By Jason Keidel
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Somewhere in Brazil, perhaps around the corner from the World Cup, the term “The Beautiful Game” was coined to describe the nation’s soccer team.
You can decide if such a handle applies to such a soporific sport, where scoring is timed by a sundial. But there’s no doubt that, in the spirit of world unity, the San Antonio Spurs were painted in the hues of all humanity, and played a game with an international mosaic and musical splendor.
In smashing the heretofore unbeatable Miami Heat, the Spurs reminded us that basketball is, at its best, a game of cellular harmony, each part in concert with the rest. Not even LeBron James, the hardwood transformer who seemed to own the sport by dint of his size, will and skill, could overcome a perfect team.
The Spurs stewed in the horror of last year’s title round, when they were 28 seconds from the ring they wear today. But they left little to chance this time, vaporizing the Heat from whistle to gun. Not even a miracle three from Jesus Shuttlesworth could save the Heat this time.
The Spurs should have played this series to a cinematic score, a symphony of movement and passes and soft hands and soft-spoken victory. They are so allergic to personal glory that each player painfully accepts the praise that others would grab so greedily. They play with a military ethic, appropriately lead by former Air Force officer Gregg Popovich, whose monosyllabic media chats have become legendary. Indeed, the game spoke for the entire group, in vowels and symbols and symphonic grace.
In the 1972 world chess championship, Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in a game famously called “Placid Beauty.” It’s hard to find a better characterization of the Spurs, who are so selfless that they literally scramble our modern sensibilities. We’re so busy celebrating the player and not the game that we forget or even abhor the old platitudes about teamwork and trust in the guy next to you. You get the sense that the Spurs have names on the back of their jerseys only because the league requires it.
After a Spurs title, you expect one of the iconic three — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili — to win the Finals MVP. But it was little-known and oft-mute Kawhi Leonard who bagged the hardware. Rather than watching with wide-mouthed indignity, the Spurs grabbed Leonard with childlike fervor, rubbing his head like a talisman while he collected the award from Bill Russell. Surely the former Celtics great had to clap at a performance worthy of his old-world ethos.
We thought this series was a referendum on the One versus the We. And while we’d like to think San Antonio eternally answered that debate, we honestly may not see such monolithic focus and fortitude again. The Spurs, while physically gifted, showed a spiritual unanimity that may have not been seen since Russell’s Celtics.
A lot will be said of James, little of it flattering. He’s no less the best player on Earth. Five seconds after the game the media morons were peppering him with questions about his contract, as if the Spurs were a speed bump to the larger narrative of an individual’s personal decision.
But it speaks to his old-school awareness that he couldn’t stop complimenting the Spurs for their team basketball, just moments after a few jewels were plucked from King James’ crown. Like Spassky did after losing to a perfect game,James applauded the pure beauty he’s pursued since puberty.
But teamwork isn’t sexy. There’s no room on a jersey for five or 10 men who share a goal; there’s no heroism in homogeny. There’s no song or dance to orchestrate for a bunch of guys who only care about one stat — the final score.
But instead of lamenting James, let’s celebrate Duncan, perhaps the most understated and underrated star in NBA history. He eschews the spotlight for the greater joy of the collective. And now he collects his fifth title.
What more can be said about the Spurs? It probably doesn’t matter, since they only care about the court — where they are the real kings.
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