Some 350,000 souls lined the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio last Saturday to revel in the Spurs' third NBA championship in seven seasons. Most of them wouldn't have been surprised if the players and coaches had gotten out of their barges bedecked with silver tinsel and walked on the dirty water. ¬∂ Around the league, the franchise first made famous during its ABA days by the Iceman, high-scoring George Gervin, and now in the capable hands of another iceman, the 7-foot Tim Duncan, is admired almost as highly for the way it's run as for how often it wins. The Spurs are like the tastefully appointed colonial on a maple-lined street: built to last and so cozy that no one wants to leave.
The three main cogs (Finals MVP Duncan and guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) are signed through 2009-10. The key supporting players (defensive ace Bruce Bowen, frenetic guard Brent Barry and offensive rebounder Nazr Mohammed) are signed through next season. Clutch shooter Robert Horry has a $1.2 million option for 2005-06; he'll probably get a new, two-year deal. And in case new blood is needed, San Antonio's $46.7 million payroll is well under the cap, ranking 24th of the 30 teams in the league. Domestic free agents consider the Alamo City a prime destination because Duncan is a selfless superstar. Foreigners feel the same way because Ginobili (Argentina) and Parker (France), as well as Rasho Nesterovic and Beno Udrih (Slovenia), have turned the team into a mini-U.N. The most likely international pickup this summer is 6'9" banger Luis Scola, Ginobili's teammate on the Argentina team that won the 2004 Olympic gold medal; the Spurs picked Scola in the second round of the '02 draft.
The fans in this one-team town are laid-back--"The peacefulness of the city," says Horry, "somehow gives you peace"--but fiercely loyal. About 5,000 of them were waiting at the airport at 3 a.m. when the team arrived from Detroit after a 96-95 Game 5 victory. They've turned the banal pep phrase Go Spurs Go into a civic mantra. go spurs go banners hang from buildings; go spurs go buttons adorn lapels; go spurs go mats rest in some urinals at the SBC Center. In the last case the words light up when ... well, they light up from time to time.
Best of all, the man who runs the operation with vision and wit--both of them piercing--isn't going anywhere. "After we got done here what we got done," said Gregg Popovich, whose humility fits him as comfortably as his baggy gray coaching shorts, "I don't know why I'd want to do it anywhere else."
Add this all up, and, well, it's fair to posit that the Spurs are on the verge of becoming a....
"Don't say dynasty," begs general manager R.C. Buford. "It's way too early for that."
Perhaps. The team that outlasted the Detroit Pistons 81-74 in a terrific Game 7 last Thursday night at the SBC Center hardly fits the juggernaut profile. It doesn't take care of the ball (the Spurs had 110 turnovers in the seven games, 41 more than the Pistons), misses foul shots in bunches and commits more than its share of bonehead plays. With the Spurs leading 79-71 and 16 seconds to play in Game 7, Parker fouled Rip Hamilton as he drove to the basket, a cardinal--and clock-stopping--sin. Popovich was so angry that he sent a bottle of talcum powder zipping down the scorer's table. It slid smoothly for about five feet before colliding with a water bottle. "I was a little upset with Tony," Pop said later.
But if San Antonio claims another title or two after taking the 2003 and '05 crowns, the dynasty tag will surely apply. At 29, Duncan has at least six more years at the top of his game if he stays healthy; predictably, he didn't talk much during the Finals about his recently sprained ankles, but they were a factor in his getting 16 shots blocked by the Pistons. Ginobili, 27, as worthy a Finals MVP choice as Duncan, has "only scratched the surface in terms of what he can be as a player," Duncan says. Parker, 23, has presumably learned the lessons of overpenetrating (22 turnovers in the Finals). He will improve if, as he relaxes this summer with his Desperate Housewives girlfriend, Eva Longoria, he slips in a Steve Nash video to see the many ways he might more reliably deliver the ball. And the 6'7" Bowen is content--nay, ecstatic--with his role as a stopper. "This is the first place I've been where they respect what you can do," says Bowen, 34, who played for the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, "rather than concentrate on what you can't."
Most Spurs employees who leave San Antonio do so reluctantly. It's normally a slam-dunk decision for an exec to take a higher position with another team, but Danny Ferry, Buford's top aide, agonized for days before last week accepting the Cleveland Cavaliers' offer to run their basketball operations, the post that had been dangled in front of Pistons coach Larry Brown. "When everybody shows up in early October you know you have a chance to win a championship," says assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo. "You're going to work for a great franchise in a town where the loyalty is unlike anything in pro sports. What's the downside?"
And those who characterize the defense-driven Spurs as boring have some rethinking to do. Parker may be the NBA's fastest player, moving so quickly when he heads for the basket that he is almost by definition out of control. After Ginobili's many improbable forays into the paint during the playoffs, it's impossible not to rank him among the most exciting players in the league. Horry, 34, now in possession of six championship rings from three franchises, will no doubt spend much of the 2006 postseason blithely missing three-pointers in passels before tossing in a bunch of ones that help win games, as he did in making 15 of 31 against Detroit. As for Duncan, the Big Fundamental, well, he's boring in the same way that, say, pitcher Greg Maddux was boring in his prime. If precision without pretension doesn't light your fire, that's on you.
The Spurs' ascension under the management team of Popovich and Buford began, as so many things do in basketball, with Larry Brown, who hired them as assistants in 1988-89, the first of his 3 1/2 seasons in San Antonio. Both left for a while: Buford followed Brown to the Los Angeles Clippers and was an assistant at Florida; Popovich worked under Don Nelson with the Golden State Warriors. When Popovich was named the Spurs' G.M. in '94, he brought back Buford as head scout. Pop drew a lot of heat early in the '96-97 season when he fired Bob Hill and took over as head coach, keeping the title of G.M. until he handed it off to Buford before 2002-03. They're an interesting duo--Popovich the fiery out-front face, Buford the easygoing behind-the-scenes shadow. Ask them about their working relationship or who is responsible for what, and they both go coy. "Philosophical differences?" says Buford. "Well, Pop likes wine, and I drink beer. That's about it." Says Popovich, "R.C. tells me when I'm full of crap."
Clearly, though, it is Pop's team. As executive vice president of basketball operations and head coach, he is above Buford (senior vice president and general manager) on the team's organizational chart--"the head of the snake," as Duncan calls him. "For 11 years around here they've had one guy making decisions for this franchise," says Carlesimo, "and you can't overstate the importance of that. True, three championships wouldn't have happened without David Robinson or Tim Duncan. But in this organization you have a guy who says, 'This is the way you're going to act; this is the way you're going to play defense; this is the way you're going to share the ball. And if you don't do those things, you won't be here.' One man decides what it means to be a Spur."
Popovich takes that role seriously. He may appear to have a hair-trigger temper on the sidelines, but his time in the front office provided him with, as Buford puts it, "the perspective to trust that we had to take it one step at a time, one piece at a time."
Those steps began after the Spurs won their first championship in the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99. Popovich and Buford saw that the contracts of key players such as Robinson, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson and Mario Elie would be running out over the next couple of years, and it was time to plan for a new era--the Duncan-not-David era--by creating cap room. Over the next three seasons the Spurs reshaped their roster, adding as many as eight players from one season to the next, re-upping Duncan (he got a max $122 million deal in the summer of '03) but never overcommitting to unworthy free agents, always keeping their eye on the prize of long-term success through financial flexibility.
Who can say if the Spurs would have been better in the long run had New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd been swayed by their $94 million free-agent offer in the summer of '03, when they had maximum cap room after Robinson's retirement? That would have turned Parker into either a backup or attractive trade bait and prevented them from signing other free agents. Even in the glow of this year's championship, any San Antonio fan who believes that Parker is a better playmaker than Kidd has been drinking too many prickly pear margaritas along the Riverwalk. But Parker is still developing, while Kidd is an oft-injured 32-year-old who has missed 31 games over the last two regular seasons.
There's little doubt that the Spurs have been fortunate--they won draft lotteries in '87 and '97, when Robinson and Duncan were the top prizes. But a winning culture, inculcated by Popovich on the sideline and Duncan on the court, is the main reason they've prospered.
As he basked last week in the glow of his third title, Duncan, not normally a mushy sort, pondered how good it felt to know what awaits him when practice begins again in October. "There's a group of guys that I'm in love with," he said. "We just won a championship, and all I'm thinking about is that we could be together for years and play even better."
The rest of the league has those same thoughts, though with a lot less relish.
Photograph by John W. McDonough
¬†Duncan was the people's--and the voters'--choice for Finals MVP after averaging 20.6 points and 14.1 rebounds.¬†
The coach has imposed winning ways.
Even those who find defense-oriented San Antonio on the dull side got a jolt out of Ginobili's mad dashes.