The New England Patriots’ charter jet touched down for Super Bowl 51 with the usual cacophony. Love them or hate them, there is simply no ignoring them.
According to myth, reputation and deed, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady either hung the moon or blot out the sun. Go ahead, admit it. The Imperial Death March from “Star Wars” probably storms through your brain every time they take the field for an opening kickoff.
The Patriots embody just about everything packed into the word empire — power, ownership, durability.
Meanwhile, a three-hour drive down the road from Houston and the wall-to-wall hullaballoo, the San Antonio Spurs continue to use the service entrance to the throne room for a regime and lineage that seems to go back to the Dark Ages.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder roll into San Antonio tonight (8:30 ET, NBA TV), they will be facing a Spurs team that keeps right on wearing the image of a gray flannel suit that came straight off the rack.
The Patriots will be attempting to win their fifth Super Bowl title in franchise history on Sunday. The Spurs are relentlessly churning toward a chance to win a sixth NBA championship this spring.
The Patriots have already completed an unprecedented 14th consecutive season of winning at least 10 regular season games. The Spurs are on course toward extending their NBA record of 50-win seasons to 18 in a row.
While the Patriots are still one down in the ring department, the Spurs have never won back-to-back.
Does a dynasty by any other name or method smell as sweet?
“I consider the question irrelevant because it’s somebody else’s term for greatness,” former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy once said. “You could put whatever word on it you want as long as it speaks to their greatness. Sustained greatness is the hardest thing to achieve in any walk of life. And that’s exactly what the Spurs have stood for.”
Along with the Patriots. They are about the team, not the stars. They beat the bushes to turn up talent that nobody else can find or see. They are coached by snarling, brilliant coaches who don’t care what you think of them.
What the two franchises also share is an overriding sense of paranoia that nobody beyond the borders of their home region likes them, not even in the hierarchy of their respective leagues.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who punished Brady for “Deflategate” this season, will have to overcome the perception in some corners that he’ll be wearing an Atlanta Falcons jersey under his suit if and when he has to present the Lombardi Trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
How silly. Since they won their first Super Bowl by upsetting the St. Louis Rams in 2002, the Patriots of Belichick and Brady have grown into the greatest drivers of debate, emotion and vitriol since the days of the Dallas Cowboys driving that “America’s Team” moniker down a nation’s throat. The last two Super Bowls that included the Patriots drew the highest TV ratings in the past 30 years.
By contrast, the Spurs are usually greeted by the general public coast-to-coast with a collective shrug. The three lowest-rated NBA Finals since 1982 were won by the small-television-market Spurs (’03, ’05 and ’07). Their loyal fans have always believed that’s a big reason why the powers-that-be would have always preferred them to be the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics or New York Knicks.
The closest the Spurs ever came to controversy like the Patriots’ “Spygate” or “Deflategate” was when Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table during the 2007 Western Conference semifinals. The resulting suspensions of Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Draw sunk the Suns’ best chance ever of reaching The Finals. Though the Spurs, too, were once hit with a whopping fine ($250,000) by former commissioner David Stern for coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to rest his stars, there was no talk of vengeance. The Spurs’ brass just wrote the check and moved on to the next game.
Now here are the 36-11 Spurs at home, after suffering their first-back-to-back losses since early November. They’re taking on the noise that comes from OKC’s Russell Westbrook nightly carnival atmosphere chase of another triple-double.
They are playing for the first time in nearly two decades without franchise icon Tim Duncan and are appropriately lined up behind the taciturn Kawhi Leonard. Center Pau Gasol is likely out for at least another month with a broken finger. All that means in the San Antonio locker room is David Lee (and everybody else) has to close ranks and step up. They’ve got the third-rated defense in the league, the fourth-best offense and a balanced lineup that has 10 different players averaging at least 15 minutes per game.
Let the Golden State Warriors with their stable of four All-Stars set the pace in the standings. Let LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers grab the headlines with their daily drama. Let the outside world continue to shrug. Just like the Patriots, the Spurs know you’ll always have to respect them, if not like them, when it counts.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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