I don't know what you think, but the Phoenix Suns' dismissal this week of the San Antonio Spurs from the NBA playoffs—via a crystal-clear four-game sweep—feels pretty writing-on-the-wall to me. And how about that, it's inspiring me to write only my second-ever sports post. (Or my third, if you count this.)
There was a time when teams could contend year in and year out (did the term "rebuilding" even exist pre-1990?). But nowadays, once your key pieces hit the downside of their careers, you know what you're in for. Decline is inevitable; you cannot sustain top-tier success. Where do you go if you want a shot at fairly consistent excellence? College sports, maybe. In that environment, a strong coach and a smart program really can make that big of a difference: any year might be your year. Only I have a hard time rooting for 19-year-olds for more than a couple weeks at a time. Eventually the battles between 30-year-olds might strike me as equally inconsequential, but that day hasn't come yet, fortunately, so pro sports are still safe for me. (This is something worth thinking about. I've crossed that threshold where the hotter movie stars and all the pro athletes are younger than me. Among high-achievement populations, the only ones I have left to catch up with, age-wise, are CEOs and Supreme Court judges.)
Before this spectacular run, we Spurs fans were not long-suffering. Even without a championship, San Antonio had many great teams over the years. They were rarely losers. They were often contenders. Nonetheless the string of championships that Tim Duncan reeled off took us into a universe that we not only had never inhabited but whose most basic properties were foreign to us. And whereas anyone might get on a roll and win it all (consider these guys), the Spurs went out-of-their-minds bonkers, establishing themsleves as the most visionary organization in sports and capturing four titles. Best coach in the game. . .team of the decade. . .greatest power forward of all time. . .the winning-est franchise (since 1997) in all professional sports. . . In other words, the Spurs weren't just good; they were historically, dynastically, dominatingly great. When I watched Manu Ginobili take a game over, I couldn't believe he was on our team: he's the kind of guy who's always on the other team, the guy who always beats us, the guy I wish we had a guy like. And yet, he was ours. And when people talked about Duncan, they didn't just number him among the best half-dozen guys in the league. They compared him to Russell, to Bird, to Magic.
This was a different kind of success, a kind of success we'd never been around. San Antonio, the home of the biggest dynasty in sports? This was the same town Dennis Rodman had (rightfully) left in disgust, because it just didn't possess the "big time" gene. Our hick smallness extended into everything: when I was a kid, SA became the heavy-metal capital of the world because we could never convince anyone bigger than Judas Priest to do a concert here. So when the tide turned, I could barely believe our good fortune; I was giddy with it, I was beside myself. We all were.
But now it is 2010, and we're approaching the end. If that last big free-agent acquisition had worked—if Richard Jefferson, still a youngish player, had relocated his 2006 self—they just might have found another championship or two in them. But he didn't, and they aren't. Duncan's greatness is of such an Odyssean quality that the team he pilots might well be a tough out for true title contenders for another year or two, but we are firmly, irrefutably on our way to a different place than the one we've been in since 1997.
How Spurs fans react, after this rather glorious decade-plus ride, to a life in the middle of the pack, or even at the back of the pack, will be fascinating to see. The town has quit on the Spurs before: during the last playoff drought (second half of the '80s), attendance went down and there was talk of the city losing the team. But I think that a foundation has been set. The fans, not just the team, may have reached the big time.