Forty Photos in Forty Days: A look at the sights from the Spurs' drive for title No. 5
Starting May 5, I watched the Spurs play 16 games in 40 nights. Facing Portland, Oklahoma City and Miami during that five-plus week stretch, San Antonio went 12-4 to win their fifth title in franchise history. Incredibly, 11 of those wins came by 15 points or more, even though all three of their opponents won 54+ games during the regular season. Night after night, the Spurs left me amazed. After Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, I had seen enough to be convinced that they would be champions.
I entered the playoffs with no real plan to document the off-court journey, but you know how things go: random pictures pile up quickly in the smartphone. A large portion of any trip like this is spent in monotony: in front of a keyboard, on a plane, in a taxi, waiting, waiting, and more waiting. Nevertheless, the following is an annotated collection of some of the fun and weirdness that I managed to experience along the way. After pulling it all together, it's clear that I have an affinity for taking photos of signs -- I credit my parents for making me play The Alphabet Game on road trips as a child. Without further ado, here's a look at "40 photos in 40 days" -- a collection of the sights from the Spurs' drive for five.
1) The AT&T Center was the site of all sorts of zaniness during the postseason. The air conditioning malfunction during Game 1 of the Finals drew tons of headlines, as did the discovery of a snake in the Blazers' locker room. Standing on the empty court after one of San Antonio's victories over Portland, the eye was naturally drawn to the four championship banners. Two thoughts at the time: 1) How close they came to a fifth banner last season, and 2) How the Spurs have won so many division titles that they just cluster them together on that smaller banner to the right, whereas many teams have entire banners to recognize each division title. It's 'chip or nothing for these guys, and they easily dispatched Portland in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
2) Confidence was running high in Portland after Damian Lillard's absurdly clutch buzzer-beating three-pointer to close out the Rockets in Game 6 of their first-round series. The Blazers had handed out red glowsticks to augment their pre-game introductions for Game 3, and the hyped up Moda Center put them to good use. The smoky section in the picture was caused by a moving spotlight that panned through the crowd.
3) Blazermaniacs are well known for their passion, but don't overlook their creativity. The Gorilla-faced man on the left paid homage to Lillard's heroics, while the younger fan on the right donned a plush snake handed out by the Blazers to make light of the reptile-related incident down in San Antonio. Unfortunately for the City of Roses, the Spurs easily stole Game 3, which allowed San Antonio to coast through a Game 4 loss before hosting a closeout Game 5 at home.
4) After getting blown out in Game 1, LaMarcus Aldridge admitted that it was a "Welcome to San Antonio" moment for the young Blazers, who became the first Portland team to advance in the postseason since 2000 when they beat Houston. The Coyote -- an excellent mascot who was more geeked during Game 5 of the Finals than any mascot I've seen in my life -- welcomes all opponents with this Texas-sized Gatling gun dispenser of free t-shirts. You just knew it was curtains for Aldridge and company when the Coyote rolled out the big gun during the second half of Game 5. The Spurs indeed knocked out the Blazers in five game, with all four wins coming by 15+ points, thereby setting up a Western Conference finals showdown against the Thunder, an old foe.
5) Rally after rally after rally. Fans never missed an opportunity to gather at The Alamo to express their love for the Spurs. This rally took place on the eve of Game 1 of the conference finals, and there would be plenty more to come in the next few weeks.
6) Speaking of The Alamo, my hotel in San Antonio handed out Alamo Crackers, a Texas take on the famous shortbread Animal Crackers. Other cookie designs included a cowboy boot and a sombrero.
7) San Antonio held a "black out" for Game 1 against Oklahoma City, and it paid off with a 122-105 victory. The "Go Spurs Go" chant is still ringing in my ears.
8) The AT&T Center might have a well-earned reputation as an inhospitable place -- I called it the NBA's "most horrific house of horrors" -- but the Spurs left a number of media members quite pleased with their gifts. Various items handed out included a Whataburger t-shirt, enough ketchup to stage a crime scene, and this chocolate-covered cupcake with logo frosting, which was as tasty as it sounds.
9) Extra off days are pretty rare during the playoffs, but the schedule saw a long break between San Antonio's Game 2 home victory and Game 3 in Oklahoma City. I spent one of the off days riding to the top of the Tower of the Americas, San Antonio's less-famous version of the Space Needle. The wind was really gusting, much to the delight of some local schoolchildren on a field trip, but the view of downtown was muddied a bit by some cloud cover. On to Oklahoma City.
10) There isn't a ton going on in downtown Oklahoma City -- my cab driver suggested that I check out a banjo museum -- but the place to be is Bricktown, where there are bricks aplenty. In keeping with the Thunder's teamwork-oriented culture, this building-sized mural welcomes visitors to the tourist-friendly area. Every Thunder player -- even Hasheem Thabeet -- is included.
11) Nobody does the free t-shirts quite like the Thunder, who use alternating colors to make stripes in the crowd and unveil new designs for every game. Oklahoma City held serve in Games 3 and 4, thanks in large part to the return of Serge Ibaka, who received a hero's welcome from the always-excellent Chesapeake Energy Arena faithful. Russell Westbrook's triple-double in Game 4 didn't hurt either.
12) I can't tell you how many times I've been asked by hotel staffers which team I am rooting for when I check in. My Oklahoma City hotel took the matter into its own hands, using Thunder-emblazoned room keys.
13) Downtown OKC is a fairly sleepy place, but it is home to the Devon Tower, one of the country's 40 tallest skyscrapers. Housing the Devon Energy company, the 50-story tower is just down the block from the Chesapeake Energy Arena, and it sticks out on the skyline enough that you can see it from miles away as you approach from the airport.
14) This 1930 Model "A" Ford -- advertising Ken Boyer's Bail Bonds -- was parked a short walking distance from the arena. I stumbled upon it while looking for a place to eat on a Sunday, when most of the city shuts down for a day of rest.
15) Amazing. Campaign. Platform. That his last name was "Moody" just took this over the top. What could possibly go wrong if we put a moody, grass-friendly gun-lover in charge? For the record, this billboard was sponsored by Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Chad Moody.
16) The Spurs and Thunder returned to San Antonio for Game 5 with the series tied at two games apiece. Ibaka's presence on both ends threatened to tip the series. The good news for San Antonio: The one-and-only "Spurs Jesus" (pictured in the middle) was there to provide a little divine intervention. The insertion of Matt Bonner into the Game 5 starting lineup also opened things up for San Antonio, who ran away with yet another blowout victory to put Oklahoma City on the brink of elimination. The sign held by Spurs Jesus -- "Charles, I forgive U" -- was in reference to the ongoing war of words between TNT commentator Charles Barkley and Spurs fans, who were upset with Chuck's criticism of the city's women.
17) A return trip to Oklahoma City meant more time for enjoying Bricktown's Riverwalk. Unlike San Antonio's more famous Riverwalk, which is below street level, Oklahoma City's has an open air feel and a more manicured look to it. This painted buffalo stands not too far away from Kevin Durant's eponymous -- and super popular -- restaurant.
18) I don't take a lot of photographs at the post-game press conferences because it seems pointless with so many big-time photographers clicking away throughout. I had to snap this one for history, though, after Tim Duncan carried the Spurs past the Thunder in overtime to take Game 6 on the road. Those seven straight points down the stretch were incredible to watch unfold, a "pinch yourself" series of plays by one of the game's all-time greats. That he came out to meet the media in a shirt he's probably been wearing since the mid-1990s just made it that much better.
19) I passed these signs as I returned to my Oklahoma City hotel room after the closeout Game 6 victory. San Antonio is about a seven-hour drive or three hours of flights from OKC, and a number of fans made the trip up for Game 6. As Spurs fan @Courtside joked in response to this photo on Twitter: "How many babies named Kawhi will be born in 2015?" It was certainly time to celebrate for the Spurs, who scored revenge for their loss to the Thunder in the 2012 conference finals. Here, three of San Antonio's four wins in the series had come by 15+ points, causing Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks to admit that his team got its "butts kicked" after Game 2.
20) And with that, the 2014 NBA Finals match-up was set: Heat vs. Spurs II. Another series meant another rally at The Alamo. This group was actually filming a rap video. There was just so much going on here.
21) Heat forward LeBron James was named the MVP of the 2013 Finals, and Spurs fans enjoyed booing him throughout the 2014 Finals. This lady walked by with James' giant head -- notice the Spurs logo on the headband! -- just as a "Beat the Cheat!" chant broke out at the rapply. Not pictured: the Coyote rolling up on a motorcycle with a police escort, as the blaring sirens interrupted the taping of our SI.com Finals preview video. Probably the funniest "OK, take two" moment I've ever experienced.
22) The NBA gets a lot of stuff wrong: Donald Sterling was allowed to fester for years, the enforcement of the anti-flopping policy makes no sense, and there's still an image problem when it comes to the officiating. But the cursive Finals logo is just perfect. This picture shows the scorer's table at the AT&T Center, but the logo is plastered everywhere in both arenas as the series plays out.
23) Much is made of Kawhi Leonard's reticence with the media, and it's all accurate. I took this picture during the pre-Finals media availability -- probably the craziest scrum day of the NBA year -- and Leonard's expression didn't change much, if at all, throughout the entire ordeal. Little did we know at the time that we were looking at one of the youngest Finals MVPs in league history.
24) The Spurs went with another blackout for Game 1 of the Finals, including a nice poster with the Larry O'Brien Trophy for good measure.
25) I will save you all by not posting any pictures of sweaty journalists after the air conditioning went out during San Antonio's Game 1 victory. Inside Miami's post-game locker room, the temperature must have been 100 degrees, as everyone crowded around LeBron James' locker to find out the latest about his leg cramps. A cameraman's sweat dripped onto my head like rain; I wish I had made up that detail. Of course, James never showed for the media, as he received treatment on his left leg after the game and throughout the night. Upon returning to the rental car, driven ably by Matt Moore of CBSSports.com, we felt compelled to take pictures of the air conditioning dials. You'll notice we immediately set it to full blast and the coldest possible setting after spending the previous three hours writing our columns without any cold air.
26) "Game Night Earplugs" were waiting for me in my downtown hotel room once I returned from Game 1. By the time I got home, the hooting and hollering was complete, but extended celebrations were the norm after Spurs victories in both the conference finals and the Finals.
27) Usually practice sessions are pretty subdued, but there was a major buzz following Game 1 because everyone was wondering about James' status. He told reporters that he was still sore and that he had barely slept after taking multiple IV bags following the game, but that he expected to be 100 percent for Game 2. Following his media session, he took the court for some jumpers and he seemed to be moving well. The discussion quickly turned to his shoes, the "Red October Yeezy II." The eye-catching sneakers were a sign of things to come: James was sensational in Miami's Game 2 victory, sending the series back to Florida knotted at one game apiece.
28) In conjunction with the decision to scrap the 2-3-2 Finals format in favor of a 2-2-1-1-1 format, the NBA coordinated charter flights for its employees and media members. For a set price, you could fly directly between San Antonio and Miami rather than flying commercial through Dallas or Houston. All hail Adam Silver. The charter idea was applauded by many media members. After landing in Miami where a shuttle bus was waiting, we drove past a private plane bearing the TRUMP name. Call that our 15 seconds of fame.
29) To all those speculating on the possibility that Miami's "Big 3" might decide to break up this summer, I urge you to click the above image and take it all in. This panorama was shot on Biscayne Island, roughly a mile or two from the American Airlines Arena, on just another random June day in Florida. When James says his family is happy in Miami, this is (in part) what he means.
30) Seriously, look at this sunbathing bird. Does he really look anxious to opt out of his $20 million contract to go somewhere else?
31) In addition to its beautiful location, the American Airlines Arena looks pretty good all lit up at night. The streets were nearly empty, and totally quiet, when I took this picture in the hours after San Antonio's Game 3 masterpiece.
32) My lone off day in Miami was spent chasing an interview with boxing legend Mike Tyson. After a delay and some waiting outside the Dominican Republic's Miami consulate, Tyson appeared and graciously offered more than 30 minutes for a thoughtful conversation on competition, the highs and lows of his life, and his views on James, who was again facing scrutiny after his cramps and the Game 3 loss. Here, Sports Illustrated photographer John McDonough shoots Tyson near the Rolls Royce Ghost that was being used to chauffeur Tyson around Miami. McDonough has taken photos at the last 25 NBA Finals, and he blew my mind when he told me that he uses 11 cameras to take more than 5,000 shots at every Finals game.
33) Game 4 in Miami quickly had the feeling of a funeral. This poster -- referencing the Larry O'Brien Trophy's supposed affinity for Miami -- was left on the ground in one of the aisles. The Spurs' strong play emptied the lower bowl of the building quite early, and the fans who did stick around seemed resigned to the knowledge that the Heat wouldn't be coming back to Florida for a Game 6.
34) A lone arena worker paced the court hours after Miami's Game 4 defeat. A few writers popped by to take shots of the empty building, realizing that it would likely be the final time they would see the place until the fall. Barring an unprecedented miracle, there would be no three-peat. No team in Finals history has crawled out of the 2-1 series deficit that Miami was now facing.
35) The charter flight back to San Antonio was greeted with this airport hangar, which presumably belongs to Spurs owner Peter Holt. Note the "Go Spurs Go" lettering on the back of the building. One more example of how that three-word phrase is ubiquitous in San Antonio.
36) Walking around San Antonio before Game 5, there was just no doubt that the Spurs would win. I've never heard so many people so convinced that their team would win. It didn't matter who: hotel workers, sandwich shop employees, diehard fans rallying (again), a barber, the list goes on. I came across this relatively new mural as I burned some time before Game 5.
37) The Spurs didn't disappoint their believers, blowing out the Heat for the third straight time to claim the title and make their case as the Greatest Spurs Team Ever. Each of San Antonio's four wins in the series came by 15+ points, and the Spurs set an NBA record for the largest point differential in a Finals series. Afterwards, Tina Turner's "Simply The Best" pumped loudly on the sound system as we waited for the post-game press conferences to begin. The music was lowered so that a somber, exhausted Erik Spoelstra could give full credit to the Spurs for their play. Once he was finished, loud shrieking could be heard from just outside the press conference area. It was the Silver Dancers, who posed for photo after photo, taking breaks in between shots to squeal some more.
38) No one in San Antonio draws more applause than Hall of Fame center David Robinson. "The Admiral" was gleefully holding court for more than an hour after Game 5, smiling throughout as he conducted a number of interviews.
39) All good things must come to an end, and in the NBA that always means confetti.
40) I headed home just a few hours after filing my Game 5 column. At the San Antonio airport, there was -- of course -- one more "Go Spurs Go" sign for the road. I was the second person in line to go through security once it opened at 4 a.m. Before my bags could be X-rayed and my ticket checked, the TSA employees gathered together in a huddle and cheered: "1-2-3-Spurs!" I kid you not. Yes, at 4 a.m.