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‘A Basketball Carol’ in San Antonio

When an old miser is visited by three ghosts from his past on Christmas Eve, will he be inspired to change his ways?

A cartoon illustration of Gregg Popovich in ‘A Basketball Carol’ Sean Mack

San Antonio. Christmas Eve. 2017.

It’s late, but not too late, because Gregg Popovich never stays up too late, except when he does, which is always. It’s late. And Pop is thinking about a thing someone said to him earlier in the day, because it’s a thing people have said to him for years and years and years.

“Shoot more 3s, have more fun,” he mutters to himself, dismissively, half-angrily, a nursed glass of brown alcohol (probably bourbon, though I can’t say for certain) off to his side. “Yeah, right.”

And do not make the mistake of thinking that he is drinking the (probably) bourbon, because he is not. He is dipping his fingers in it and then rubbing the alcohol into his eyes, a trick he picked up in the military, on a special operation in [PLACE REDACTED] to rid the country of [PERSON REDACTED] at the request of [PERSON REDACTED] in [YEAR REDACTED].

There is a bit of silence.

Then there is talking:

“I’ll tell you what,” he says to nobody in particular, because nobody in particular is there with him, because he is alone. “This house may be empty with people,” and he presses his alcohol-soaked fingertips into his eyes again, “but it’s filled with championships.” He looks at a wall, against which is a bookshelf, upon which are five championship trophies and nothing else. “League championships,” he continues. “Not 3-point-shooting championships.”

There is a bit more silence.

Then a little more.

Then even more.

Because he has fallen asleep.

An indeterminate amount of time passes.

There is a noise. And it’s very much a noise that a ghost would make. Because it’s a ghost.

Pop wakes up.

He scans the room, and it appears empty to him, which he is expecting because, and I’ve told you this already, he is alone. Except here’s the thing: He’s actually not alone.

“Hello,” a voice says to Pop from behind him.

The ghost of Tim Duncan standing over Gregg Popovich Sean Mack

“What the,” says Pop, startled, and it’s the first time in his life he’s ever said “What the” and also the first time in his life he’s ever been startled.

He turns around, and he can’t believe what he sees: It’s the Ghost of Tim Duncan.

The Ghost of Tim Duncan doesn’t say a thing, he just stands there, not smiling or doing anything besides being a ghost. Pop: “Tim … Tim, is that you?” Tim nods yes, but Pop doesn’t believe him, and, I mean, how could he? Maybe I’m still asleep, he thinks. Or maybe I’m eye drunk, he thinks. (“Eye drunk” is when your eyes are drunk from putting [probably] bourbon in them, obviously.) Or maybe I’m dead, he thinks.

“You’re not dead,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan. “In fact, you are very much alive, at least in the literal sense.”

Pop is perplexed, but not nearly as much as he should be, considering he’s talking to a ghost.

“I’m the Ghost of Tim Duncan,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan. “I’m here to teach you ab — ”

Pop, fully functioning now, interrupts him. “Prove it,” says Pop. “What?” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan. “Prove that you’re the Ghost of Tim Duncan,” says Pop.

The Ghost of Tim Duncan: “I mean, I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to do besides be a ghost standing in front of you looking exactly like Tim Duncan.”

Pop is unmoved. “Oh,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan. “I got it,” and in that instant he materializes a ghost basketball out of nothingness and then bankshots it into a ghost rim some 12 feet away.

“I’ve missed you, Tim,” says Pop, and the Ghost of Tim Duncan can tell that Pop is being sincere because Pop is bleeding from his ears, which is what happens every time Pop says a nice thing to someone.

“As I was saying,” begins the Ghost of Tim Duncan, “I’m the Ghost of Tim Duncan. Another name for me, though, is the Ghost of Championships Past, and I’m here to show you a glimpse of when you wer — ”

Pop interrupts him again.

“Wait, wait, wait,” says Pop. “I get it. It’s like A Christmas Carol, right? Except but instead of Christmas, it’s championships. And instead of Scrooge, it’s me. I get it. It’s like A Basketball Carol.”

“Well,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan, considering the notion. “Yes, yes, I suppose it is.”

“Are you gonna fly me all around through time and show me old championships and future championships and so on?” asks Pop. “And then by the end of it I’ll learn a lesson, right? Something about how the way I’m doing things right now isn’t going to lead to anything good, like what happened with Scrooge when he learned that being an old miser was only going to lead him to sadness and loneliness?”

“I mean, it works better if you don’t know all of that going into it,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan, and he’s pretty sad about the way things have turned out.

“Are we gonna do the thing where you fly me over to see a family eating dinner and we look in through a window and I have some profound revelation based on what we see?” asks Pop.

The Ghost of Tim Duncan explains that they are going to do a version of that, but it’s going to be a gym instead of a dinner. And that one gym is going to be filled with a bunch of sad Spurs players not shooting 3s and not having any fun, and then the other gym is going to be filled with Golden State Warriors players, and they’re all going to be shooting 3s and having fun. And then, explains the Ghost of Tim Duncan, after Pop sees that he’s going to realize that he needs to modify things if he wants to win more championships.

“Listen,” says Pop, “that all sounds great. But the gym thing just doesn’t work for me. Let’s peek in on them at dinner. It’s just better. It’s more A Christmas Carol–y.”

The Ghost of Tim Duncan: “But it doesn’t make sense. How would seeing them at dinner help you?”

Pop: “It wouldn’t. I just wanna do it. It’s Christmas Eve. Come on. Don’t be such a ghost dick.”

The Ghost of Tim Duncan’s ghost feelings are truly ghost hurt.

Pop: “One more thing: Can I get a new ghost?”

The Ghost of Tim Duncan: “What?”

Pop: “In A Christmas Carol they had different ghosts. There was one for Christmas past, one for Christmas present, and one for Christmas future.”

And let me tell you something: By this point, poor the Ghost of Tim Duncan is just totally spent. Everything is ruined, and he honestly doesn’t know what to do. In the past, the arrival of a giant ghost was more than enough to convince a person to do whatever thing it was that the ghost was petitioning for. Not this time, though. So the Ghost of Tim Duncan is, like, just very whatever about this whole thing now.

“Jesus Christ,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan, and he snaps his fingers and all of a sudden Pop is floating in the sky staring down at several Spurs players having dinner, and floating along with him is the Ghost of David Robinson.

In a grand, loud, booming, perfect voice: “I AM THE GHOST OF DAVID ROBINSO — ”

Pop: “Dave, Dave, Dave. Hey, man. I know. I know who you are. I’m all caught up on everything. The Ghost of Tim Duncan and I just went through the whole spiel.”

Gregg Popovich watching Spurs and Warriors team dinners Sean Mack

Pop peeks in on the Spurs players having dinner and, sure enough, they all look sad and despondent. And then he gets to look in on the Warriors dinner and, sure enough, they all are very cheerful and merry.

The Ghost of David Robinson, confused, looks around: “What’s going on right now? Where’s the gym? We’re supposed to be visiting two gyms.”

Pop: “We ditched that plan. Have you ever seen A Christmas Carol? We’re going more that route than the basketball route. Don’t worry about it. Just do your thing where you tell me about how if I don’t change then the Spurs are going to wither away and die, just like what happened with Tiny Tim.”

The Ghost of David Robinson: “I never understood that part of the story. I mean, I get it. But it just seemed a bit extreme, I thought. Especially in the Mickey Mouse version. Do you remember that one? Mickey’s son in it was disabled, and then he starved to death or was overcome by other illnesses or something. Like, they literally show Mickey in the graveyard mourning his dead kid. I don’t know. It just felt like there was a way to write around that part. I don’t know.”

Pop: “It was fine to me.”

The Ghost of David Robinson: “Who’s Tiny Tim in this basketball version of it?”

“Probably Dejounte Murray,” says Pop, and it’s all just a little too sad.

The Ghost of David Robinson: “Dang.”

Pop: “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

The Ghost of David Robinson: “Sure.”

Pop: “Why is it the Warriors here and not the Rockets?”

The Ghost of David Robinson: “What do you mean?”

Pop: “Well, it’s the Rockets who shoot the most 3s per game this season. And they also shot the most 3s per game in this past postseason too.”

The Ghost of David Robinson: “Really?”

Pop: “Yes. They’re averaging more than 43 attempts per game right now.”

The Ghost of David Robinson: “WHAT???”

Pop: “The Warriors aren’t even in the top seven.”

The Ghost of David Robinson: “I guess everyone always connects the Warriors to 3-point shooting because of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.”

“Ghosts aren’t very good at advanced analytics,” says Pop, and the two have a quick laugh together and then, right then, literally exactly right then, the Ghost of Tim Duncan appears, and he snaps his fingers and he and Pop are back in the house where everything started and the Ghost of David Robinson is gone.

Sooooooo,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan.

“Sooooooo what,” says Pop.

“Did you learn your lesson,” asks the Ghost of Tim Duncan.

“What? No,” says Pop. “And where did the Ghost of David Robinson go? And where’s my third ghost? There are supposed to be three that visit me.”

Frustrated, the Ghost of Tim Duncan snaps his fingers. The Ghost of Avery Johnson appears. In a big, loud, Southern-accented voice: “I AM THE GHOST OF AV — ”

The ghosts of Tim Duncan and Avery Johnson standing over Gregg Popovich Sean Mack

The Ghost of Tim Duncan snaps his fingers again, and the Ghost of Avery Johnson vanishes.

“There you go,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan, and there’s almost a little too much sass in his voice for Pop’s liking. “There’s three. You got your three ghosts. So did you learn your lesson?”

“I don’t think so, no,” says Pop. “The whole thing was kind of scattershot, really. The dinner part was especially odd.”

The Ghost of Tim Duncan: “THAT WAS YOUR IDEA!”

“Also,” says Pop, “from a basketball-strategy perspective, I think this whole experience was … ummm … fundamentally flawed,” he says, and he waits a second to see if the Ghost of Tim Duncan catches the reference.

Five seconds pass.

“Ohhhhhhhh,” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan, a version of a tiny ghost smile stretching across his giant ghost face. “I get it. Because I’m the Big Fundamental.”

Pop: “If you’re telling me the point of all this was that I need to learn that we have to shoot more 3s to win championships, then yes, I’m arguing that that’s flawed. Did you know that no team that has led the league in 3s in a season has won a championship in that same season over two decades? And we’ve only ever finished in the top 10 for 3-point attempts during our five championship runs one time.”

The Ghost of Tim Duncan: “That’s in the regular season. Golden State led the 2015 postseason in 3s and it turned out pretty great for them.”

And then, right then, literally exactly right then, a big, weathered, classic grandfather clock ticks to midnight and its chimes start to go off. “Well,” says Pop. “There it is. It’s midnight. Time for you to leave.” “What?” says the Ghost of Tim Duncan. “That’s not … that’s not even a thing. You’re thinking of Cinderella. There’s no clock in A Christmas Carol.”

And Pop looks at him, and he gives him the wryest eyes that anyone has ever given a ghost before, and with a smirk so small that you’d miss it if you didn’t have perfect vision, he says, “But there’s one in A Basketball Carol,” and then he leans back and bellows out, “… And to all a good night!”