Love the Towel, Loathe the Spurs

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There are countless benefits to attending a sporting event with a press credential. The “free pass” is something I’ve never taken for granted, whether covering a hapless football team in November or a Final Four-bound basketball team in March. But I’ve discovered one shortcoming of my credential, at least in terms of the Memphis Grizzlies’ continued march through the NBA playoffs. Rally towels, you see, aren’t distributed on press row.

Don’t get me wrong. “No cheering in the press box” is a creed to be followed. A racing heart is one thing. Some clown shouting down the visitors while being paid to attend a game ... boorish. That said, I wanted to take home a “Grit. Grind.” towel for my daughters after Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals last week. And I was convinced it would be no problem, as merely 18,119 of them (at least) were being waved during every Grizzly run, every timeout, and especially as the final buzzer neared.

I was wrong. It took me about 20 minutes, but I covered two full sections of FedExForum after the crowd departed, searching for a discarded towel, one perhaps stained with nacho cheese or soaking from a spilled beverage. And I saw lots of discarded nacho trays, plenty of spilled beverages. But not a single “Grit. Grind.” towel. Nary an “All Heart” towel. Not one.

What a glorious metaphor for the connection the 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies have established with their fan base. Those 18,119 fans would no more leave the Grindhouse without their rally towel than they would without their phone or car keys. You see the towels draped over mailboxes, nailed to front-yard trees, dangling from car interiors. They are marketing gold for a business, to be sure. But they are a collective talisman for this community, a community that — like the team it cheers — enters uncharted territory with the Western Conference finals.

And the best part? However this magical run ends (back to that racing heart), the towels will remain with us (or at least with fans lucky enough to have one). Reminders that we were there, that this really happened in the spring of 2013. We came, we saw, we waved the towel.

• I loathe the San Antonio Spurs. It’s unhealthy and barely rational. But I can’t stand every black-and-gray thread of the Spur empire’s tapestry. I’ll acknowledge they are the model NBA franchise of this century, and have a case for the model franchise of any American team sport since 2000. (In the conversation with three NFL teams: the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New York Giants.) Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan are up there with Auerbach-Russell among the greatest coach-player tandems in basketball history. But I wouldn’t let them in my front door.

Back-story: I grew up a Dallas Mavericks fan. The Mavs drafted my college hero, Dale Ellis, in 1983, and I stuck with Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, and Mark Aguirre long after Ellis moved on to stardom with the Seattle Sonics. I endured two seasons in the Nineties when Dallas won a total (combined!) 24 games. All the while watching San Antonio contend one year after another with David Robinson as its centerpiece.

Then the 1996-97 season happened. Robinson missed the season with an injury and the Spurs tanked, going from 59 wins the season before to a record of 20-62, four games worse than my beloved Mavs. But while Dallas picked up Kelvin Cato with the 15th selection in the ’97 draft, the Spurs won the lottery (and then some) and were able to draft Duncan with the top pick. This was akin to the Patriots going 0-16 when Tom Brady missed the 2008 season, then getting the top college player to join the face of the franchise the next year. Duncan and Robinson won a pair of championships together, and Duncan has led the Spurs to two more since the Admiral retired in 2003.

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Sour grapes? You’re damn right. My favorite part of the 2011 season was seeing Dallas upset the mighty Heat in the Finals. A close second? Watching the Grizzlies dismantle the Spur machine and spit out the parts along Beale Street.

Since the Griz moved to Memphis in 2001, I’ve struggled when they play the team I’ve supported now for 30 years. But this week, facing the San Antonio Spurs with a trip to the Finals on the line? If anyone has more of a rooting interest in the Grizzlies than mine, that person is wearing a jersey and matching up with one of those villains in black. I loathe the San Antonio Spurs, this week and every week to follow.

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