San Antonio Spurs and the Beyond Yet Under Our Control

The more you watch the game, patterns emerge—you notice that the CPU players like to run in loops in the back court, that they wait for the defense to collapse on one player before passing the ball to the other. You notice how they swing their elbows after grabbing a rebound if you lean too close to their bodies, how they always know when to jump if you attempt a shot from the top left part of the key. When players rise up for a dunk, they go with their right hand raised: all thunder and power as they grab onto the rim. When they shoot from the outside, it is with the left hand; both hands raised, but one wrist cocked forward at the point of release.

My father was recruited to play basketball at the Air Force Academy out of high school. Gregg Popovich—assistant coach at the AFA at the time, and future San Antonio Spurs coach, picked him up at the Colorado Springs Airport. “It was the first time I’ve ever ridden in a Cadillac,” my father said, when he told me the story many years later.

Flying an airplane is much like playing a videogame—there is the sensation of controlling something much larger than you are: an embodiment of a vessel, a commanding of an internal and external space. There is movement and stasis: all things reactionary. The beauty of flight is repetition: to commit something to memory, to do things over and over until it becomes natural, but not too natural in order to let complacency slide in. This is how we lose planes. This is how the game catches up.

The beauty of David Robinson was in his patterns—how he would never flinch from his set-ness, how he treated all things like a task: a hold-over from his days in the Naval Academy with a love of proper order. Robinson was a leftie too: despite being over seven feet tall, he was more at home from 22; forgoing monstrous dunks for a baseline jumper, or a lean-in bank shot.

Perhaps this is why he was called “soft,” as a player—that he did not have the mental or physical toughness to bang bodies when it counted; his Spurs teams shrunk whenever they came up against the Rockets, were bullied when playing the Suns. He preferred the finesse from the outside, the posting up simply to face up, the driving of the lane only when the path was open.

Or perhaps it was because Robinson wasn’t supposed to play basketball: as a high schooler he quit the team more than once, before being convinced that he was a natural—that his height was a gift from the gods, that all of this was meant to be—that left-handed shooters have an advantage in basketball because of their unorthodoxies; that no one can see someone like him coming. Instead, he was too tall for the Navy; his height preventing him from serving at sea; the diversion from a formation, an anomaly.

My father left the Air Force Academy after his sophomore year. His eyesight simply was not good enough to be a pilot—his photo after going through basic training shows him, face gaunt, with no glasses, as if to prove that they were not needed. He left the basketball team too—at just over six feet, he wasn’t tall enough to break the rotation.

My father doesn’t tell too many stories from his days at the Air Force Academy—I can see his blue jacket hanging in the hallway, I can see his honorably discharged certificate dated two years before his planned graduation date. One thing he told me was the first time he did a barrel roll—how freeing it felt, how it was just like in the movies, how it was just like in a videogame: how astonishing it must’ve been to have the power to be within a concept. The instructor then told him to do another: to spin the plane upside down, for only a moment. Then another. Then another. Then another.