Stripping Away the Veil of Victory by Andy Shenk

Gregg Popovich received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year Award last Tuesday. At the press conference held in his honor, surrounded by his coaching staff and seated next to Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Pop dismissed what he had done to earn such recognition, as well as the role he had played in the Spurs’ success this year: “You know, when you win, a lot of things get attributed to you that you shouldn’t get full credit for. And the opposite, you know…when you lose, you get blamed for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t get blamed for.” Pop attributed his coaching success to the Spurs’ very fortunate draft history, concluding that “there have been a lot of people who have been in circumstances that have not been in their favor who would be just as successful in this situation, but just didn’t have the opportunity.”

The next day the Spurs played the Utah Jazz in the second game of their best-of-seven first round series. San Antonio won, 114-83, the franchise’s third-largest margin of victory ever in a playoff game. In the post-game press conference, Popovich gave a simple analysis of the lopsided outcome: “It’s still just a basketball game. We had a good night; they had a poor night. You know, I think they shot 23% in the first half, or close to that. That’s probably not gonna get it done for anybody…We shot it better than that and it was enough to make the game what you saw. It’s a lot about whether the ball goes in the hole or not, and they just had a tough night.”

Several years ago Popovich explained to reporters the origins of the “Pounding the Rock” mantra, which is prominently displayed in the Spurs’ locker room: “You get tired of all that other junk. ‘Winners never do this’ or ‘Losers always quit.’ ‘There’s no I in team’ — all the typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels. It’s always turned me off, so I thought that this was maybe a little bit more, I don’t know, intelligent.” The philosophy of “Pounding the Rock” dispenses with the superstitious and simplistic, focusing rather on the daily, dedicated effort needed to maximize own’s potential: “When nothing seems to help, go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and you will know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The more you listen to Gregg Popovich, the more you realize that the man will take credit for nothing. Upon receiving his second Red Auerbach Trophy, he did all he could to hand it off to his assistants and allow them to share the honor. They refused, even when he awkwardly pursued them across the court in front of eighteen and a half thousand fans.

Victories are the intended result of Popovich’s work rather than the necessary outcome. Following the game six loss last year to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, which knocked the top-seeded Spurs out of the playoffs, Pop spent most of the press conference effusively praising the Grizzlies: “A fine job. They were the better team and they played better than we did in that stretch of six games…I’m obviously saddened by the loss, but I’m happy for them and what they’ve accomplished. It’s been awhile for the city…Congrats to those guys.”

Pop’s entertainment lies in stripping away the layers of exaggerated significance placed upon his profession. Prior to watching the Grizzlies eliminate his team from the playoffs, he elucidated on the upcoming game in Memphis: “It’s a challenge, but it’s basketball. It’s nothing complicated…that none of us has not done before.” Pop knows that the wins, the championships, the floats down the River Walk will one day end. Rather than cling to the ephemeral, he enjoys the process and the many years he’s been allowed to teach a game to some of the greatest athletes in the world.


Morning Time by Andy Shenk
May 2, 2012, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: , ,

This morning, a Wednesday morning, I rolled out of bed at 5:59 AM to the first of three alarms. The second rang out at 6:00 AM while I was getting clothes out from the dresser and the third went off at 6:02 AM as I prepared to shower. The dawn’s light cheered me as I dressed and sat down to breakfast with my wife. We munched on raisin bran with milk, enjoying our meal together. The air outside was warm and the grass green after last night’s passing thunderstorms. I drew back all the curtains in the apartment and opened all the blinds. We’ve both just begun getting up early on the weekdays, and today I couldn’t remember the last time I’d enjoyed such a relaxing, bright, warm morning together with my wife.

While I read for a while after breakfast, Nikki prepared her lunch. Soon after seven, I pulled up a video of our favorite coach, Gregg Popovich, answering questions from the San Antonio media regarding his NBA Coach of the Year award. We laughed at his self-deprecation. The man is a brilliant coach, yet passed himself off as just a lucky son of a bitch to be receiving the award. A few minutes later, it was time for me to hop on my bike and whisk off to work in Dundas. Nikki remained at the kitchen table, finishing up a letter to a high-school mentor. At 7:35 AM I cruised down our driveway, turned left onto First Street West and sped down the road.

%&#! The Lakers by Andy Shenk
April 14, 2012, 10:59 am
Filed under: Sports | Tags: ,

I’ve already mentioned on this blog my appreciation of the way sports can develop perseverance and faith in its fans. The San Antonio Spurs sorely tested that tenacity on Wednesday by falling at home to the Los Angeles Lakers, 98-84. I could stomach the loss, even though it came at the hands of a hated rival, but this game felt like more than a loss. The Lakers, absent shooting guard superstar Kobe Bryant, utilized their two seven-footers, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, to devastating effect against San Antonio’s undersized frontcourt. My worst Spurs’ nightmares—Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph of last year, the Laker trio of Bynum/Gasol/Lamar Odom, Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000’s—resurrected once again. Bynum pulled down thirty of his own rebounds and Gasol buried every mid-range jumper. When the lead reached the upper twenties, I cracked and shut the game off. Unable to quell my despondency, I wasted the rest of my evening with meaningless Web surfing.

I hated myself that night because I’d lost my equilibrium during the game. My brother-in-law, Richard, and I had been talking about this the other day: the phenomenon of fan loyalty, which makes cheaters (Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Ryan Braun) even more popular in their hometown. Die-hard fans defend their teams like protective mother hens, preen over victories, and ache miserably with each loss, identifying personally with it all. Now, watching the Spurs lose to the Lakers, each successive, disorganized, frantic possession on offense by the Spurs mirrored my own insecurities in constructing a meaningful life. The Lakers’ smooth scoring reminded me of all the slick, polished, successful peers I knew in college.

Unable to control my emotions watching the Spurs lose, I spilled out frustration everywhere. I wasted an opportunity to write because I was too angry to compose myself. I went to bed late, even though I needed to wake up at 5:30 for work. I ignored my wife all evening. Yet again, I failed to cook anything, even though we’re low on meals in the apartment. Clearly, my spirit exhibited none of the faith and perseverance I’ve described so glowingly.

You know what pissed me off most of all? ESPN.com featured the Spurs’ embarrassment prominently on their front page when last week’s Spurs’ road win over the Celtics had been relegated to the back page. There’s nothing like adding national insult to ego-bruising injury. Looking back, I can only hope that the Spurs had a bit more composure than I did in dealing with the loss.

On the Road to Kazan by Andy Shenk

Sunday morning saw Anzhi’s return to the pitch, following their 2-0 home victory over Kuban Krasnodar last wek. Anzhi played away to Rubin Kazan in a match-up of the world’s two most successful football clubs based in predominantly Muslim provinces.

In order to gauge expectations leading up to the game, I perused the team websites, as well as local media opinions of the contest.

AnzhiTV, on the official Anzhi website, provided a video preview of the game, which consisted of a recap of the previous week’s win over Kuban, as well as a reminder that Anzhi had not lost yet to Rubin this season, nor had they allowed Rubin to score.

RubinTV provided more background to Sunday’s game. They began by recalling that in 2009 both Anzhi and Rubin were champions, though Anzhi’s championship came in the second-tier Russian First Division, while Rubin captured Russian football’s most prestigious crown, the Premier League title. In the current season, heading into the 37th round, Anzhi sits one point ahead of Rubin, 59-58. As far as the standings are concerned, the two teams are 6th and 7th.

RubinTV then commented on the bevy of international and Russian national team players Anzhi has recently signed: Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos, Mbarak Boussoufa, Yuri Zhirkov, Christopher Samba, etc. On top of that, former Russian national team coach, Guus Hiddink, now manages Anzhi and is making his first-ever appearance in Kazan. The video then gloomily pointed out Anzhi’s two victories earlier this season over Rubin…Anzhi being the only team to defeat Rubin twice so far.

After describing the condition of the pitch, which was barely approved for play (Kazan has suffered an uncharacteristically brutal winter), RubinTV, having built up the opponent throughout the match preview, concluded with a request for the home fans to show up and cheer their team on to victory. After all, the video’s announcer intoned, “We Are Rubin. We Cannot Be Stopped!”

The newspaper websites in the teams’ hometowns, Novoye Delo and Dagestanskaya Pravda of Anzhi’s Makhachkala and ProKazan of Rubin’s Kazan, did not provide a lot of info on the game. ProKazan’s website offered the most coverage, with their home page featuring some pictures of Anzhi players practicing in Kazan on Saturday and another article encouraging people to attend the game on Sunday.

Novoye Delo had a lengthy recap of last week’s home match with Kuban, while Dagestanskaya Pravda had nothing to say about the game. At the end of the Novoye Delo article, several paragraphs were devoted to the upcoming contest. The condition of the field at Tsentralnoe Stadium, where Rubin plays, was thoroughly criticized. The importance of the game was also emphasized, as both Rubin and Anzhi are fighting to secure a top-5 finish in the league and admission to European cup competition next season.

When the teams took to the field on Sunday afternoon in Kazan, the game proceeded as predicted. The one neutral preview of the game I read had foreseen a 0-0 draw, though the author felt certain that if a team were to get lucky, given the field’s poor condition, and score once, they would win the match. That is, indeed, what happened. Rubin scored from a free kick early in the 2nd half and went on to win 1-0 in front of 19,200 fans.

Neither team was particularly dominant, but, as Anzhi manager Guus Hiddink admitted after the match, “Though the game was fairly even, [Rubin] was more powerful.” Rubin manager, Kurban Berdiyev, as expected, was thrilled with the hard-fought win. His team was struggling coming into Sunday, having failed to win a single match in 2012 (0-3-1 in the Premier League and 0-0-2 in the Europa League). Berdiyev concluded his post-match remarks by acknowledging that this was “a very important victory from a psychological standpoint.”

Rubin and Anzhi flip-flop places in the standings, with Rubin moving into 6th, only 1 point behind Dinamo and Spartak. Anzhi, nonetheless, remains in striking distance of Europe, with only 6 points separating 2nd place, CSKA, Anzhi’s opponent on Saturday, and 7th-place Anzhi.

Looking Ahead

The coming week is a busy one in my sports world. Lokomotiv Kuban stops off in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Monday for a Russian league game with Yenisey. A win would guarantee Lokomotiv a spot in the PBL play-offs.

Tuesday, the San Antonio Spurs begin the final push of the 2011-2012 NBA regular season. They visit the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first of what will be an exhausting 16 games in 23 days, 5 of which will be shown on national television. The Spurs are currently 2nd in the Western Conference. A strong finish could allow them to catch front-runner Oklahoma City. More importantly, however, the Spurs will look to use their exceptional depth to spread out playing time and bring the squad to the playoffs healthy and reasonably well-rested.

The big game, of course, is Thursday’s Opening Day in Cincinnati. The tradition goes back well over one hundred years and is celebrated with the Findlay Market Parade in downtown Cincinnati before the game. This year’s game will feature the Cincinnati Reds hosting the new-look and renamed Miami Marlins, who will be making the trip to Cincinnati from Miami, where they host the defending World Series Champion Cardinals on Wednesday night.

Finally, I’m very excited about two weekend games: Anzhi visiting CSKA on Saturday in a match that could determine their chances at qualifying for Champions League competition next season and Lokomotiv Kuban hosting Zalgiris on Sunday in the first of a best-of-3 VTB League quarterfinals series.

Lokomotiv Kuban vs. Yenisey Krasnoyarskii Krai. Russian Professional Basketball League.

Monday, April 2, 2012. 6:10 AM CDT. Yarygin Memorial Sports Arena, Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

An Early Morning Surprise…PLUS Baseball Predictions! by Andy Shenk
March 28, 2012, 11:47 pm
Filed under: Sports | Tags: , , , ,

This morning I crawled out of bed to a 7:10 AM alarm, after ignoring the first three alarms my wife and I had set. I dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, then went out to pull my bike from the garage so that I could hop on and go to work immediately after finishing breakfast. I was back inside, fiddling with the radio, when I heard a knock at the door. Assuming it to be my landlord, who lives upstairs, I opened the door. To my surprise, Guy Kalland, the head coach of the Carleton College men’s basketball team, stood outside on the back deck, neatly dressed in a blue Carleton jacket and slacks. He first confirmed that I was Andy, then introduced himself and shook my hand.

I was in shock but luckily didn’t have to say much as he quickly explained that he had come by to personally thank me and my wife, Nikki, for the wonderful letter we had written to his team at the end of their season in late February. In our letter we had thanked the team for all of the memories they had provided us, and described many of our fondest moments from the season in detail. Coach Kalland, to whom we had mailed the letter, went on to tell me that he had enjoyed the letter so much that he had read it aloud at the team’s awards banquet. The coaches, players, and parents gathered had loved our reflections on the season. In appreciation for our dedicated attendance and thoughtful letter, Mr. Kalland then presented me with a hand-written thank-you, a copy of the 2011-2012 highlight video, and coupons for 3 free pizzas from Domino’s.

We chatted for a few minutes longer, then Mr. Kalland shook my hand again, wished me and my wife good luck, and headed back to his car parked out front. Though I already knew Mr. Kalland to be a highly-respected and successful coach, this encounter made an enormous impression on me. I very proud that my alma mater, Carleton College, has employed such a thoughtful, genuine man as their basketball coach for the last 26 years.

Now, for a little fun prognosticating! 

Full disclosure: I have not looked at the score of the Athletics-Mariners game, which took place in Japan early this morning. My predictions, which I have done for many, many years, are completely unscientific and steeped in ignorance. I am simply a baseball fan. I know next to nothing of team rosters, spring training injuries, or scouting reports.

MLB Predicted Order of Finish in Each Division and Final Records for Each Team

American League East:

Tampa Bay Rays (95-67), New York Yankees (93-69), Toronto Blue Jays (88-74), Boston Red Sox (82-80), Baltimore Orioles (65-97)

American League Central:

Detroit Tigers (92-70), Minnesota Twins (85-77), Cleveland Indians (81-81), Kansas City Royals (76-86), Chicago White Sox (70-92)

American League West:

Texas Rangers (97-65), Los Angeles Angels (90-72), Seattle Mariners (75-87), Oakland Athletics (73-89)

National League East:

Atlanta Braves (91-71), Philadelphia Phillies (90-72), Washington Nationals (85-77), Miami Marlins (82-80), New York Mets (68-94)

National League Central:

Cincinnati Reds (90-72), St. Louis Cardinals (87-75), Milwaukee Brewers (83-79), Pittsburgh Pirates (81-81), Chicago Cubs (77-85), Houston Astros (65-97)

National League West:

Arizona Diamondbacks (88-74), Colorado Rockies (84-78), San Francisco Giants (80-82), Los Angeles Dodgers (72-90), San Diego Padres (70-92)

MLB Postseason

American League Wild-Card Round:

Los Angeles Angels over New York Yankees

National League Wild-Card Round:

Philadelphia Phillies over St. Louis Cardinals

American League Division Series:

Texas Rangers over Los Angeles Angels in 4

Tampa Bay Rays over Detroit Tigers in 5

National League Division Series:

Philadelphia Phillies over Atlanta Braves in 5

Cincinnati Reds over Arizona Diamondbacks in 3

American League Championship Series:

Texas Rangers over Tampa Bay Rays in 6

National League Championship Series:

Philadelphia Phillies over Cincinnati Reds in 5

World Series:

Texas Rangers over Philadelphia Phillies in 7

World Champions:

Texas Rangers…third time’s the charm!

Finally, an update from last night’s game:

The Spurs defeated the Suns 107-100 in front of 16,573 fans at the US Airways Center. Tim Duncan turned the clock back with a vintage performance, providing 26 points on 11-16 shooting, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in only 32 minutes of play. 11 Spurs played in the game, with Tiago Splitter still recovering from back spasms and Stephen Jackson enjoying a night of rest. Looking ahead, once Splitter returns, the Spurs will have 13 quality guys to throw at the opposition on any given night.

As a fan, I am looking forward to observing how Coach Popovich will juggle his players’ minutes over the final month of the season. Ideally, the team will be well-rested and primed for a deep playoff run by the end of the April. This may seem ludicrous for a veteran team in the stretch run of a compressed season, but, then again, since when does an NBA team go 13 deep? This is the kind of roster magic Spurs fans enjoy and anticipate each year, though this year’s roster may be the deepest yet for a franchise already renowned for such shenanigans.

Bittersweet Victory by Andy Shenk
March 27, 2012, 7:38 pm
Filed under: Sports | Tags: , , , ,

Lokomotiv Kuban fought gamely with Khimki in front of a passionate Tuesday night crowd at the Basket-Hall. Lokomotiv entered the EuroCup quarterfinal needing to overcome a 9-point deficit, suffered in the first leg of the quarterfinal. Having already played away at Khimki, Lokomotiv enjoyed the support of their dedicated fanatics, 4,000 strong, in the second leg.

Despite the unceasing support of the crowd, Lokomotiv struggled to get out of the gate quickly and trailed by two at the end of the first quarter. The second quarter proved even more disheartening. Khimki steadily extended their lead and headed into halftime up 13, which meant that Lokomotiv would need to make up 22 points in the second half, if they wanted to advance to the EuroCup Final Four.

The second half began briskly, with Lokomotiv closing to within 3 (or 12, depending on how you look at it) by the end of the third quarter. They then quickly took the lead in the fourth quarter, going up by as much as 7 in the closing minute. Khimki, however, managed to keep Loko at bay and escape from Krasnodar with only a 4-point loss.

In the short term, the loss (technically speaking, victory) is disheartening. Lokomotiv lost a golden opportunity to showcase itself in the EuroCup Final Four and will now have to refocus on its play in the less glamorous VTB League (an Eastern European basketball league) and Russian PBL (Professional Basketball League). On the other hand, it’s impossible to discount the excitement of the 4,000 fans who showed up on a weeknight in southern Russia to watch a basketball game. Only two other teams in the EuroCup quarterfinals, Valencia Basket and Lietuvos Rytas, drew more fans for the home leg. More impressively, Lokomotiv enjoys the third-highest average attendance among Russian basketball teams. Only Unics Kazan and CSKA Moscow, who both competed in the top-tier Euroleague this season, boast a higher average attendance. The Lokomotiv fanbase is invested, too, judging by the more than 100 comments already posted on their team website only six hours after the game ended.

Should Lokomotiv qualify for the Euroleague in coming years, and compete against such European powers as Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, Zalgiris, and Montepaschi Siena, tickets to the 7500-person capacity Basket-Hall may be difficult to come by. More updates on the 2011-2012 season will certainly follow on this blog.

Next up tonight…Western Conference rivals Phoenix and San Antonio square off in the desert. The Spurs look to continue their push for the #1 seed in the Western Conference, while the Suns, 11-4 since the All-Star Break, try to improve their chances at a playoff spot in the hotly-contested West. Steve Nash versus his archnemesis, the Spurs, at the US Airways Center? Boy, I wish I could see the Phoenix crowd tonight.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns. NBA Regular Season.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012. 10:00 PM ET. US Airways Center, Phoenix, Arizona.