It started with an asterisk. Long before Phil Jackson became a not-so-reclusive and plenty-opinionated retiree, he was busy opining on another team's title. San Antonio's first in 1999 was the product of a lockout-shortened season.
According to Jackson, it deserved an asterisk.
Never mind that all of Jackson's titles probably deserved asterisks of their own: *Opposition didn't stand a chance thanks to the superhuman likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Never mind that Jackson's comments surely had more to do with riling people up than engaging in a serious dialogue about asterisks.
On the heels of an era where the Spurs neither earned nor received respect, their time had finally come. Now it was the rest of the NBA world's turn to take notice. And they did—sort of. But not to the satisfaction of most Spurs fans, a demographic whose psychology is defined by narcissism and paranoia.
As we learned from our summer reading once upon a time, though, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you."
We Spurs fans know not everyone is after us. Even Phil Jackson doesn't speak for everyone. But we have our grievances all the same, real and imagined.
Carles of Grantland explains the pathology aptly:
An interesting set of forces has molded Spurs fans into a group that is empowered yet insecure. Our city’s only major professional franchise is generally identified by the casual fan as slow, old, and boring. Our city is generally unidentifiable on a blank map of the United States. Our city’s population is generally identified as overweight. Tim Duncan is generally considered a forgotten great. San Antonio Spurs fans are alone with their team, wrestling with their existence in a world where “general” ideas are endlessly perpetuated.
In our natural habitats, we look a lot like the rest of you. Beneath the surface, however, sanity is a scarce commodity. There's a reason for that.
The Birth of Bitterness
Most narrators begin San Antonio's story with the arrival of Tim Duncan in 1997. But to fully grasp the long suffering of Spurs fans, a prologue is in order.
David Robinson put the franchise on the map, headlining eight seasons while the team awaited its fundamentally sound salvation. He was joined by a sweet-shooting small forward named Sean Elliott, now better known for his homerific color commentary during local broadcasts.
Robinson and Elliott turned the franchise around, but not quite far enough. San Antonio routinely exited the postseason in the first or second round throughout the '90s. In 1995, new head coach Bob Hill finally got the club to the Western Conference Finals only to watch Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets unceremoniously dismantle it in six games.
The worst part of it all wasn't the elusive championship. It was the story used to explain it, a story Spurs fans even came to believe when they were honest with themselves.
These Spurs, you see, were too soft. ESPN Page 2 columnist Ralph Wiley described The Admiral as, "probably the only Aw Shucks Guy left in the whole league." I don't even want to know what that made Elliott, to say nothing of the faceless role players who came and went in those days.
They lacked MJ's competitive fire—or really, any competitive fire. They were twice jettisoned from the playoffs by Charles Barkley's Suns, as if to remind witnesses what heart really looked like.
The only thing worse than watching your team lose is listening to everyone explain why, telling you what you already know and don't want to admit.
Well, there's one thing that's worse...
OK, So Maybe Not "Soft"...but Definitely Boring
After claiming four championships during the Gregg Popovich era, it became increasingly difficult to label the Spurs "soft"—especially with the gritty defensive identity the new coach quickly infused into his twin-towered, turn-of-the-millenium machine.
But the critics' pity was replaced by some concoction of envy, begrudging admiration and outright disdain. Fine, our Spurs weren't soft—they were just boring as hell. If Robinson signified soft, Duncan had a patent on boring.
ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz recently gave the subject some of its finest treatment yet, weaving together backhanded compliments in what has conventionally become the closest national media get to showing San Antonio some love. He goes on to explain, however, that the Spurs' shameless above-the-fray pretensions are precisely why they are—as Arnovitz puts it—a "niche product."
From this perspective, Pop's enterprise is good for the game of basketball, just not the business of basketball:
Sports sell best as escapism, or as spectacle, but when a team is "workmanlike" or "efficient" or "all business," that means its effort is a facsimile of what most of us spend eight to 10 hours a day doing -- and few people watching want to come home from the office and tune in to the NBA's version of a TPS report. Most people don't root for process or systems which, by their very definitions, are designed to produce reliable outcomes rather than spontaneous outbursts. The viewer wants a fresh kill, one inflicted with force, not order.
As it turns out, some polls suggest the nation in fact prefers the Spurs to the flashy Heat by a narrow margin. Their foiled escape from real life notwithstanding, perhaps those fans see something in the Spurs to which they can relate.
Maybe there's something refreshing about guys like Danny Green and Gary Neal springing forth from the ashes of anonymity to put the world's biggest names on notice. As much as the average American despises those TPS reports, they're even less impressed by silver-spooned success stories who never had to file them.
Though this franchise didn't exactly start from the bottom, several of its most important contributors did. At the bottom of drafts. At the bottom of rotations. And at the bottom of a status-obsessed hoops culture that cares more about the kicks you're wearing than what you do wearing them.
If you find those kinds of success stories boring, it's time to expand the ole attention span.
The Blue Chip on Every Spurs Fan's Shoulders
If you want to start a fight with a Spurs fan—and who doesn't, really—just say something about tanking the 1996-97 season in order to land an already celebrated Wake Forest product who'd fit right in. True or not, the accusation is unverifiable to be sure. If ever proven or admitted, it would stain an organizational record that's been nearly spotless.
To Spurs fans, however, it's also beside the point. It ignores the years of wandering the NBA wilderness that yielded so few results and the fact that so many teams would do and have done the exact same thing.
Most importantly, though, it's a criticism that typically comes from the very same crowd who ignores San Antonio's virtues, painting them as quaint remnants of a time when things like sportsmanship and class were more than platitudes.
It's a criticism born of nihilists mostly, the fans who shrug at the Spurs' magnanimity with a heavily accented, "We believe in nothing, Lebowski."
Nietzsche Signs a Max Deal
It's not your imagination. Spurs fans do think they're better than you. And not just because of their franchise's considerable success.
They could easily play the "we have more titles than you" card, and they'd be correct in most instances. Instead, when they believe their guys are the good guys, they mean it in an entirely moralizing way.
Spurs fans have imbued an unforgiving sense of good and evil upon the NBA, even as the NBA itself seems to have moved beyond such things. We're a preachy brand of fans, taking on the mantle of sanctimonious grandstanding our stars refuse to accept themselves.
Someone has to.
Take Duncan. When he had the opportunity to pursue superteam ambitions in Orlando, he stayed in San Antonio instead. It wasn't the loyalty of a guy who cared more about winning than dollars (or vice versa). It was the loyalty you'd expect from someone who once called his soon-to-be ex-wife "four, five times a day" to reassure her, per Sports Illustrated.
It was the loyalty you'd expect from someone who cared about more than winning and dollars alike, someone who cared about doing the right thing.
Spectators may admire all that do-gooder stuff from a distance, but they'll far more readily guffaw over Dwight Howard making a funny face. And that's what ultimately bothers Spurs fans most—people care, but not that much.
In turn, we care too much. We rub it in your faces, because we think it's the only way you'll notice, and we cast judgement on the rest of the league to remind you good guys don't always finish last.
And that even when we don't finish first, we still have something to be proud of.