Ya know, we really have come along way, Coach. It seems as if just yesterday I was cursing you and your decision to oust Bob Hill—in retrospect, not one of my finer moments, and none-too-fair to you. But, in all fairness, Hill didn’t just look good on the sidelines, it was as if he came from Miami Vice’s central casting. And let’s be honest, Coach, any adolescent at the time would have felt the same way. I’m not proud of the way I acted, but Don Johnson is Don Johnson—and Don Johnson you ain’t.
But, see, I didn’t get it back then. I was just a punk kid, prone to the superficial. Nuance was lost on me. I knew what I was seeing and I knew there was more to the game than putting the little orange ball in the hole, but I was immature. Irrational, even. I was a fanatic in the worst sense of the word: passionately ignorant.
So even as I saw my hero, The Admiral (have-you-seen-his-biceps?!?), David Robinson, getting unfairly taken apart by the media, Bob Hill was still Don Johnson. And, really, so what if he watched a team zone-up his star defensively on one end while tasking his own to defend the opposition’s (Olajuwon) one-on-one at the other? Crockett had his pros and cons—apparently devising half-court defensive schemes would fall into the latter. (But, man… he sure knew how to dress, and his hair was spectacular.)
Thankfully, and appreciatively, though, you never held that against me. You truly were a gentleman, often allowing my criticisms and inflammatory rhetoric to simply roll off your back. It went in one ear, and out the other. Had I not known any better, I would have believed my words had fallen on a deaf ear or were simply inaudible. But I did know better. You were the better man, above it all—a mountain of a man—and for that you should be commended—I will truly never understand how it is you’ve managed to put up with me for all these years or how you managed to stay focused on the task at hand as I berated and/or questioned your tactics from the comfort of my home. But you did, and because of that—just days away from the fourteenth anniversary of Hill’s firing (Dec. 10, 1996)—we can both look back and laugh. We really have come a long way, Coach.
The mere fact that I can call you “Coach” is a testament to how far we’ve come. I’ve never played for you or taken instruction firsthand, but the moniker is certainly appropriate—coaching is teaching, and I’ve certainly been a student. Referring to you as such is a sign of respect in informality. It’s because of you and your teachings that thousands-upon-thousands of people like myself have truly learned the game. Auerbach and Holzman, Daly and Riley, Sloan and Jackson, these are your peers. They’re Hall-of-Famers. And, like yourself, they’re more than just some team’s coach.
They were teachers, purveyors of a philosophy and culture, and they all provided their fan bases with a better understanding. Their fans were given a template, a system. Whether it was the team play of the Celtics and Knicks, the dominant defense and offense of the Pistons and Lakers or two of the greatest half-court systems ever devised in Utah and Chicago (and later L.A.), their fans knew what worked. They knew who they needed and what they needed—and they knew why they needed what they needed.
Simply put: It’s your fault, Coach.
It’s your fault because you’ve taught us well. It’s your fault because of the ship you’ve run and the course you’ve charted—no good deed goes unpunished, some might say. We know better than to believe replacing an aging Bowen with Michael Finely is a winning proposition. We know better than to believe complimenting an aging Duncan with the floor-spacing of Matt Bonner is anything more than a nice situational option to have at your disposal. We know these things to be true because of your teachings, because we’ve seen the Spurs before and after you took the reins as its coach. You’ve equipped us with the knowledge to know better, Coach—and it’s led some to believe you may have jumped the shark.
“Jumping the shark” only comes about after a great amount of success and in the desperation to hold on to past achievement, so it’s understandable some might feel that way. I mean, let’s be honest, Coach, the 2008 Western Conference finals loss to the Lakers could have very easily been viewed as the team’s finale—the personnel no longer capable of winning in the same defensive manner; and combating such a notion with more Finley, Bonner and Mason may have been enough for The Fonz to add an aerial maneuver.
But I know better, Coach. I know that you were only trying to give the team a shot. I know that the teachings and principles never changed, the personnel did. I know that in the absence of players capable of fulfilling the roles of Bowen, Horry and their role-playing predecessors, you simply tried to make do. After all, if you’re spinning the wheels and you’re incapable of achieving your objectives one way, you might as well give something else a go, right? Makes sense to me, as unfortunate as the reality may be.
Even the best of us lose our way from time to time, Coach. But I know that’s not the case with you. I understand that making do can sometimes lend to the perception of a flat world’s horizon—a point of no return— and that, that’s all that it is: perception.
The skeptics and detractors just don’t know you like I do, Coach. They don’t believe it’s only the personnel that’s changed, but the philosophy and principles. They don’t realize that you’re perfectly aware that Matt Bonner is the 5-Hour Energy for a 17-hour day. They don’t realize how important you believe Splitter’s assimilation and role is to this team and its championship aspirations—they don’t understand that Splitter’s averaged less than 50 games a season while playing overseas; that he’s been prone to the nagging injury; and that coming into camp leg-weary and dinged up after a long summer of National Team play, and then sustaining an injury that would force him to miss Training Camp altogether, necessitates an ever-so-careful touch . He’s just that important to you and for what you hope to help the team accomplish this year. …They just don’t know that the only reason your teachings have seemed to combat recent year’s actions has been because of health and personnel, not the changing of core principles—and that with the benefit of good health, you’ve got the personnel to prevent you from ending the way of Arthur Fonzarelli.
But I know, Coach… I know.
Follow Nick Kapsis @Project_Kap