Shea Serrano, the Spurs and the Connection I Put My Finger On

The San Antonio native whose fame is rooted in humor, hip-hop and the Spurs.

By Mark Stenberg, University of Texas at Austin

Personally, it’s hard for me to think about Shea Serrano without thinking about San Antonio.

It might be because they sound sort of similar. Say it: Shea Serrano and San Antonio.

In fact, if you’re pronouncing ‘San Antonio’ the way people from San Antonio do, like there’s a sticky eñe at the end (san-an-toñ-o), then the words have a smooth, four-syllable parallel.

Of course, if you say San Antonio like a foreigner—the way my Washingtonian mom says ‘ceviche’ like it’s Italian, (ce-vich-ee)—then the parallelism disappears: (san-an-ton-ee-o) and (shea-serr-an-o) are disjointed syllabically, one with four and one with five. What this means is that if you’re not from San Antonio, the symmetry between the writer’s name and the city’s name disappears.

It’s purely coincidental, yes, but it’s also a little symbolic. The parallelism is coded—apparent to locals but invisible to outsiders. It’s the kind of thing you’d read in the Da Vinci Code, like a key word: when you correctly pronounce the city’s name, it unlocks a gnostic, knock-three-times kind of connection between Serrano and San Antonio, where the name works like a geographical roman à clef, where the clef is being from San Antonio, so more like a llave.

Shea SerranoSemantics aside, the fact that Serrano is from San Antonio is probably the strongest reason for the subliminal association I’m going on about. He was born in the #CityOnTheRise and went to Southwest High School before he left to study at Sam Houston State. After college, he moved to Houston to teach in an inner-city school, and has lived there now for nearly a decade.

More than anything though, the reason I can’t dissociate San Antonio from Serrano is that he cut his teeth (my opinion, not actually true) writing about the Spurs. A lot of other people write about the Spurs, but no one does it the way Serrano does.

First, he covers the professional material with professional intelligence, a weed-out prerequisite that disqualifies 99 percent of amateur bloggers and opinionated couch potatoes. He talks about things like potential trades, backcourt strength, draft-picks, small-ball and all the other over-my-head basketball jargon that you have to be comfortable with if you’re going to hold forth with the cognoscenti.

His mastery of the technical aspect is solid enough that I envision sports writers from ‘big media markets’ reluctantly nodding their heads when they read his material. I see him as a sort of Captain America for San Antonio, shielding the city from harm on the Internet, like a modern day version of the Horatii or an amicable Goliath.

And though he’s professional, he writes like a Spurs fan. He’s no automaton spitting percentages against a computer screen until one of them sticks—he’s invested considerable amounts of emotional stock in the team. He named his third child Parker after Tony was unstoppable in the 2005 playoffs, and he doesn’t trust LaMarcus Aldrige in the way a dad wouldn’t trust his daughter’s new boyfriend.

Reading Serrano is like listening to Sean Elliot call Spurs’ games on Fox Sports Southwest, except smarter, quicker and funnier. He’s just as biased though, so the end result is a comfortable bath of soothing statistics bubbling with emotional smelling salts.

As a Spurs fan, he knows that we have it rough in a very particular way.

ESPN gives San Antonio air-time only when they’ve run everything else possible, three times over; every punk fan of wheel-and-deal ball calls our basketball ‘boring’; and the San Antonio version of juicy drama is Popovich responsibly benching four starters in a primetime game.

Our gripes are champagne problems, and so we’ve learned to collectively bite our tongue out of deference to the franchises enduring real struggle (You’re in our prayers, Philadelphia). Spurs problems are Regina George problems or Paris Hilton problems: we know that no one’s going to listen to us, so we (unlike those two examples) keep our mouths shut and endure the slings and arrows of our outrageously good fortune.

But there is one, unoverlookable thing. Like most popular girls, yes-men and yes-women pay consistent lip service to our squad. Very few of them have genuine love for the city, though. It’s become obligatory to throw a cursory word of pre-season warning about the Spurs, but these admonitions are—at best—the equivalent of a liability release.

For media-savvy sportscasters, it’s become de rigueur for them to cover their scaly tails with Spurs insurance by uttering the protective incantation, ‘And of course, you can’t count out the Spurs.’ The rest of the league may buy this tip-of-the-hat, but San Antonians can smell bullshit from a mile away, and we sniff them out like a dog does a Terminator. Imagine a city of Holden Caulfields—that’s what you’ve made us, ESPN. That’s what you’ve made us.

That’s why when I discovered Serrano (I didn’t discover discover him), I nearly shed my protective husk of cautious pessimism. A sports writer with pure literary talent is a unicorn’s unicorn—most beat writers come off like IBM’s Watson failing the imitation game.

But one from San Antonio, one who’s an actual Spurs fan? Imagine a three-way Venn diagram where the circles are good writer, Spurs fan, and from San Antonio. Sitting in the middle, alone, is Shea Serrano.

I called him last week for an interview, and I suspect I’d be right in guessing that he wouldn’t have expected this piece to come from that interview: we hardly talked about San Antonio, and we barely talked about the Spurs. I knew he was from here and I asked where he went to high school, but not much more.

My hesitancy stemmed from a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat dilemma, wherein I knew that the more I learned about his feelings toward San Antonio, the less likely it would be that I had correctly guessed them.

In The Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig as Phaedrus talks about the counter-productivity of the scientific method, saying (paraphrasing) that as more tests are conducted, scientific truths only become falsities at a quicker rate.

I knew that the more Serrano told me about his relationship to San Antonio, the wider the chasm would become between my truth about that relationship and the truth about it. So we didn’t talk about it.

But then he said something that caught my ear. “There weren’t a lot of people repping super hard for San Antonio,” Serrano said. “So if I get the chance to say San Antonio’s name a few times, I do it as much as possible.” This seemed promising to me.

I told him, ‘I feel like you’re the only guy out there right now making San Antonio look cool.’

He laughed.

I realized what I considered Serrano to be and what he was maybe weren’t that different. What he said about repping for San Antonio fits perfectly into almost every weird protector analogy I’ve imagined him into, especially the ones where he’s defending San Antonio in freestyle rap battles. At that point, I realized we were on the same page about the city.

That’s why when it comes to the Spurs, Serrano’s untouchable. When he writes pieces—about anything, honestly, but especially the Spurs—it’s like if the Bible was being released in weekly installments, blog by blog. I feel the same urgency to read his work that I did for the Harry Potter book releases, and those had me dressed up in robes doing Q&As with Hagrid at the Barnes & Nobles in the Huebner strip-mall.

You had to read what Rowling wrote as soon as it dropped, because her writing was autogenetic: what she described she created. Dobby actually died and Snape actually shit his pants mid-air. It didn’t matter that these things didn’t happen, because they didn’t have to have happened to be real.

Serrano does the same thing for the Spurs. He doesn’t just write opinions or predictions: he creates different realities, ones that are just as hospitable to human life as this one. In doing so, he says a lot of things that are patently untrue. One of his Twitter tropes is a bit where he says, “Don’t trust a guy who______he’s probably the police.” These raise my hackles because more than a dozen have described me, and I’m assuming they describe a lot of reasonable people. Case in point:

But, he also says a lot of things that are definitely real but not actually true.

That’s why when he joked over the phone that LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard are going to lead the Spurs to 82-0 in the regular season and 16-0 in the playoffs, despite knowing that that would never happen, it still shook me up, disoriented me, slapped me around a little bit.

It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said it. He described a feeling, one that Spurs fans—and only Spurs fans—are grappling with daily during the long cold winter of offseason. It’s a feeling of stupendous, enormous, glorious hubris, the kind that only Achilles, Donald Trump and Michael Phelps have ever felt. It’s the kind of confidence that only time-travelers or prophets can have: it’s a literal inability to imagine the Spurs not going undefeated.

In a lot of ways, Serrano kind of resembles a backwards prophet, a soothsayer who’s most right when he’s most wrong, basically the stuff of Harold Camping’s wet dreams. He revels in what most fortune-tellers shy away from—specific, impossible predictions. No Svengali worth their weight in snake oil would ever be so stupid as to say something testable, because ambiguous predictions always predict…something.

One bunk palm reading and the whole prescience ruse goes up in smoke, making all but a handful of writers hesitant to stamp their seals on hyperbole. Those brave few who live and die by their bombasticity constantly toe the line between sensationalism and substance. And while writers down below choose between these sigils, Serrano lives like Zarathustra above in a cave—not condemning the camps but incapable of understanding them.

The key to this lifestyle is that he’s bold and that he’s unconcerned with accuracy, which is to say he’s never wrong. With Serrano, the point is rarely the point—his wild claims are vehicles. His boldness is the point. The emotion is the message, the story, the communiqué. That’s why he can write about anything—he’s doesn’t need accuracy to get people to nod their heads yes.

I’ve read his tweets and felt empathetic even when he talks about things I’ve never experienced. It’s a purely abstract causation, a feeling created in the absence of an occurrence. It’s hard to do, especially with sports, and it shows how much more he’s saying in his writing than what he’s saying in his writing.

I think of how Mr. Watson must have felt when he heard Alexander Graham Bell’s voice on the telephone. They were the only two people in the world using a telephone, but they were speaking the same language as everyone else, there was nothing unique about the words they chose. In fact, all Bell said was, “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.” Those were the words, but the words weren’t the point. That’s what Serrano does. The importance is not what he’s saying but how he’s saying it. It’s the wavelength that sends the message.

For Serrano, that wavelength is set to a sort of San Antonio frequency, and defining that frequency is not as much difficult as it is Sisyphean. By the time I finish typing this sentence it will have changed and I’ll have to start again. I’ve tried here a dozen times to name a few generalities that can point in the direction of this attitude, but none of them turn out right and most are overly specific to my experience.

So, instead of offering a balloonish, unhelpful paragraph about a city I don’t understand, let me recommend an author to you who does. That’s Serrano’s gift, he captures San Antonio—not Texas, not male, not Hispanic, not sports, not Gen-X, not smart, dumb, sad, touching, or funny—San Antonio. If the city were to have any single mouthpiece, Serrano would make a pretty airtight candidate for the position. His claim (my claim, in loco Serranis) for this doesn’t rest on what he writes about; he writes about a dozen non-San Antonio topics. It’s his voice, it’s the San Antonio in it.

He, of course, might shrug off these claims. They’re just my opinions and they are—to take a page from his book—pretty hyperbolic. They may even be patently false. But if I’ve learned anything from Serrano’s writing, it’s that true and false don’t quite mean real and unreal.

This mentality lives in his writing, but also in how he understands himself.

“I think people vibe with my writing because I find joy in a lot of things,” he says, adding, “but I’m honest about what that looks like. It’s one thing to say you’re happy with something, but it’s more real if you say you’re happy with something, but that there are parts of it that you don’t like.”

What he’s getting at looks a lot like the difference between truth and honesty. I get that this is way beyond my philosophical pay grade, but bear with me. Unlike honesty, truth is always one thing—people seek the truth. Parents and lawyers ask for the truth.

Scientists look for it with beakers and tongs and safety glasses (the truth can be dangerous), and mathematicians look for the truth with equations and proofs. There can be infinite hypotheses, infinite questions, infinite wrong answers, but there can always only be one truth.

Not so with honesty. It’s a much more fluid, forgiving, relative concept. Eyewitnesses honestly report falsehoods every day. Bad ideas honestly seemed like good ideas at the time. That’s why Tom Cruise demanded that Jack Nicholson tell him the truth, not the honesty.

Etymologically, the word comes from the same side of the family tree as faith and belief, not fact and truth. You can very honestly believe something that you know to be entirely wrong.

Serrano is in the honesty business. His writing deals in belief, occasionally buffeted by truth, but oftentimes freestanding in its absence. And why not? At its core, sports is about belief: belief in, belief that, belief in spite of, belief because. I want a sports writer fluent in honesty, a writer whose writing speaks to my non-rational side, a writer who makes me believe in people, ideas and emotions.

Serrano’s ability, his very rare ability, is doubly astounding given that he hadn’t written until several years ago. “Two years ago I never thought I’d be doing this,” Serrano says. “I’d never written before. I’d never considered writing. I’d never enjoyed writing. It was always just something I did in college when I had to.”

Serrano was teaching in Houston when his wife got pregnant with their first kids (if you follow Serrano on Twitter, you’re familiar with the twins). She stopped working and so he began looking for side work.

He tried to work as a waiter or stockboy, but no one would give him a job. He decided to try writing because it would allow him to work from home. “I lucked into a good situation at the Houston Press and had some amazing editors—Chris Gray and Margaret Downing—who took me in and showed me how to be a good writer,” he says.

Then, as he puts it humbly, “Twitter came along.” Call it right place right time, but Serrano’s humor was handstitched for Twitter. I actually first encountered him on Twitter through my friends’ retweets during the NBA Playoffs in 2013. He’s absolutely hilarious and the medium conveys his humor well, maybe even better than his longform. He’s curt, opinionated, self-deprecating, hyperbolic, personal and poignant.

His font of success should not surprise you. “Everyone’s experiencing the same sort of stuff as we’re moving along in life,” says Serrano. “All the 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds are doing all the same things, you just have to be able to talk about it honestly (emphasis mine).”

As he continued writing, first freelancing for the Houston Press but soon working with publications across the country, his Klout score rose and his Twitter material reached an exponentially growing audience.

Like his writing, Serrano tweets about everything: being a dad, sports, rap, his fear of his books not selling, his dog, race, his wife. “I just write about the experience of things,” says Serrano, “the experience of being a father or a sports fan is way more relatable to people.”

Apparently so, because not only is he approaching 40k followers, but the fanbase he’s accumulated is Old Yeller rabid for him. He occasionally interacts with his followers, which encourages ‘I can’t believe you did that’ type attention-seeking moves. His fans will create new accounts just to make a single joke, or they’ll do this:

The big news in Serrano’s life is that he recently took a full-time position with Grantland, leaving teaching behind for the first time in almost a decade. As Serrano fans are aware, his teaching anecdotes are some of his funniest material he has.

He seems like the teacher you’d always wanted when you were in school—the funny faux-tough guy who’d give you shit if you asked for it, but was always deadly serious about doing his job. He’s also written some achingly poignant stories about the cavities in the education system, stories about children with learning disabilities and negative home lives.

“Teaching’s the best job in the world, man. I still love it and know that I could always go back to it,” says Serrano, “but I had to take this opportunity with Grantland. I had to see if I could do this.”

Now Serrano spends his days writing about whatever comes to his mind: taking his kids to Inside Out, the first episode of Hard Knocks and recently a Jake Gyllenhaal career matrix. He’s funny and he’s honest and he almost covers that up with humility and self-deprecation, but it’s still there.

When Serrano said that he writes about the experience of things, I think he was scratching the surface of a very multi-faceted iceberg of a process. He’d deny that, but I’d rather believe that then live knowing he’s just naturally ultra gifted.

He writes with a clean simplicity and a thick coat of insouciance, but if you know where to look you’ll see the bright polish of passion underneath. It’s the Spurs in a nutshell and San Antonio in a nutshell and good writing in a nutshell.

As a San Antonian, reading Serrano makes me feel like Robinson Crusoe when he saw other footprints on the beach, or like the aliens who are getting all the equations NASA sends into space. It’s not so much the words that contain the message, it’s knowing someone’s out there.