Weary from an intense five-hour film session, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich sat alone in his office at the Spurs practice facility. He’d sent the rest of his coaching staff home to their families hours ago, allowing himself some time to sort through their recommendations on the Los Angeles Lakers while collecting his thoughts in solitude.
Glancing at a clock that read 1:00 a.m., Popovich wondered if it wasn’t time to head home to his own family. The time-consuming responsibilities of an NBA head coach might be understood by loved ones, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those responsibilities are always greeted with enthusiasm.
Organizing his notes, Popovich caught the sight of his breath in the air as the temperature dropped precipitously in his office. He knew then that he would not be making his way home any time soon after all, not with his “guest” announcing his arrival.
“I know you’re here,” Popovich told the empty air as he pulled out an old chessboard, two glasses, and a bottle of wine from his personal Rock & Hammer collection. He poured a glass for himself, sliding the empty one across his desk as had become his custom during these visits. “Have a seat, have a drink. I assume it’s going to be a long night and if you insist on keeping it so damn cold in here, this bottle does a pretty good job of warming your bones.”
A shrouded figure appeared before Popovich, tall and lanky. The shadows cast by his oversized hood masked most of its face, its arms reaching out perhaps even as far as Kawhi Leonard’s, Popovich’s second-year rising star. In one pale hand the figure carried an oversized scythe, in the other, a large hourglass.
Death, or Father Time, whatever label one might affix to this figure, accepted the offered seat but not the wine. He never did. In a way, he knew Popovich’s offer was as much subtle jab as it was the manners of a gracious host. Wine, after all, is a substance that gets better with age. A notion not lost on a figure whose intent and purpose is the opposite.
Death rarely liked to make his presence known until someone faced their end, content to allow wild imaginations of men to build up his stature. But he liked bad publicity even less. So when reports of a basketball team defying age began reach him, he had to investigate.
He had seen many a superstar athlete wrestle with their own mortality and it was rarely a pretty sight. Thirty-something year olds dragging fraying ligaments around the court while trying to will their way to the same alpha status they displayed back when most of their opponents watched them for the first time as children. It was always easy for an athlete to hang on too long even as time had taken an ankle, knee, or back.
These San Antonio Spurs were different. In some ways they appeared to be openly mocking him, garbed in black--his colors--while shrugging off his best work. The tallest one adorned the bulky brace on his left knee with a skull--death’s sigil. But few men ever gave his work the proper respect and “appropriate fear” these Spurs did in trying to evade him. Appropriate fear was a term Popovich had instilled in his team years ago in order to not take an opponent lightly.
They paid tribute to death in the form of time and sweat during the offseason. During offseasons Death had dropped in from time-to-time, unbeknownst to them of course, to marvel at the amount of work and preparation they put in to offset the limitations he would impose on their bodies. They stretched more, worked out, ate better, made adjustments to their games. They didn’t try to beat age, they simply worked around it.
At the Spurs practice facility Popovich and Death were an hour into their game of chess. They’d been playing these games over the past few years, the results always the same. Death never lost a game; Father Time is undefeated after all. But each time they met, the games lasted longer, that final move proving that much more difficult to execute.
Death had a way of setting his opponents up for traps, feigning a weakness in order to strike at an overambitious opponent as they went for what they believed to be a shot at victory. This false hope was among his favorite strategies. It was both frustrating and interesting that Popovich never fell for these traps, no matter how enticing and opening was left. Many men have been experts at strategy, but few combine that skill with the long term thinking Popovich employed.
Popovich’s goal was never to win, he had too much respect for his opponent to believe this were possible. Most men would have been frustrated by this prospect, but the old coach enjoyed it. His aim was to delay. To extend each game as long as possible. In doing so he drew out information, picking up on strategies and tells from his opponent.
Taking lessons learned from the chessboard to the basketball court was never difficult. He had been positioning his roster like chess pieces for years. Manu Ginobili a bishop, slashing his way through defenses at impossible angles. Tony Parker a knight, weaving his way in and out of traffic. And of course there was Duncan, who like a Queen on a chessboard, incorporated many different moves into his attack. Duncan was often the most powerful piece on the board, but one willing to sacrifice himself when the opportunity for a greater good arose.
Difficult as these three pieces can be to deal with, what separates Popovich from his peers is his ability to extract as much value as possible from his pawns. From Danny Green to Gary Neal, Popovich had a way of coordinating each of his pawns to augment the abilities of his key pieces. It’s a strategy that works because each of those pawns accepts their roles, realizing their importance and rarely trying to be more.
As the clock in Popovich’s office hit 3;30 a.m., Death finally cornered Popovich into a checkmate. Death removed his hood and shook hands with his opponent, who poured another glass of wine. Popovich flashed a victorious smile, as he did after every encounter. It was something that always puzzled Death.
“No one loves chess enough to be so happy after this many losses, yet you smile everytime,” Death said. “My company is never exactly welcome, and with the time spent here you could have been preparing for your basketball game.”
Popovich poured some wine in the second glass and slid it, along with his packet of film session notes, across the table. Death picked up the packet, flipping through empty page after empty page, again puzzled.
“I might never win,” Popovich said. “But these games are never wasted time.”
“If you’re here, I can rest easy knowing where you’re not. And every minute you’re not with my players is another one I can put them on the court.”
Looking over his notes had been a rouse. As concerned as the Spurs are with their first round series, their opponent was never the Los Angeles Lakers. The same goes for the Oklahoma City Thunder, or should they make the Finals, the Miami Heat.
The Spurs cannot control what dominant teams fall and rise around them. They’ve seen enough come and go already that they’re all the same anyhow. The Spurs ultimately cannot control when their time at the top is up either. But they can try to delay it as much as possible. In that, the only real opponents the Spurs face these playoffs are their own bodies and time.
Victories then cannot be measured in terms of titles, the Spurs have already won a good share, but in opportunities. Another season playing at a high level is another small victory in a game everyone will ultimately lose anyways.
With the night done, Popovich put his glass up and his jacket on, turning to his seated friend as he walked out the door.
“Thanks for another game. I have to go but you should have a drink, no one will be around to think any less of you.”
With that Popovich left Death seated alone in the office, a packet of blank pages in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Death took a sip and smiled. One day he would miss this.