I have to admit, I’m not the world’s biggest NBA fan anymore. I say “anymore” because I did have a brief flirtation with the league during my youth in the Bay Area. I believe it was during the baseball strike of 1994, when I needed something else to dwell on other than which 47 year-old pass rushing specialist the 49ers were going to sign next.
At the time, the Golden State Warriors fit the bill perfectly. They had the look of an up-and-coming franchise with young players like Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell, and vets like Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway who still resembled stars if you inhaled enough dry-erase markers.
Yessir, I’d say there was a solid week — maybe a week and a half — where I was a
Michael Bolton Warriors fan. And then. Well, I don’t really remember, actually. It’s all just a blur, but I think it involved Webber getting traded, a coach getting fired, another coach getting choked, and that’s about when the room started spinning. Join the party on the heels of a 50-win season, and the next thing you know, you wake up with a pounding headache next to Adonal Foyle. Not cool, bro.
Not surprisingly, the NBA has been pretty much dead to me ever since. I avoid it, it avoids me and nobody gets hurt. It’s the same relationship I have with bumblebees, actually.
But dammit if someone hasn’t come along to shake me out of my blissful ignorance of all things NBA. My icy heart has finally been melted by a player who radiates pure joy, youthful exuberance and brilliant sunshine.
OK, maybe it’s not so much about personality.
But former Aztec Kawhi Leonard has done something I thought impossible: Last night, I rushed home from work, gave the dogs a quicker than usual walk around the block, and turned on an NBA Playoff game — one involving the San Antonio Spurs and something called the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Remember when we were all wondering if Kawhi had made the right move by coming out after his sophomore season, what with his unpolished offensive game and lack of experience against top opponents? I’ve got to admit, I was sort of in that camp. I thought he would make a roster somewhere, but have to spend a season fighting for minutes near the end of the bench.
Yeah, no. I just watched the rookie start in the Western Conference Finals and put up 18 points and 10 boards as San Antonio surged to a 2-0 series lead. As he ignited an early Spurs lead with a thunderous jam and a 3-pointer (how awesome it is to hear Marv Albert name check San Diego State?), I imagined him clapping in my face and giving me the fuck-you-Jimmer bellylaugh.
And I deserved it, too.
Look, we’ll all be left to wonder what could have been if Leonard had returned to school for his junior year. But seeing him play alongside stars like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker — and looking like he belongs — is pretty damned gratifying, too. And what he’s doing in the pros is just as huge for the SDSU program as almost anything he could have done with another year on the Mesa (short of a Final Four, that is).
Leonard’s rookie season has changed the national perception of the Aztecs in a way that even the Sweet 16 appearance didn’t. Hell, it’s pretty much created a perception among NBA fans. It was hard to take SDSU seriously as a relevant program back when its only recent claim to pro success was Randy Holcomb scoring two points for the Chicago Bulls that one time.
When you watch Kawhi helping a team march toward the NBA Finals, the Aztecs’ legitimacy is a lot easier to believe. And if it’s easier for us to believe, you’d better believe it’s a lot easier for recruits to believe, too.
So there it is, count me an NBA fan — for as long as Kawhi lasts, anyway.
Maybe it’s time I dig out my old Chris Gatling jersey. It’s gotta be around here somewhere.