Because of the undignified way in which this season ended for our beloved Los Angeles Lakers, we've spent far more time than normal lately discussing the concept of class in sports. We talked about the lack of class displayed by individuals, as well as from the entire roster. Then, we took a trip back through time to remind ourselves of how this franchise normally represents itself, so as to realize that this season's display was an anomaly, not the norm. The Showtime Era Lakers provided a perfect example of how to win with class. Now its time to look at the opposite side of the spectrum ... how to lose with class.
For this, we turn to the team's greatest rival over the past decade or so, the San Antonio Spurs. The Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich led Spurs have a rich history of winning, and they've done it the right way 99% of the time. There are a few blemishes on their overall portfolio (the Robert Horry hip check, Bruce Bowen's questionable defensive tactics), but by and large, they've been successful by putting their heads down and going to work, behind the most no-nonsense man in the business. No team has had less drama, no team has created a positive environment of respect and support, than the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers have been the most successful team of the past decade, but with the Shaq/Kobe histrionics and this season's exit bookending the drama of the lean years, there can be no doubt that San Antonio's squad has won the most respect league-wide.
But class isn't always about winning. In fact, it rarely is. Most often, the displays of class which stand out the most occur in how a team behaves in the agony of defeat. When pressed to deal with losing, our beloved team failed to meet the mark. They were outworked to their last breath, and through the actions of Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, exited the series with about as much grace as a Ron Artest drive to the basket. So, to learn a lesson about having class in a losing effort, we turn back the clock a few short years to 2008.
The 2008 Western Conference Finals marked the beginning of a new era of great Laker teams, but it also marked (admittedly in hindsight) the end of the San Antonio Spurs as a championship threat. The Lakers dispatched San Antonio in a quick 5 game series en route to the first of three straight trips to the NBA Finals (with two victories). The Spurs have remained a strong regular season team since then, but they have failed to win a single 2nd round playoff game since then (only getting through the 1st round once). This year, the Spurs surprised all with a stellar regular season, but could not hide their weaknesses in becoming one of the few instances in league history of a #1 seed getting knocked out of the playoffs by an 8 seed.
In that end-of-an-era context, let's take a stroll down memory lane to remember the 2008 WCF. The San Antonio Spurs were no surprise member of the final Western Conference pairing in 2008. In fact, from day one of the regular season, they were probably considered one of the favorites. The Lakers were a surprise team at the start of the season, behind Andrew Bynum's sudden emergence as a legitimate piece, and then the Pau Gasol trade shot the Lakers into the forefront of all conversations, but at the start of the year, you'd get better odds on the Lakers advancing that far in the postseason than the Spurs. However, once the series got around to happening, the Lakers were favored to advance. The Purple And Gold took the first two contests in Los Angeles, the first hotly contested, the second not so much. The Spurs held serve in Game 3, winning easily, and Game 4 was another tight contest. The Lakers entered the final minute with a 7 point lead, but the Spurs rallied back to be within two, and in possession of the ball, with 2.1 seconds left.
Then this happened:
That, ladies and gentlemen, was a blown call which effectively ended the series. The NBA even admitted that a foul should have been called on the play. I won't go so far as to say the Spurs got screwed, as they were the benefactors of a missed call the other direction just 6 seconds (of game clock) previous, and the correct call on the play could only have possibly resulted in a tie game (after which the Spurs would still have needed to take care of business in OT). Based on the evidence of the series to that point, it seems clear the Lakers were the better team, and even if San Antonio had gone on to win the game, they still needed to take two out of three from the better team, including one game on the road.
Still, for an (already) aging team fighting against the closure of their championship window, to lose a must-win contest under those circumstances has to sting. Putting that play into any kind of perspective would seem a monumentally difficult thing to do ... except that's exactly what the Spurs did. To a man. Check out some of their postgame quotes.
It wasn't a foul. ... I think it was a proper no-call from what I saw. If I was the official I wouldn't have called that a foul
You're not going to get that call. They're not going to make that call.
and straight from the man himself, Brent Barry:
That's not going to get called in the Western Conference finals. Maybe in the regular season. But that call shouldn't be called in the Western Conference finals. ... That call is not where the game was lost.
The Spurs knew what that game meant, knew that its result likely ended their chances in the series, and knew that a whistle on the play could very well have stayed their execution. But that particular break of the game did not fall their way and they weren't about to use it as an excuse or a crutch.
Given the choice between winning and losing, its not hard to figure which way we'd prefer the Lakers go about their business. But the Lakers can not win every contest, every playoff series, in which they participate, and I wouldn't mind seeing them lose with this kind of class a little more often.