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The Warriors, the Spurs, and dynasties passing the torch in pro sports

The Age of the Splash Bros is washing away the Kawhi Leonard-era Spurs.

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NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Summer is here in the Bay Area, where, for the third time in the last four years, the Golden State Warriors are raucously celebrating a world championship. The sweet nectar of Hennessy and the rich scent of fresh (legalized) ganja satiates the citizens of Oakland. They gleefully reminisce on how the champs buried those old Spurs, plucked those plucky Pelicans, grounded those misfiring Rockets, and swept LeBron James out of “The Land”.

Speaking of those San Antonio Spurs, I was disturbed from my usual morning ritual of standing on my balcony, overlooking the Bay, painting Baroque-inspired scenes of the Warriors domination (today’s piece had the working title of “Curry: Taker of Ankles”). My phone was vibrating relentlessly; I immediately knew something important and basketball related was occurring.

I holstered my paint brush in one of my smock’s pockets, flipped my Nokia open, and read the shocking headline. KAWHI LEONARD WANTS OUT OF SAN ANTONIO.

At that moment, I felt a single, small tear, welling up in my left eye. This was the final coup-de-grace for the Golden Dynasty; watching San Antonio’s last relevant superstar demand his freedom from their decaying empire.

What a long time coming this has been.

The Spurs, Larry Holmes, and the Era of Boring Dominance

As a child, I remember my dad animatedly regaling me of the exploits of Muhammad Ali in his hey-day. He recounted to me in vivid detail the charm and fury of Ali, how he was a living superhero, larger than life.

“And then, after he retired,” I pressed, “Who was “The Man”? Like, who was did the next era belong to?” My father’s shoulders deflated ever so slightly.

“Oh, ummm, that’s Larry Holmes,” his voice answered respectfully, but nowhere near as animated. “Holmes actually beat Ali. I mean, Ali was HELLA old, but he still beat him bad. Holmes wasn’t flashy like Ali, and a lot of people didn’t really gravitate toward him like they did Ali. But...hey, Holmes had a great jab!”.

For educational purposes, here’s three minutes of the great Holmes, jabbing.

My dad went on to talk about Holmes achievements with a dry politeness; showing the kindness to a great man’s legacy as a true student of the game should. I Wikipedia’d Holmes’ 48-0 record to start his career (second only to Rocky Marciano), and 19 consecutive heavyweight title defenses over seven years (the second longest such streak in boxing history at the time). Extremely impressive.

Still...the visceral resonance Ali held with my boxing fanatic father spoke volumes compared to the muted appreciation he expressed regarding the hall-of-fame career of Holmes.

In basketball terms, I’ll probably be expressing a similar dichotomy of sentiments to my future children, when comparing Michael Jordan’s Bulls of the 1990s to the Tim Duncan Spurs dynasty.

I mean, when Jordan sealed the Bulls’ sixth and final championship in 1998 with that iconic, game-winning shot, I felt like I had just watched the ending to the greatest superhero movie of all time. ESPN’s Larry Schwartz wrote of the impact Jordan, one of the world’s greatest athletes, had on our culture:

“Tall, dark and bald, he is the first man of the planet. The former Chicago Bulls guard had the rarest of gifts, the ability to transcend his sport. His fame and skill were intertwined, much as they were in earlier generations for a select few, such as the Babe and Ali.

‘What has made Michael Jordan the First Celebrity of the World is not merely his athletic talent,’ Sports Illustrated wrote, ‘but also a unique confluence of artistry, dignity and history.’”

On the other hand, in the near two decade stretch since then, the Spurs have had a Holmes-like run of sustained, unassuming success. They won the first post-Jordan era title in the lockout shortened 1999 season, and the last title pre-Curry era in 2014.

Their list of accomplishments include:

Remarkably, they never won back-to-back championships (like we just did). While the Lakers also had five titles post-Jordan and pre-Curry, we can’t forget they spent several years bottom-feeding in that span. The Spurs steadily remained the marquee team of that period.

I’ve taken the liberty to splice in two Spurs videos. The first, is a quick ode to the greatness of Tim Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich’s relationship for all of the warm fuzzies.

The second clip, is for my basketball nerds and hoop junkies out there to appreciate how the Spurs have schematically dominated the league. Much like the Spurs reign, the video is long and educational (hella dry).

San Antonio has been the model of consistency, and “playing the game the right way”. While most other teams (especially like ours) sneer, flex, and shimmy, San Antonio saw no need for the dramatics. The Spurs respectfully kicked their opponent’s asses for damn near two decades with pure execution and grace. They shared the ball, played lockdown defense, and won games with the quiet satisfaction of a married father of three submitting his taxes online, on time, and mistake-free.

Nathaniel Friedman wrote of their silent sovereignty for GQ in 2017:

They were slow, conservative, sanctimonious, hidebound, boring, uninspiring, and most maddeningly, almost always right. Tim Duncan made an art of understatement. Manu Ginboili and Tony Parker were broken, disabused of the bad habits that made them interesting in the first place. While ingenious, Gregg Popovich seemed void of imagination. It also didn’t help that Popovich and Duncan were by all accounts devilishly funny but kept their personalities hidden from public view. They seemed to exist largely as a spoiler, quashing more entertaining teams like Mike D’Antoni’s Suns. They were by no means invincible yet they had knack for dispassionately closing out games as if the outcome were inevitable.

The Warriors, Mike Tyson, and The “So Dominant They Ruin The Sport” Era

During the dark years of the Warriors serfdom, we cringed from the shadows as the Spurs mechanically marched through Oakland on their way to more important business. From the ‘97-’98 season through ‘13-’14, the Spurs had an soul-crushing 51-8 regular season record against the Warriors.

This includes a sixteen game win streak over Golden State that spanned from 2008 until 2013. To put that in perspective, that streak of victories stretched between the “Baron Davis Era” and the “Age of the Splash Bros”. If that wasn’t frustrating enough for long-suffering members of Dub Nation, the Spurs held a five game win streak as recently as 2015.

The Warriors studied the Spurs, using them as a blueprint for unselfishness and poise. Under the tutelage of Popovich disciple and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr, they fused the Spurs motion-offense with the high-octane shooting of the Splash Bros. Soon, the Warriors outgrew their subservient role and demanded the throne for themselves, winning the title in 2015. Even grizzled guru Popovich was impressed, calling the young champions style “beautiful”.

Did you know the Spurs met with Kevin Durant during the summer of 2016, and failed to convince him to join? It’s true. He decided to play in Oakland instead. In fact, he was dominating for Dub Nation when the Warriors delivered a crippling sweep to San Antonio in the 2017 Western Conference Finals, one that the Spurs have not since recovered from.

You see, their preeminent superstar, Leonard, had trouble mending from a devastating ankle injury he aggravated in his heroic attempt to defeat the newly born Golden Empire.

A pity.

He was too injured to play in the 2018 playoffs, and the Warriors crushed the old, weakened Spurs again. The funny thing is, the Spurs weren’t so sure he was actually all that injured. This led to Leonard allegedly feeling betrayed, and now seemingly forcing his way out. For the first time in two decades, the Spurs appear to be reeling, confused, and helpless. It would appear that Father Time and internal dissension has finally won out against our old nemesis from Texas.

Which brings me back to our old friend Larry Holmes, who despite his remarkable consistency and longevity, also fell victim to the era of a new, ruthless champion. Holmes found himself just like the current Spurs: reeling, confused, and utterly helpless. That new era, much like the Golden Dynasty, was marked by unparalleled devastation.

It was the “Iron” Mike Tyson era.

Tyson was so ridiculously, over-the-top, dominant in his era, there’s an argument that he ruined the sport for the casual fan. This is from Bleacher Report’s Henry Dyck:

To understand how dominant he was perceived to be, if he lost a round, it was considered first page material. Tyson rarely took a step back, had never been knocked down or even seriously challenged.

The sad truth is we’ll never see another Mike Tyson. His combination of speed, power and ruthlessness might never manifest itself again in a boxer. ‘He’ might be out there right now, but chances are he’s using those abilities on a basketball court or flattening quarterbacks on the gridiron.

This is the problem that boxing faces today. Mike Tyson created a standard that is nearly impossible to duplicate; a heavyweight fighter that was actually worth the price of admission.

His days, and those days, are long gone. The only things left are the myth of Tyson and a legion of uninterested fans.

You know, now that you mention it, I’ve heard a lot of talk about the Warriors being too dominant and destroying their sport as well — in fact, Apricot broke that down for you just the other day.

Oh well, I guess the league is just gonna have to be destroyed then.

Just as Tyson’s reign of terror and Ali’s transcendent era bookend Holmes’ hall-of-fame legacy, the Splash Continuum’s “league destroying” dominance connects around the Spurs historic age, to Jordan’s brilliant run.

I love “passing the torch” moments, don’t you?

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