SAN ANTONIO -- It's moments after the Spurs won the championship and I am walking up the mile back to my hotel high-fiving strangers. A man with gigantic cartoon muscles is waving a Tiago Splitter jersey and hopping up and down like a fifth grader who just woke up on Christmas. He's headed in my direction yelling unintelligible expletives and I'm hoping I get away with a quick palm slap, as opposed to say a chest bump or something worse. He settles for a high-five.
There are horns wailing in the distance and they're getting closer: air horns, car horns, vuvuzelas. Horns are serious business in San Antonio. One dude was getting his ride ready just as Tim Duncan was embracing Tony Parker and you get the feeling he's been planning this for several months. He's got it just right now, and he guns the engine, horn blasting like you've never heard such a cacophony.
This is happy noise -- for now anyway -- and this is what it sounds like when San Antonio wins a championship. An hour later as I sit down in my hotel room to re-live the evening things are just getting started. The River Walk is jammed, helicopters hover overhead and the horns. Good god, the horns. They will go long into the night.
One for the thumb
One for the thumb
I've experienced championships in Miami, Los Angeles and Boston from the safety of arenas. But I went to a place called the Friendly Spot on Sunday for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, because I wanted to be among the people when the Spurs won the championship. I wanted to see it as they did and experience the joy, or the despair, of the moment.
It goes without saying that this goes against every professional instinct I've acquired along the way. My livelihood depends in great measure on being in the arena, to capture the moments and feelings of the people we write about on a daily basis. I have been lucky enough to witness Kevin Garnett unload a lifetime of angst and Kobe Bryant exhale. I have seen LeBron James vindicated and Timmy, Pop, Tony and Manu crushed in the most human and brutal way possible. Those are honest moments that we wait an entire season to experience.
I was skipping all that for one of the oldest and lamest clichés in the book: the sports bar scene when a team wins a championship. But this was no ordinary bar and the Spurs are no ordinary team. They are everything here, the only pro franchise in town and a source of great pride and admiration.
I dropped by early on Sunday on my way out for a run and my man Tony suggested I get here a couple of hours before the game. The place fills up fast, he said. It gets crowded and it gets very loud. Tony was 3-for-3.
San Antonio has been confident. Everywhere you went, people wore Spurs gear and banners plastered across storefronts and high-rise office buildings read ‘GO SPURS GO,' which is more or less how people greet each other these days.
This is a much different vibe than last season when the series shifted back here all tied at a game apiece. There was excitement last year, of course, but not this collective feeling of confidence and unity. There was a feeling of validation last June that Pop and Timmy and Tony and Manu could still get back to the Finals. Then Game 6 happened and people have had payback on their minds ever since.
"Yeah, man" my cabbie was saying late on Saturday night. "Gonna be a big party tomorrow."
A few hours earlier over at the team's practice facility, team architect R.C. Buford was striking a different tone during an impromptu side session with the scribes. "I think we're still in a mourning period," he said. "It's not a time that begins and ends."
Because they are the Spurs and have an impressive collection of championship hardware, they did not take nearly as much shit as another team would have if they had blown a 3-2 lead and a Game 6 when they had it all but won.
"I tried to stay away from the game but it's all over TV," Danny Green said. "You can't go anywhere without somebody asking you about it or bringing it up. I'm sure years on down they're going to talk about it. It's always going to linger in people's minds and our minds."
You don't come back from something like that. Not at the age many of the Spurs are now, when their professional world is essentially a year-to-year proposition. Ever since blowing the Heat out in back-to-back games in Miami, they've been on edge.
Their gameplan has been perfect and their execution nearly flawless, yet, memories of last year are still fresh and terrible. Not for nothing has Ginobili been calling this their Game 7.
There is no way they wanted to get back on a plane on Monday and go back to Miami. Stumble there and they'll spend the rest of the week reliving the nightmare of last June with the knowledge that the world's greatest player would be poised to do something no one else has ever done. Not Michael, not Magic, Larry or even Russell. No one has ever come back from 3-1 down to win a Finals and the Spurs will be doubly damned if they let it happen to them.
Downtown San Antonio during Finals week (Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY)
There was no sense of impending doom at the Friendly Spot, which is exactly as it sounds. It's what would happen if your pals put up a giant projection screen in their backyard, threw out some lawn chairs and had 76 beers on tap, with wifi and a playground for the kids. Bring the dog, too. It's all good. The only rule here is that you be courteous to those around you and they take that rule very seriously.
It's a neighborhood gem in an area of the city called Southtown about a mile or so from the Alamo and a lifetime removed from all the touristy kitsch that lines that part of the River Walk. When visitors complain about the San Antonio (guilty), they're talking about a very small section of chain restaurants and tourist traps that fill up that part of the River Walk with slow-moving conventioneers and dads in ill-fitting cargo shorts.
The locals roll their eyes at that definition of their city, the way a Bostonian would give you an evil glare if you went to Faneuil Hall in search of Cheers instead of seeking out a bar stool at J.J. Foley's. Unlike my hometown, the vibe here is friendly and welcoming. It's also not hard to find.
Head down South Alamo, past the Convention Center, cross Cesar Chavez Blvd and San Antonio becomes a real place. Southtown is where the artists, eccentrics and comfortably well off live. It's home to hip restaurants, art galleries and coffee shops that fit easily among the well-appointed historic homes of King William, one of the three neighborhoods that encompass Southtown.
This is no gentrification project. It's been here for years and what's great about Southtown is it's not trying to be anything other than itself. It's just there, and it's more than happy to have you if you wander over.
I heeded Tony's advice and showed up about two and a half hours before the game started. It was already half full. There were kids straight from Little League and families gathered at their regular tables. It felt like a neighborhood block picnic and I was beginning to worry that I had made the wrong call. The sun was blaring overhead and that would make the watching the game on the inflatable screen difficult, if not technically impossible. I shouldn't have worried.
The first GO SPURS GO chant started soon after, prompted by a local TV guy with a Spurs logo shaved into the back of his head. There is no pretense here.
A man named Ol Skool Magee happened by with his posse. He had a bullhorn and was decked out in Spurs gear topped off with a silver Bozo the Clown wig. Ol Skool is really a man named Mario Sosa and he makes a habit of walking up and down South Alamo with his crew dropping into the other open-air venues along the route. He'd be back a couple more times before the night was over.
We reached capacity about a half hour before tip-off and things were starting to get serious. Imagine several hundred of your friends hanging out in the same spot, living and dying with each shot and groaning with every miss. Mix a strong amount of booze with heightened expectations and there's no telling what you're going to get. But this crowd was different. Loud and boisterous, yes, but fun and disarming, rather than dark and menacing.
The Heat started strong and I noticed a young fella in a Tim Duncan jersey was now rocking back and forth nervously in place in front of me. As LeBron threatened to go supernova and the Heat built a huge early lead he finally couldn't take it anymore and wandered off to silently collect his thoughts.
I've seen this sort of thing before, specifically Boston in Game 6 of the 2012 conference finals when LeBron dropped 45 and silenced not only a building, but an entire region. I braced for the backlash that comes from drunkenness and a colossal letdown, but there was none coming. Finally, Kawhi Leonard hit a three and everyone exhaled a little bit.
San Antonio is disarmingly polite. People made way for the little kids who were still running around without a care, some on the verge of full-scale meltdowns. A woman upbraided her daughter for going for the jug of iced tea instead of the water. She grabbed my arm, smiled, and apologized for her little girl.
The one loud guy wasn't even that bad. A few curses here and there, but he caught himself and said, "I'm sorry. They broke my heart last year." Everyone nodded. The Heat made a mini run and he stood up, ‘'GOOD TIMEOUT POP!" And then continued his conversation.
The Spurs started chipping away, but my man in the Duncan jersey continued to sway. It was starting to smell like sweat and stale beer as the Spurs got it down to three and everyone was happy. Like, genuinely happy. When Leonard hit another three to give San Antonio the lead the place erupted and the kid went crazy, shaking and pumping his fists, high-fiving everyone in the vicinity. Now it was a party.
Someone had made an oversized replica of the Larry O'Brien trophy and placed it carefully on a table in front of one of the smaller TVs in the back. By the fourth quarter people were asking to take pictures with it.
There was another room in the back with bigger TVs but the air was stifling even from 10 feet outside. A couple of guys were contemplating checking it out.
"Man, it's hot as hell back there."
"Is the beer cold?"
It was almost over by this point and as the cameras captured LeBron defeated with his hands over his head on the bench, the place erupted with a chorus of jeers. "Oh LeBron, should we turn the AC on for you?" someone called, and everyone laughed.
Tim Duncan checked out of the game and an older woman next to me yelled out, "Yeah Timmy! That's right Timmy!" like Duncan was her own son and he had just done something nice in a youth game.
It's now two hours later and the party is still raging down below. I imagine it will be go on well into the evening and sleep will be impossible for everyone, whether they're a part of the scene or not. And hell, they deserve it.
The Spurs traveled from the lowest depths of despair back to the top of the mountain, seven long years after winning their last title. That's an amazing accomplishment and we should never take them for granted.
We say that all the time as we point to Buford and Pop and their organization. We say that about Duncan, how he's the perfect superstar, and about Tony and Manu and now Kawhi who figures to be the one who finally takes them into the unknown. We say all that, but no one ever does it, and that's their genius.
Duncan took less money. Parker flirted with change years ago but it's hard to imagine him anywhere else. Manu could never leave. The people would revolt if that ever happened. Kawhi was an interesting, but raw, talent who worked his ass off in the gym to become a star. Buford filled out the roster with scrubs and reclamation projects and under the tutelage of the best coaching and development staff in the business they became more than what they were before.
Pop's a hard coach. He's tough and demanding, but he's also more understanding and flexible than people recognize. He was given these gems and these players off the scrap heap and he worked with them, rather than against them. He says he learned to shut up more and accept his players for who they are and what they can do, instead of trying to make them into something they're not.
They are unique in their ways, which are as old as the game itself. They beat the Heat with passing, talent and depth. They made the game simple and played it beautifully in the process. They are what everyone else wants to be, and what few will have the vision and the perseverance to see it through.
As I made my way past the Alamo, past the screaming and the honking, past all the exuberance and emotion, a man walking by himself kept repeating the same phrase over and over again. "We the best," he said. "We the best."