What we learned from the Spurs Play-in loss to the Pelicans

To this day, Fred Hoaglin swears he can not remember the score.

It was January 1968 and he and his teammates were not thrilled to play football. After losing in the conference championship match, most of them felt that they should have been at home, resting and taking care of their other interests and obligations. Instead, they poured sweat into Florida’s heat and humidity.

It probably did not help that he and the rest of the team had been on what corresponded to a week-long bend. But who could really blame them? They had been asked to travel all the way from Cleveland to Miami to play for 3rd place.

By 1959, the NFL powers had decided that they needed to add another game to the schedule in order to compete with the fast-growing AFL. Of course, no team wanted an extra game on their program, and ABC was not big on airing regular season games to begin with, so the league agreed that an off-season game should be added. And so it was decided that the two teams that lost the conference championship should meet each other.

The solution seemed ideal for a group of middle-aged multimillionaires wearing suits. After all, the World Cup had played a third place since the 1930s, and the Olympics offered athletes a bronze medal. Why shouldn’t the NFL have one too?

Not surprisingly, the news of 3rd place went over with the players like a lead balloon. (As is often the case for additional athletic events whose purpose is purely financial)

To combat this, the owners devised a solution. They would name the competition in honor of theirs very recently deceased NFL Commissioner, Bert Bell, and would reserve a portion of the proceeds for the player’s retirement fund.

Bert Bell had been very popular with the players (after reintegrating the NFL, formally recognizing the NFLPA and starting the player pension fund in the first place), and the pension fund really needed the contribution, so the roar subsided into a dull grumble and agreements were reluctantly made.

And then began the legacy of the game, which everyone hated.

(At this point, you may be wondering when I’ll get to the basketball part of the article. Carry with me, dear reader. I’ll get there.)

It simply can not be overstated how much the players and coaches hated this game.

Vince Lombardi dubbed it the ‘Toilet Bowl’ (‘Toilet’ is my polite substitute) and in the only pure part of an otherwise artistically profane tirade, it called it a “… hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink city, played by hinky-dink players!

That was, he doubled (in case his point had been misunderstood) a “…losers’ bowl for losers! ”

To this day, former players are not sure what made him more angry, losing the match to the Cardinals in 1965 or actually winning it over the Browns in 1964.

And honestly, it made a lot of sense to hate the game that would become known as the Runner-Up Bowl. Neither the game’s statistics nor the result would be considered official. It did absolutely nothing to affect the draft position, risking player injury, and after the cost of room and board only the winning teams managed to balance financially.

Worst of all, it was mandatory. And the coaches of the teams that played in this match, after just losing their conference championship, then had to coach the Pro-Bowl. (A tradition that continued until 2009)

Even Ram’s head coach George Allen, famously a strict disciplinarian, hated the game so much that he gave his players two extra hours before the curfew, knowing they would spend most of those two hours inside the lavish hotel bar at the legendary Fontainebleau Hotel.

In fact, they became so famous for their coziness that in 1970 their hotel bartender declared that he would bet on the Dallas Cowboys, the Rams opponent, because he had seen the Rams’ players get drunk in his bar all week. Legend has it that the hangover Rams players, as a collective middle finger gesture, stopped at the bar for a pre-game drink (or two) before giving the Cowboys 31-0 and returning to the bar to rejoice.

It also makes sense why Fred Hoaglin does not remember the result from the 1968 game. The Cleveland Browns lost it to the Los Angeles Rams 30-6. I also think I would have drowned all memory of being massacred on the way to a 4th place in the hotel bar afterwards.

But suddenly, Joe Namath and the New York Jets managed an idiotic guarantee, the AFL and NFL merged, and the game was mercilessly canceled to make way for an actual extended after-season. And just like that, it was over.

That’s exactly the kind of thing I imagine will happen when the NBA invariably expands. With the addition of (at least) two teams, it’s conceivable that the NBA will instead pivot (like MLB) to an expanded wildcard game format, and the relatively unmanageable play-in tournament will become the kind of relic that the NFL’s 3 space games have been created.

It might not even take the ten years it took the NFL to scrap their weirdness.

And yet, something funny happened on the way to the irrelevance of that game. Despite the hernia and empty-handedness, the teams took it seriously when they first came on the field. Even in the face of the prospect of a lack of results, the colossal inner competitiveness inherent in professional athletes could not rest. And while five of the matches were blowouts, the other five matches were each won by a touchdown or less.

Fred Hoaglin’s teammate John Wooten and his opponent Roger Brown went so hard on the line that Wooten’s ear began to bleed and Brown broke his thumb. Baltimore Colts quarterback John Matte took a turn at Cowboy LeRoy Jordan after a late hit and was nearly ousted.

And despite Lombardi’s designation for the game as a ‘loser bowl’, every team that played in the Playoff Bowl (minus the Cardinals and Lions) would continue to play in and / or win an NFL championship in the 1960s and / or 70s. ‘erne.

The game in third place, it seemed, had become a battleground for young teams that built the post-season courage and experience; a burning crucible that also cast-runs into conquerors.

When I saw the young Spurs play against the New Orleans Pelicans, I could finally see how it could be.

After digging into a 16-point hole for the first three quarters, their goose appeared to be almost cooked, and then they began an improbably furious comeback. It was the kind of wave that could have won them the game, if not for the mistakes of inexperience and pressure earlier in the competition.

They settled within six points in just five minutes of playing time and showed the rage they need to shut out better teams and make a more legitimate postseason appearance next season.

After a terrible first half, Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray found a foothold, Devin Vassell shone like a light in the dark when no one else seemed to be able to score, and Jakob Poeltl muscled his way through one of the highest starting lanes in the NBA .

In the end, it was not enough to win. But it was enough for me to wonder if the play-in is not so bad after all. I do not know if we’ll miss it once it’s gone. Dozens of former NFL players who played in the Runner-Up Bowl still claim to mock it. (Poor Roger Brown played 5-0 for two separate teams in these matches, without ever winning a championship)

But they all remember it. And I can not help but wonder what it is worth.


  • In a strange turn, it was not the Spurs three-point shooting that failed them (with 38%, they shot only 2% worse from deep than the Pelicans), but rather their middle and inside scores. Thanks to their size inside, New Orleans shot almost 14% better from the field, and it would have been incredibly impressive if the Spurs had managed to overcome that kind of inequality. I think it’s safe to say that Spurs will try to strengthen the front line in the upcoming offseason.
  • Devontae Cacok and Jock Landale ended up as DNPs in this game, which may predict an upcoming departure for one or both players given how hard the Spurs needed to compensate for the size differences this is. Being beaten so badly on the boards (53-34) and still refusing to play your other big men is not the most encouraging of characters.
  • In their honor, neither Keldon Johnson nor Dejounte Murray allowed their shooting problems to pass them by, a good sign from players who used to do just that when the rims were unforgivable. Both players have made great progress since they were drafted and I expect them to continue to refine their respective games until they really run out of ways to improve.
  • One of the best aspects of the loss is that the Spurs lottery odds remain unchanged. As it stands, the Spurs will have a 20% chance of landing a top 4 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, which would give them all sorts of options at their highest draft slot since taking on Tim Duncan. After seeing what they can do with a choice in their late 20s (Tony Parker, Dejounte Murray), I have to admit that I drool at the thought of what they can do with such a high choice. With crossed fingers!

Playing You Out – Evening theme song:

Do not dream that it is over of Crowded House

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