During a phase of life where nothing practices consistency quite like the rent and stress, people often look at me crazy when I say sports are my life. Maybe not all of it, but a huge chunk. Far from an “expert” or “analyst,” sports remain an escape from the normal and an avenue to collectively invest worthwhile emotions into. Yet, what’s a man to do when the one nightmare replaying on a never-ending loop in their head is the product which has been the frequent source of unbridled joy?
June 18, 2013. Specifically, the night of June 18, 2013.
Game 6 of the NBA Finals was familiar territory. A “win-or-risk-living-the-rest-of-the-summer-in-exile” moment if there ever was one. It was yet another watershed moment in the career of LeBron James, and my fan hood. The past few two seasons were defined by them. There was Game 4 vs. Indy in 2012, Game 6 vs. Boston in 2012 and Game 7 vs. Indy in 2013. Despite the rings, the 40+ point games and the success, the thought of failure haunts more. For any basketball fan, Games 4 and 6 vs. Dallas in 2011 is forever burned into our memory banks for the same reasons but explicitly different reactions.
June 18 was literally hell on Earth. Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes like hours. Hours like weeks. My buddy Alex and I texted all day running through the possibilities. There was literally an e-mail typed to Gotty saying I’d be taking a month off to clear my head in the event the unthinkable happened. I know, foolish, but again, that’s how much I invest in sports. I make no apologies.
So when Game 6 actually tipped off that night, butterflies mutated into pirañas. So nervous and stressed by San Antonio’s halftime lead, I changed into a full suit and tie and sat Indian-style on the floor in silence not uttering a word. Candles were lit, too. Sick, I know. The lead was chipped to seven, still silent. Evaporated to four, still silent. LeBron’s headband exits the building (some “fans,” too), all hell breaks loose and the closest thing I’ve seen to a one man domination since Leon at the end of Above The Rim goes down, still silent.
Then, “it” happened, which coincidentally is also around the time when the destinies of Gregg Popovich and myself intersected.
Pop doesn’t know me. That’s fine. I only know Pop through television and his hilariously terrifying and equally pointless between quarter interviews. I love the guy all the same for being a living icon not only in the world of coaching, but a leader of men in the sport I’d give my right pinky toe to actually be good at.
We all know the “it” being referring to, too. Before “it” however, my OG, Grant, from Atlanta, had been on the phone telling me how “LeBron ain’t sh*t” and “1 for 4 in the Finals is pathetic” and how “he’ll never be Kobe” and that he would never “let me live this down.” Then, LeBron launches a desperation three, Bosh grabs the rebound and literally – anyone who watched the game can vouch for this – these five thoughts raced through our heads in a matter of two seconds.
1. Oh shit.
2. They left Ray Allen open?!
3. Was he behind the line?
4. He was behind the line, wasn’t he?
5. Let me check Twitter.
Everything happened in less than two seconds, but inversely felt like an eternity. The stage represented the single most career-defining play in Ray Allen’s career, the narrative of LeBron changing twice in less than five seconds, questions why Duncan wasn’t on the floor, the fans in San Antonio literally experienced a “Come To Jesus” moment and, although there was overtime and a potential Game 7 48 hours later, the “Spurs World Champion” t-shirts were already being shipped to a supplier who’d ensure some good would come out of them.* Grant quickly changed the subject.
Whoever coined the phrase “time heals all wounds” never lost a potentially championship-clinching contest. The waning moments of Game 6 still haunt Gregg Popovich. Time away from the game hasn’t helped. Offseason boxing may do more harm than good.
“Nothing is a release,” he confessed to Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News.
That’s the relationship with sports we all willingly subject ourselves to whether it’s our day job or simply fans. We learn, begrudgingly, to accept the good with the bad and the champagne with the bitter taste of defeat. Nothing lasts forever (unless you’re a Cubs or Browns fan). For Pop, to lose a game in such a magnitude, and to prepare for another season when the thought of the previous still dominates his psyche is numbing.
“I’ve been quite lugubrious,” he said; the meaning of the word being “as sad as can possibly be.”
Credit it to man’s innate ability to dwell on negative memories. We remember heartbreaking losses just as much, if not more, than euphoric victories. What could’ve been executed differently is enough to drive a person insane. Hearin Popovich – the most celebrated coach of the David Stern era not named Phil Jackson and a man known and revered for his drill instructor-like mentality and approach – dwell on the one Finals loss he has in five tries is both torturing and refreshing. He is human. He does have feelings like the rest of us. That game meant just as much to him as it does to the rest of us who’ll never truly understand what an “offseason” is at our own day jobs.
He does have confidants, like his daughter, Jill, who’ll use his own straight-no-chaser approach against him. “But poor Greggy can’t lose because he’s special. Can you please get over yourself? End of story.”
June 18, 2013.
The day Gregg Popovich and I crossed paths. A 10-day trip to Duabi, endless laughs at Terio Vines, the greatest laugh of the summer in the Fake Terio Vine at Popeyes, drunk nights with great friends, openly defending Johnny Manziel, writing for a handful of legit websites, attending Trillectro, officially retiring my #GetTheKing2Ringz hashtag in the Twitter Hall of Fame, finding chumps to really bet against Floyd Mayweather, begin revisiting The Wire because of all the Breaking Bad hoopla, watching Gucci Mane’s nervous breakdown and more defined summer 2013 for me.
Pop has lived with the burden of knowing my joy/his pain has dominated his life since we last saw him on TV. When will he be able to sleep at night again, peacefully?
“I’m anxious when that begins to happen.”
The road to self-forgiveness is often a painful one.
* – Crazy thing is, the Spurs were in it to the end of Game 7 as well. I don’t recall ever seeing a team have its heart snatched from them on the grandest of stages like this in back-to-back games. Had I not been so excited, I probably would’ve thrown up.