Maybe you're like me and you believed the San Antonio Spurs' triumph in the 2014 NBA Finals after their heart-shattering loss in the 2013 Finals is one of the greatest emotional bounce-backs we've seen in sports. Maybe you're like me and you believe there's an important lesson in handling defeat to be learned from it. And maybe you're like me in that the words of Gregg Popovich will convince you that you've been thinking about this the wrong way.
The Spurs' story resonated with me because I've realized one of our society's greatest problems is an inability to cope with losing. Drivers fly into road rage because someone swoops into their lane and costs them one car length in traffic. There's a burgeoning Internet industry spawned from the messages of men who respond to online rejection from women with replies that range from pathetically whiny to pathologically misogynistic.
I build this bridge because for the Spurs this has been their life's devotion. To lose at the very end of the season is the ultimate letdown in their profession.
The true winners accept that defeat is always a possible outcome. The highest achievers are those who are unafraid of failure. The very best are those who use their losses to propel them to victory. That's why I was inspired by the Spurs' 12-month journey from June 2013 to June 2014, and eager to speak to Popovich during their recent visit to Los Angeles.
Keep in mind, you bring theories to Popovich at your own risk. Right before we talked, a reporter proposed to Pop that Kawhi Leonard is "starting to look like he wants to create for others first, as opposed to his shot. Would that be true?"
Pop's response: "No, that's not true."
So it was with a little trepidation that I asked him about his method for coping with defeat.
"I can't answer that in 10 seconds," Popovich said.
Instead, we would up spending the better part of the next 10 minutes talking about it. Around halfway through was the part that made me realize I had the wrong approach.
"In today's world, if you don't win the whole thing, whether it's football or basketball, or this and that, people have a tendency to paint you as a loser or act like you just robbed the cookie jar," Popovich said. "Well that's baloney. I'm just as proud of them in the loss as I was this year in the win. I thought when they came back in Game 7 [in 2013], that was an unbelievable effort after that devastating loss in Game 6."
That's it. We missed the target. We're so focused on the Hollywood ending, with the confetti raining down on the Spurs in San Antonio a year later, that we've forgotten about the fortitude they showed in losing Game 7 in Miami. That was the game played a mere 48 hours after their devastating Game 6, when the Larry O'Brien Trophy slipped from their grasp with a turnover here, a missed free throw there, and a Miami Heat offensive rebound that led to Ray Allen's 3-pointer for the ages -- and overtime. The Spurs seemed too emotionally depleted right after Game 6 to put up another fight. And yet they shook it all off to play an ultra-competitive Game 7, a contest that never swayed beyond a two-possession game until Miami's Dwyane Wade made a free throw with 16.3 seconds left to provide the final 95-88 score.
If we only praise the Spurs for winning in 2014 and not for the way they played in defeat in 2013, then we're right back where we started, making the same mistake of obsession over winning while writing off the losers and failing to acknowledge their accomplishments. Game 7 was their real triumph. That's when they showed their character in adversity. It's what convinced Popovich that they could make a run at it the next season.
"You guys have got it," Popovich told his team. "It's there. You've got the will, you've got the determination, you've got the fiber to do this again. And Game 7 proved it. It didn't happen for us, but is everything going to go your way in life? You think you're on the Earth and everything you want to happen to you is going to happen to you positively? The measure of who we are is how we react to something that doesn't go our way."
For as much as Popovich likes to deride "psychobabble," so much of his success is rooted in his understanding of individual minds and group dynamics. As Mike Brown, a former Cavaliers and Lakers head coach and graduate of Spurs University who (at Popovich's request) has spent time around the team lately said: "His people skills are off the charts."
It's why the Spurs' success has relevance for the rest of us. Listen to Popovich explain his approach to last season that got his players to take the final step, and you'll realize it has little to do with basketball. It's about self-determination and resolve.
"What we didn't want to do is have them have the notion that the basketball gods got us," Popovich said. "'Ah, jeez, that one bounce here or we missed a free throw or we didn't get that offensive rebound. It's just the way it was supposed to be.' Well, no, it's got nothing to do with the basketball gods. You're in charge of yourself. There are always things you can do better.
"It's a game of mistakes. That's why people score, because you make mistakes. So let's figure out what we could have done, and that makes us a better team. We went through every single play of Game 6 and Game 7. We made them sit through it. We didn't yell and scream at 'em or berate 'em or anything. We were very businesslike. 'Here's where we didn't give help. Here's where we didn't rebound or put five men on the board.' So we understand it's on us. And now you can move forward. It's on us to see what we can do to get back into that same position. Can we or can't we?
"We may, we may not. I have no clue. But we can put out the effort both mentally and physically to have the best shot to get there. And that's what guided us the whole year, that philosophy. We didn't worry about how many wins. We just worried about being healthy and continuing to improve on all the things that we saw in Games 6 and 7. And to their credit, they showed the fortitude to do that."
The Spurs are far from the only team to turn an NBA Finals defeat into a championship a year later. The Miami Heat team they beat had just done it in 2012 after losing in 2011. Same with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 1985, to name a couple of other franchises. The Detroit Pistons might be the closest comparison; they let a championship slip through their grasp in Game 6 of the Finals in 1988, put up a valiant fight in Game 7, and rallied to win a rematch against the Lakers a year later.
The Spurs finished with the best record in the league even though Leonard missed most of February with an injury, Tim Duncan took his now-customary breaks and Popovich gave Tony Parker a two-week sabbatical in the middle of the season. They went next-level in the Finals, playing a style of basketball so sublime that Popovich can neither explain it nor expect it again anytime soon.
Boris Diaw does understand it, and it goes back to 2013 and how glory escaped them because of a couple of plays.
"It fueled us, the fact that we lost, to be a little more perfect," Diaw said. "If we don't make those mistakes earlier in the game, then it's easier down the stretch. That's what happened the second year: We played more perfect, we made less mistakes."
But if having everything go right and getting all we want is the only acceptable outcome, we're destined for disappointment. Popovich is considered the best coach in the business these days. Yet even with five championships in 18 years, it still means he has come up short of his goal in almost three-fourths of his NBA coaching career. It's why he doesn't subscribe to some Lombardian ethos that winning is the only thing. By that measure, Popovich's body of work would be defined by an abundance of failure.
It gets back to labeling your circumstances yourself, and the realization that even the situations that appear dire could fit someone else's idea of optimal.
"We spend a decent amount of time talking about what else you could be doing in your life, how fortunate we are basically just by the accident of birth," Popovich said. "Think about it. It all starts with the accident of birth. Because you were born to these parents or this area geographically, or this situation, you deserve more than somebody else? Put that notion away. That's the most false notion one can imagine.
"But I think a lot of people forget that. They think that they're entitled to what they have. They don't understand the opportunity that they have compared to somebody else. And they don't understand the other person's lack of opportunity, why he or she is in a certain situation they're in. So we talk about those things all the time. You have no excuse not to work your best. You have no reason not to be thankful every day that you have the opportunity to come back from a defeat, because some people never even have the opportunity. So it's the measure of what you're worth, what you're made of."
One of my favorite aspects of the NBA playoffs is the opportunity for redemption. If it might not match the drama of the one-and-done NCAA tournament, it duplicates the fairest qualities of life. You might not have determined what happened, but you do have a say in what happens next.
"In the playoffs and in the series, you've almost always got another chance," Diaw said. "It's long. It's a seven-game series. But you always get a chance. You've got to seize those chances."
We saw the Spurs redeem themselves. We just didn't realize when it first happened.