Before Game 7 of the NBA Finals Thursday night, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said one of the wisest things I've ever heard anyone say about sports. Particularly when they are played at their highest level, with the highest stakes.
After pawing away some silly questions with his trademark LaRussian dismissiveness, Popovich was asked if he could appreciate the historic nature, the spectacle, the momentousness of a Game 7 featuring seven future Hall of Famers to finish off the most thrilling NBA Finals in at least a decade. Popovich furrowed, focused and answered immediately, "It's torture. It's hard to appreciate or enjoy torture."
That's what it's like, I suspect, when you're burrowed so down deep. When you have put so much into this, when this is the sun around which your entire professional and personal lives orbit, when you are so close to all you have fought and worked for, and thus so close to losing it … it must feel like torture. It must feel like the most miserable thing in the world.
I think this is what's most impressive about professional sports, when played at this level, when played at the level the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs played it during this unforgettable series. That these people are able to not only stave off nausea and the overpowering stress and terror, but to overcome it, to achieve feats that 99.99 percent of the planet can't even comprehend. While millions upon millions of people are staring at them. It feels like magic. I suppose it sort of is.
Boris Diaw, who is in sportswriter shape, is draining 3-pointers. Mario Chalmers is chucking up buzzer beaters from 35 feet. Kawhi Leonard -- who is 21 -- is composed, controlled and acting as if everyone showed up just to watch him. And LeBron, and Wade, and Duncan, and Parker, and all of them, they're all acting like half the country isn't screaming and cursing at every single thing they do. They are all doing the impossible, for nearly three hours. While their insides are on fire.
It feels like magic. I suppose it sort of is.
Occasionally the fear slips out. Manu Ginobili's late frantic drives and slipshod passes. Danny Green's second consecutive evening of constant clanks. Chris Bosh's … well, Chris Bosh's whole evening. Most staggering, Tim Duncan's missed layup and putback that would have tied the game in the last minute, a missed opportunity so crushing that the unflappable drone Duncan angrily slapped the floor at the other end. His misses felt like the end. Can you imagine? Having so much effort and hours and pain, having your entire life's work being spent in preparation of a moment like that, and failing? It doesn't matter why the failure happened: It could have been nerves, it could have been fate, it could have been just dumb luck, the ball taking an unusual twist off the fingers. It doesn't matter. In half a second, it's over. I cannot fathom it. Who could?
For us, it is entertainment, gloriously so. We gather and drink, or we nestle and tweet, but we take it all in and invest ourselves in the whole cacophony. The games are so compelling and so inviting -- the theoretically unlikable Heat and the relentless Spurs -- that we feel involved. In the last minute of tonight's game, it was nearly impossible not to run and jump and yell, wherever you were. It was a night, a series, for unintelligible syllables to keep escaping our mouths at random intervals. For us, we could lose control and love every second of it. This is precisely the point. And for die-hard Heat and Spurs fans, this game must have occasionally felt like torture. This is the peril of the Game 7.
But we can't really know. We just can't.
In the final seconds, as the Heat dribbled out the clock, their superstars didn't jump up on the scorer's table, or dive into the crowd, or light up a cigar. They didn't take off their jerseys and starting whipping them over their head. They didn't start doing the robot. They barely even smiled.
Instead, LeBron James -- who looked like he'd just escaped a plane crash -- and Dwyane Wade went straight for Popovich and their opponents. And Popovich wasn't stabbing himself in the stomach, or screaming about some missed call, or crying, or anything like that. He was smiling. He embraced both James and Wade as if they were old friends, like they had come through something harrowing together that none of them would ever forget. Popovich, through all the torture, the sonuvagun was smiling. And then so were James, and Wade. It was really something to see. Mike Breen called it sportsmanship, and I suppose it was. But it felt like a lot more than that. It felt like people at the pinnacle of their profession -- the outright best at what they do on the planet -- recognizing that they just had an experience, that they've reached the peak, no matter who ended up winning. Everything else, the fame, the money, the scrutiny, the frustration, it all faded away. Because this was what it was about all along.
When athletes, particularly retired athletes (often in order to make sure that, even though they can't play anymore, we understand that they are still Not Like Us), say things like "if you haven't played, you can't understand," we, as fans, as media, have a tendency to instinctively redden, grow defensive. Hey, we pay for all this. You're not so special.
But when they say that, this is what they're talking about. This is sports at its absolute best, the reason any of them do anything. It is torture. It must be. And it must be so much more. At times like tonight, I simply feel lucky I get to watch. We all should.
* * *