By Travis Hale
Of the myriad things children are blissfully unaware of, perhaps their inability to understand change is the kindest. They don’t know and haven’t experienced what their parents know: the good things and the bad; celebrations and defeats. As a parent, it makes the innocence in their eyes so very important to protect. And while we know we can’t keep them under our wings forever, we try to stretch their innocence—the blank pages where the chapters of their lives will be written–out for as long as we can. That’s why we stay up until 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve, half-eating cookies and drinking a mug of milk. We do it in hopes that they’ll completely believe that a fat man in a red suit snuck down their chimney in the middle of the night and had a snack.
But on the opposite end of that parental spectrum is our duty to fill them in on the history of the world, and the important things they’ve missed. So, yes son, there is a Santa Claus—an obese old man that delivers gifts to three billion children in approximately seven hours—but there is also a guy named Tim Duncan that you need to know about. There is also a guy named Kobe Bryant. There’s a madman named Kevin Garnett that head butted a hole in the wall while watching a Diddy reality show. You need to know about these guys, too.
On Friday night, I took my son to watch the Spurs preseason game against the Miami Heat. I based my decision to do so on a couple of factors: His school was offering a promotional free ticket for students, making our game experience that much more economical, and, in addition, I wanted to see for myself the San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan. I wanted to see if it was really real.
Before the start of training camp, Gregg Popovich was asked by long-time San Antonio Express News columnist Buck Harvey about his feelings—never a smart thing to do. But in this instance, the subject was Tim Duncan and his absence. So naturally Popovich opened up.
“Pop will miss Timmy more from a relationship standpoint than a basketball standpoint,” (76ers coach Brett) Brown said this week. “And considering how great Timmy was, that is saying something.”
Brown compared Popovich losing Duncan to how he felt dropping off his daughter at college this month. You know the transition is natural, you know this is what has to happen. But there’s a gnawing loneliness.
“Absolutely,” Popovich said. “I have a hole in my gut.”
“Most people aren’t married for 19 years,” he said, and that’s why Friday represents more than the beginning of another season.
So, there we were, thousands of fans following Popovich’s lead and celebrating the Spurs with holes in our guts. It was my first time to watch the Spurs against the Heat since Father’s Day 2014, the deciding Game 5 when Duncan’s Spurs finished off LeBron’s Heat and fans danced in their seats to Foreigner’s Feels Like the First Time while the confetti fell. And it was only my son’s second game, ever. The Heat ran the Spurs out of the gym on Friday night, but it wasn’t for lack of cheering on my son’s part. He participated in every DEFENSE! chant and stood to make the “three goggles,” signal on every made trey. Tim Duncan wasn’t there, but my seven-year-old son loved every minute of it. He was watching the Spurs as he knows them; I was thinking about days gone by.
I made the drive home that night, just like I’d done on so many nights during that magical 2014 season while I was covering the team. On the way I thought about change and time. I thought about Timmy and Kobe and Kevin and how so many never got to see them at their absolute, devastating best. But I also thought about how fortunate the NBA is to have worthy men to step up and fill the “holes in our guts.” LeBron, Steph, KD, Russ, KAT, Kawhi, CP3, Harden, they’re all still out there. All still hoping to become Santa Claus for the boys who become men and are looking for someone—something–to believe in. And after them, there will be more. If we’re lucky, there will be more.
But in the meantime, it’s on us to make sure the greatness of those whose time has passed are not forgotten. Our fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and godparents passed along their wisdom from previous generations. I learned of the legends of Roger Staubach, Sandy Koufax and Pistol Pete from my dad and his brothers. We’ve all learned about those previous greats in much the same way. It’s on us to help them navigate through the change, even when they aren’t aware it’s happening.
And what was different about my drive home on Friday night was that I was not alone. My young son was asleep in the backseat. I carried him to his bed after we pulled into the driveway and he woke up. “Did you have fun?” I asked. “Yes! Dwayne Dedmon is my favorite,” he said. “That ally-oop was awesome!” he said.
“It was,” I told him. “But let me tell you a little bit about Tim Duncan.”