In difficult season, how Victor Wembanyama preserved Spurs’ joy

It should have been long gone by now.

Little by little, indignity by indignity, heartbreak by heartbreak, it should have faded into oblivion, just like it almost always does during seasons like this. Nobody would have noticed if it had.

Instead, Victor Wembanyama saved it, all the way through the end, and two basketballs he touched late Friday night helped tell the story of how.

How he clung tight to what had no business surviving 60 losses.

How he preserved joy.

Joy comes so easily to the kid. You’ve noticed that about him, haven’t you? Any time he walks into a room or out of a building, onlookers gawk and gape like he’s a 7-foot, 3.5-inch circus animal, but the crazy thing always is what happens next.

People start smiling, either because of something ridiculous he does with a ball in his hands, or because of something profound he says with a microphone in his face, or even because of something as mesmerizingly simple as him leaning down to tie his shoes. And without fail, Wembanyama winds up smiling right along with the crowd.

He’s 20 years old. He still likes Legos and fantasy novels about magic, and he’s probably already the best defensive basketball player in the world, even if he won’t get the official award to acknowledge him as such. The validation that others can give to him doesn’t matter so much.

What Wembanyama believes, perhaps as earnestly as any young sports star we’ve ever seen, is that he wields tremendous power to validate people around him.

That’s how a team and a city endure six months of losing without breaking.

That’s how, on the final weekend of a season that should have been miserable, joy still bounces off the rafters of a rocking arena and oozes from a locker room that — honest to goodness — sounds like it did after playoff series victories a decade or so ago.

Let’s get back to those two basketballs from Friday night.

The first one came through a door. It happened while Devonte’ Graham, at 29 the eldest statesman of the youngest team in the NBA, was sitting at a table explaining to reporters why the dramatic floater he’d just made to cap a stunning 121-120 upset of Denver at Frost Bank Center meant so much to him.

Without uttering a single word, Wembanyama emerged from the doorway to Graham’s left, and flipped the game ball to him underhanded.

Graham beamed. The old vet had barely played this season. To the rest of the league, he’d been a forgotten man on a terrible team. And in two seconds, the kid made him feel like a hero.

Later, at his locker, Wembanyama paused when I asked him if the Spurs had decided as a group to award Graham the ball. As he so often does, he chose his words carefully.

“Nobody would disagree he deserves it,” Wembanyama said.

Think about that answer, and all it implies. Assuming there was no official vote taken, Wembanyama didn’t want to take credit for a unilateral decision. And assuming he did it on his own, Wembanyama understood the dynamics of the locker room well enough to know that all of his teammates would be happy to give Graham the ball, and also that Graham would be elated to receive it.

His knack for this, like his penchant for blocking shots behind his head and dishing assists on the move, is instinctual.

That brings us to the second basketball, and to the exuberant celebration that cost Wembanyama $25,000. A couple of weeks ago, after a rousing overtime victory over the New York Knicks, Wembanyama hurled the game ball into the crowd, where it was caught by a St. Mary’s Hall high school student.

Problem was, NBA players are expressly forbidden from throwing balls into the stands, and the Knicks understandably were hoping to keep a souvenir from a game in which Jalen Brunson scored a career-high 61 points. So the high-school kid had to return the ball.

Two weeks later, though, he was invited back to Frost Bank Center for what turned into another unlikely triumph. This time, the Spurs rallied from a 23-point deficit to knock the Nuggets out of the top seed in the Western Conference. And this time, Wembanyama had a replacement gift idea.

After he tossed Friday’s game ball to Graham, he made sure a Spurs staffer was delivering another one to its intended recipient. On that ball, above his signature in black felt pen, Wembanyama printed the following message in capital letters:


With Wembanyama, joy always does.

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