//The San Antonio Spurs: The National Team of the Immigrant//
Originally appeared in the Huffington Post, June 2, 2013
When my grandfather wasn’t watching Lucha Libre or Santos Futbol or sexy ladies dancing in lacy things on Univision, he was watching the San Antonio Spurs. If you would look behind the smoked glass window of the bureau by his death-bed, you would find, from left to right, the pictures he took with my ‘buelita on their honeymoon in Mexico City, the wedding picture of my parent’s in the 80s and an old VHS tape of the 1999 Spurs win in-game five against the New York Knicks. If you grew up an immigrant, or the son of immigrants, in Texas, there wasn’t a more perfect way for it to happen: a Championship win in Madison Square Garden, in front of the world. Suddenly, it felt like we mattered in some small way. Like we’d been noticed.
The San Antonio Spurs were then, as they are now, mostly a team of immigrants, playing for a city of immigrants, and like the immigrant body itself — seldom flashy, often underappreciated, and often working under the radar — the Spurs continue to persevere for their own sake whether America will have them or not. Though they’ve handily delivered four championships between 1999 and 2007 and have been described as the best run franchise in the NBA, they’ve widely been described as the most underappreciated NBA team ever, never getting the same dynastic credit as the Celtics of the 60s (eight championships), the Lakers of the 80s (five championships), or the Bulls of the 90s (six championships).
In many ways, the story of the San Antonio Spurs is the story of San Antonio itself. A city almost at the fringe of American thought, a relic in the American psyche of the old west, the cowboy Texas of the Alamo, that Texas so many loved and then loved to hate in the post-Bush era. It was the same Texas I’d been told to leave countless times growing up, just as my grandparents had been told to leave Mexico.
In my first year at an Ivy League institution, I was told by a professor that writers don’t come from Texas. “You don’t speak with an accent,” my professor told me. “Did you play high school football? Do your parents vote Republican?” This was the kind of Texas I was supposed to come from. Never mind the Texas that speaks with a different kind of accent, or the Texas that speaks a different language altogether. Or the Texas that votes every which way you can think of. Or the Texas that doesn’t play football at all, but soccer (or Nintendo). “‘Texicans’ they call us,” and people would laugh. “Of course there’s no such thing as a Texican,” my professor said. “That’s just some made up nonsense.” And because my professor proclaimed it nonsense, it was the truth. I’d been erased from the map, my family too — all of the Texicans you can think of: Robert Rodriguez, Gloria Anzaldua, Dagoberto Gilb, that guy related to Danny Trejo who used to work at Jim Jim’s on 6th street in Austin. We were all gone, except that we weren’t. There was a city full of us and a team dedicated to that city.
The Texicans of Texas will not be seen on the show Friday Night Lights or on Dallas. For that matter, we are not the Dallas Cowboys or the Houston Rockets, but we are San Antonio: the folks mowing your lawns, cleaning your hotel rooms, serving your Jim Jim’s shaved ice and being related to Danny Trejo. We, too, are pushed to the fringe. Out of sight and out of mind. For a city like San Antonio, it could only have been the Spurs. A team so clinical, so efficient, they’ve come to be known as boring by their worst critics.
Indeed, the Spurs are boring if you consider the flash of LeBron James or the grinding, physical play of the aging Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers to be good basketball. That style of play, it can be argued, is archetypically American. Selfish, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps play, the story of one-man-saving-the-sinking-ship-play. It’s the kind of play that makes headlines and morning talk show rounds. It’s the kind of play you see American boys of every color emulating on the concrete ball courts every day of the year in every part of this country.
Other players are not so glamorous. The Spurs’ star forward, Tim Duncan (nicknamed “The Big Fundamental”), largely works, as all players on the roster do, within the Spurs System. The rest of Coach Greg Popovich’s big three rotation, Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and Tony Parker (France), are considered key components of this system and while other teams may prefer a star-fueled run-and-gun styled offense (think the Los Angeles Clippers or the Miami Heat), the Spurs System is mainly driven by solid defense and a pick-and-roll offense in which virtually every player, bench or not, gets a hand on the ball and their opportunity to shoot. It’s no wonder point guard Tony Parker has rolled into the NBA finals with 7.2 assists per game, more than the likes of Russell Westbrook (7.0), Chris Paul (6.7), or LeBron James (6.3), though definitely with fewer points averaged over the season than those players. In fact, virtually every player in coach Gregg Popovich’s big three scores fewer points per game than their counterparts on other teams. The key? A boring game: solid defense, a solid passing game and Manu Ginobili.
While they’ve won the West this season, the Spurs somehow continue to remain out of the headlines. It’s no wonder the story of the Latino immigrant and the story of the San Antonio Spurs are so perfectly in sync. What are the contemporary Spurs if not a simulacrum of the city they were born from? What are the Spurs, if not a representation of the immigrant struggle itself? Last season, they were a team that seemed as if their best years had passed them. It seems as though this season some of that tired rhetoric of the boring Spurs is waning and perhaps, the giant is just beginning to wake.
Last night my older brother called me while driving down I-35, on the road to his residency in San Antonio from Nashville, where he had just finished medical school. “You set up in your new place, yet?” I asked. We plan to watch the NBA Finals together this year in San Antonio. He paused for a moment, unsure of what to say. “No man,” he told me, “The storm. Half the city is covered. I’ll be under water by the time you get here.”
Ni modo, as they say. There’s only so much you can do.