feeling suffering is so often necessary before you experience joy. Such a painful defeat last year may have released the Spurs from expectation, allowing them to play more freely this season.
I am reminded of the U2 song Yahweh, in which Bono sings, “Always pain before a child is born/Yahweh, tell me now/Why the dark before the dawn?” In asking God why there is pain before birth, Bono resists the reality of the typical human arc of emotion.
Before his death, Jesus “began to teach [his disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). For Him, too, suffering, rejection, and death would precede the joy of the resurrection.
Peter, like Bono, resists Jesus’ predicted trajectory of emotion. In the next verse, Peter “took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him” (Mark 8:32). Peter’s optimism about Jesus –his belief that Jesus would not have to suffer in order to save –makes him fight Jesus’ foresight of his own suffering.
In the summer of 2010, LeBron James optimistically predicted years and years of winning championships in Miami. He may have overlooked the reality that loss is so often the pathway to joy. Now, after seeing the Spurs’ emotional trajectory over the past year, he might recognize that now is the dusk, and the dawn might be on its way.