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Dead Men Walking: The Dark Secret Behind the Spurs Dynasty

I went to San Antonio to find the secret to the Spurs dynasty. I left with a secret so great it could bring down the entire organization.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

[Author’s Note: This is a satirical piece meant to (hopefully) give you a couple of cheap laughs, considering that games 1 and 2 didn’t go particularly well for the Grizzlies. As far as I know, there are no secret underground chambers below the Alamo, though you can never be one hundred percent certain about these things. #Illuminati #StayWoke]

Bill Miller Bar-B-Q is an institution in San Antonio. It began as a poultry and egg business in 1950, before eventually evolving into a friend chicken restaurant, a burger joint, and then, finally, a barbecue restaurant. It’s done, to put it mildly, quite nicely. The restaurant now boasts 69 super nice locations in Texas, and you can hardly turn a corner in San Antonio without seeing one of their trademark, orange-lettered signs.

Today, I’ve found myself at one of the locations in downtown San Antonio, at the corner of Pecan and St. Mary’s, inside a squat, nondescript brick building. It’s not much to look at from the outside, but inside, the simple wooden tables and rustic decorations make for a cozy, if somewhat kitschy, atmosphere, and the smell drifting from the ovens permeates the entire restaurant.

At two-thirty on a mid-April Monday afternoon, it’s quiet apart from the clatter echoing from the back of a dishwasher making their way through the lunch rush’s cutlery casualties. A handful of customers are scattered throughout the main dining room, lost in conversation or their phone screens or the food in front of them. Everyone’s too busy to spare so much as a second glance at the man seated across from me, the one clad in the purple hound’s-tooth suit. No one stops to wonder if maybe the face beneath the brim of a feather-accented fedora looks a little bit too much like Tim Duncan to be coincidence.

After all, who would ever think to find the man who accepted his 2002 MVP award in baggy denim shorts and a t-shirt dressed so extravagantly. If it were really Duncan, he’d certainly be in something much more mundane: khakis and a polo bought at a 40% off sale at the GAP; blue jeans and a pearl snap; cargo shorts and plain t-shirt.

But that’s what makes the choice of clothing so perfect. Duncan is hiding in plain sight. Inconspicuously conspicuous.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The food here is served cafeteria style, and Duncan and I have already taken our trays bearing barbecue platters — as fundamental a meal as you can get at Bill Miller — to a table in a back corner. Duncan is munching quietly on his potato salad and glancing around the room, at the SMOKE HOUSE sign near the order line, at the cactus-obscured license plate hanging on the wall, at the one bulb in the center of the ceiling that’s burned out.

I’ve just started to wonder if he’s forgotten about my presence when he says, around a mouthful of brisket, “I wish I’d come here more often. I like it here. Not too expensive. It’s simple.”

He glances at his watch, and I ask him about his flight. “Not for a few hours,” he says, dismissing the question with a wave of his hand. “I’m going straight to the airport from here. Bags and passport are already in the car. Nah, we’ve got plenty of time.”

I leave the answer at that. I don’t need to ask why he’s leaving. That much is obvious. As soon as he reveals what he’s already promised to tell me, he’ll have to leave the country. When the public finds out, there will be hell to pay, and, as he told me over the phone, he’s just too tired to deal with those burns. He never asked for this, he said.

Duncan doesn’t speak again until his plate’s been cleared of brisket and potato salad and only a few picked-over strands of coleslaw remain. Pushing his plate to the side and his hat to the back of his head, Duncan leads forward. “You probably already guessed this,” Duncan says in a voice as quiet as his suit is loud, “but like everything else here in San Antonio, it all centers around the Alamo.”

In all likelihood, the Battle of the Alamo is the most famous in Texas history. During the war that would eventually lead to Texas’ independence, Mexican troops, led by President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, led a thirteen day siege to the mission-turned-Texas-garrison in the heart of San Antonio de Bexar. All told, there were about 250 Texians (as the residents of Mexico-controlled Texas were called) in the site. The Mexican army numbered over seven times that.

In the early morning hours of March 6th, 1836, the Mexican forces led their final assault. With ladders and crowbars and sheer force of numbers, they scaled the walls into the grounds. The Texians fought back valiantly, firing whatever metal they could find from their cannons, swinging empty rifles into crowds. They repulsed the initial two attacks.

But eventually, the size of the Mexican army won out. One hour of bloody battle later, every Texian — outside of women and children — lay dead. Mexico had won, but not without cost. Historians estimate that Mexico lost close to 600 soldiers, a full third of their forces.

Today, all that remains of the historic battle site are the chapel and the Long Barracks, which has been turned into a museum commemorating the battle. Visitors can walk through the halls and look through the encased artifacts. And there’s plenty to be found: letters; polished weapons; paintings; miscellaneous relics of the era.

And, according to Duncan, something else.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

“There’s a door,” he tells me. “It sort of blends into the wall, and it’s buried behind displays anyway, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it.”

I try to ask him which wall, which room, which display, but Duncan just shakes his head each time. “I told you, it’s to hard to explain. I’ve got a drawing,” he pats his breast pocket, “that I’ll give you when we’re done. For now, it’s not about where the door is that’s important. It’s where it leads.”

Behind the door there’s a stairwell, Duncan explains. It’s pitch black inside, so you’ll have to take a lamp or a flashlight or a torch to light the way. The stairway winds like a corkscrew into the earth below the chapel, coming to a halt in a cave, he says, “like nothing you’ll ever find on this earth.”

“The cave sort of has its own glow. Like, there’s this weird, greenish light coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. There’s an 1824 flag and a long-bladed knife that everyone just assumes was Jim Bowie’s hanging on the wall. And, in the center of the room, there’s this pool.”

I ask Duncan what he means by “pool,” and he pauses for a moment, considering his words. “Do you like Batman?”

“Yeah,” I say, caught slightly off guard. “Why?”

“You’re familiar with the Lazarus Pit, then?”

There’s a moment of silence, and I wait for Duncan to tell me that he’s joking, but he never flinches. He’s dead serious.

“So you’re telling me the Spurs dynasty,” I say slowly, “was built on a real-life version of the secret weapon for Batman nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul?”

Duncan chuckles. “I thought you wouldn’t believe me. That’s why I brought this.”

From within another pocket, Duncan pulls out two vials. One, which he quickly empties onto the table, holds a dead bug. The second holds a few drops of green liquid that, even in the light of the restaurant, glows a radioactive green.

Duncan first proves to me that the bug his dead. Using his fork, he pokes, prods, and all but dissects the bug. Then, pulling the stopper from the second vial, he pours one drop onto the corpse.

Seconds later, Duncan is forced to smash the bug to bits to keep it from scurrying off the table. As he cleans the entrails with a napkin, Duncan winks at me. “Believe me now?”

I ask if he knows where the pool came from. Did it fuel the men who died boldly attempting the impossible task of defending San Antonio’s mission, or did it come afterward, the result of some physical manifestation and coalescence of their fighting spirit?

Duncan shrugs. “I couldn’t tell you. It’s sort of the chicken and egg debate, I think. The only one who really knows anything about it is Pop. And he never told us anything more than what we had to know.”

The ritual has been the same every year since Duncan joined the Spurs. Before the season starts, the entire team journeys down to the Alamo in the late hours of the night. Popovich has a key, specially gifted to him by the Mayor of the city, and together they trek down the stairs to the cave. Then, one-by-one, they climb into the pool to submerge themselves in the substance.

The result is a team that’s been a competitor longer than any other franchise in the NBA by miles. The Atlanta Hawks hold the second longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances at ten seasons. The Spurs’ streak is two times that.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

“There’s one thing I still don’t understand, though,” I say. “If you could just keep going back to be reborn every year, why ever stop?”

“Even that doesn’t last forever,” says Duncan. “Your body can only take so much before the pool starts to eat away at it. And it’s different for every player. For Manu, it went after his hair. For me,” he reaches behind him to touch his back, “it came for the flesh.”

“So the cyborg tattoo…”

“Is just there to cover it up, yeah.” Duncan grimaces. “My last two seasons in the league, I couldn’t even step into the pool. The pain was too great. If I’d tried to stay in, there’s a chance I wouldn’t even be standing here now.”

“”What about the guys who leave?” I ask. “Why hasn’t anyone else talked?”

“Pop knows how to keep guys quiet,” Duncan says. “He knows the art of negotiating as well as he knows X’s and O’s. Whatever makes you tick, Pop knows how to get at it just so to keep you quiet.

“To be honest,” he adds, “we all thought George [Hill] was gonna talk when we traded him. But Pop knew him, too.” He shakes his head, almost disbelieving. “Pop knows everyone.

“Except for you.”

Duncan wiggles his shoulders in a sort of half-shrug, and in that moment, I realize how tired he looks, the dark circles below his eyes, the heavy slump to his shoulders beneath the wool jacket and silk shirt. “I just think it’s not right,” he says. “I spent my career doing what I thought was right. I held this secret because I thought I was doing what was right for the team. But now…I just think everyone deserves to know.”

And at that moment, the weight lifts. Duncan has spent the last hour or so fidgeting nervously with his diamond cufflinks, fingering the lapels of his jacket. Now, finally cleared of his charge, he’s turned into a completely different person, and in that instance, he dons something even more unexpected than his suit: a smile.

We spend the next few minutes chatting, talking about what’s gone on this season without him and his plans for the future, plans that involve being a long way away from here and all of the fallout from what will surely be a national scandal.

In a lull in the conversation, I get up to grab a refill from the drink machine and ask Duncan if he wants anything. He reaches into his wallet, pulls out five, and hands it to me. “I could go for something sweet,” he says. “Grab me a piece of pecan pie.”

Before I can turn for the counter, he stops me. “Oh,” he adds, “remember the a la mode.”

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