The NBA Playoffs are in full gear. This is the time everyone calls, “the REAL season.” Rotations are shortened. The game slows down and gets tougher. Players flip a switch and find that extra gear, all for the chance to be the ones to raise the trophy in the end.
The Playoffs are also the time when fans are more engaged. Fans also bring their A-games. Whether it’s through analysis, memes or straight-up fanaticism, there’s always something to see outside the game.
That’s why SLAM PH is telling the stories of several playoff teams through the lens of some of their loyal Filipino fans. Distance, background and nationality don’t matter when it comes to NBA Playoff basketball. These Pinoy fans speak up and give their honest outlook for their respective teams in this year’s Playoffs.
“I’m naming my kids Tim, Tony, and Manu. I’ll find a way to sneak them in as second names or something. I don’t intend to live out the rest of my life without honoring them somehow.”
Meet my long-time friend and now college roommate, Javi Vilchez. He’s a Spurs fan, if the above didn’t already make that as clear and direct as a Gregg Popovich sideline interview.
I first encountered the extent of his fandom back in high school, when his Spurs faced off against LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals. He proudly wore a Spurs foam finger throughout the day and cheered them on every time our Math teacher updated us on the score from his laptop.
When most basketball fans think about the Spurs, any of the following come to mind: serial winners, top-class organization, the vanguards of “pure” basketball, Grand Meisters of player development – none of which are titles earned from a blip of success but a standard of excellence and innovation stretching over two decades.
Yet there’s something unrecognizable about them now. With the Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili era finished and the aftermath of the Kawhi Leonard fiasco still shrouding them with uncertainty, the Spurs have been forced to start a new chapter earlier than they or any of their fans might have expected. Suddenly the most known quantity in the league has become one of the most unknown.
But Javi’s devotion to the Spurs is rooted in something deeper than their success, the legends and big names that rep their colors, or the brand of basketball that they play. In fact, it’s probably best represented in none other than… Matt Bonner.
“In 2015, I had a Home Economics project where we had to recreate the likeness of our favorite athlete or musician. I chose to frame a snapshot of the Spurs’ Matt Bonner hanging on the rim after a rare dunk.”
Yes. Matt “The Red Rocket” or occasionally, “The Red Mamba” Bonner. That stocky, red-haired dude who runs with his arms tucked into his sides but could shoot the lights out on your team if you let him.
“Many wondered how he ever managed to stay in the NBA that long. That’s why I love the Spurs. They exude an uncharacteristic loyalty not only to their personnel but to the foundational principles of the sport of basketball. The Spurs have won and continue to win their way – just a group of ordinary-looking guys passing the ball, shooting, playing defense, and winning championships.”
Coming into this season, few teams in the Association had to face as many questions as the Spurs did. Since Leonard’s emergence during their 2014 title run, he had been earmarked to carry the Spurs into another decade of success after their Big Three hung it up. After one of the most bizarre falling-outs between player and team, they were forced to move forward with DeMar DeRozan instead, and most were quick (and probably right) to demote the Spurs from title contenders to lowly Playoff participants for the time being.
Dealing Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and the Raptors’ 1st round pick next season had to have been a bitter pill to swallow. When I asked Javi how he felt about Kawhi, all he had to say was, “Who?”.
“DeMar’s been okay. He’s been doing his best. I don’t know if I see him as a long-term building block, but I’ll take what I can get.”
The Spurs’ supporting cast was hard to get excited about too, especially after Dejounte Murray, rookie Lonnie Walker IV, and Pau Gasol all went down with major injuries. Supporting a team clouded by so much doubt would temper even some of the most devout fans, but this season Popovich and the Spurs simply did what they’ve always done. And more than keeping him faithful to the cause, it’s only made Javi believe even more.
“As they so characteristically do, the Spurs proved me wrong. Even with our mediocre roster today, I feel like my attachment to the team is stronger than ever. The staff have done an incredible job enhancing Bryn Forbes’ playmaking, honing Davis Bertans shooting, refining Poeltl’s touch around the rim, and raising the ceiling for raw talent like Derrick White. Even old dogs like Lamarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay seem to be learning new tricks.”
Looking back on the season, the Spurs have definitely exceeded expectations. Pop led them to their 22nd Playoff appearance in a row and posted the league’s 6th best offensive rating in the process. Derrick White has really come into his own too, averaging 17 points on 60.3% shooting so far in the Playoffs. They’ve outlasted many expert picks in their showdown with the #2 seed Nuggets, pushing their more talented but vastly inexperienced opponents to a 7th game. Though the Spurs didn’t advance, they’ve shown enough to prove that their ability to develop players and play solid, collective basketball will keep them competitive.
“Believing in the Spurs isn’t absurd. It never has been and never will be, and that is a testament to the greatness of Gregg Charles Popovich, Robert Canterbury Buford, and the San Antonio Spurs organization.”
If this season is anything to go by, it’s a calming reminder to all Spurs fans that the Spurs are still very much the Spurs and that their present and future will be in safe hands. And just as in Javi’s case, for as long as the Spurs remain the Spurs, they will continue to inspire those who invest in them.
“Any 5’7″, medium-built fan can watch them and say: ‘Hey, maybe I can do that too.’ And so the allure of basketball lives on, through the ordinary accomplishing the extraordinary.”
Photos from the author and Getty Images