The Vietnam medals earned by San Antonio Spurs principal owner Peter Holt, which include a silver star, three bronze stars and a purple heart, are displayed in a glass case in the office of his Caterpillar dealership in suburban San Antonio. Actually, displayed is a bit misleading–the case hangs in a narrow hallway off the main room. The location suggests a trait shared by Holt and the NBA franchise he has run since 1996: Both have the hardware but neither feels the need to show it off. With their fourth championship in nine seasons, this one completed last Thursday in Cleveland with a sweep of LeBron James’s Cavaliers, the Spurs have become the most successful franchise in pro sports over the last decade, moving past the New England Patriots, New York Yankees and Detroit Red Wings, each of which has three titles. The tag of “model franchise” probably goes to the Patriots, whose success has come in a sport more popular with the American public. Yet even the Pats admire the Spurs’ combination of stability and humility, high character and high achievement.
“To have sustained excellence over a decade is extremely difficult, and the Spurs have done it as well as anyone,” says New England vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who has exchanged ideas about the right way to run a franchise with San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford. “What is really impressive is their player development, the fact that they’ve brought in so many international players and integrated them into a system.” Says Jack Ramsey, an ESPN analyst and longtime coach who won a championship in 1977 with the Portland Trail Blazers, “If you’re in the basketball business, theSpurs are who you want to be.”
Unless, of course, you are bothered by their collective sin: They seem bland. Sure, their owner isa former hard-drinking hellion who got shot in the neck in Vietnam; their coach is a wine expert who speaks fluent Russian; their franchise player is the greatest power forward in NBA history; their left-handed Argentine guard, the hero of Game 4, barrels through the lane like a running back; and their2006 Finals MVP, a Frenchman, will soon say Oui, je le veux in one of the celebrity marriages of the year. So they might not actually be bland. But perception is all.
Any thought thatSan Antonio might gain traction in the attention wars was derailed by a Finals that lacked intrigue and, too often, offense. Ask coach Gregg Popovich if he thinks about his team’s inability to connect with America and you will get a blank stare and one word: no. Ask superstar forward Tim Duncan and you will get a blank, tilted-head stare–Duncan looks at the media like an entomologist peering through a microscope–that amounts to another no. The only one who will admit to even thinking about the subject is Holt. “More recognition for our players and our organization would be an acknowledgement that the way we do business is a good way,” Holt says. “So, yes, I want it for our players and coaches. But only the right kind of publicity. I’m not interested in having our team be in the tabloids.” He laughs. “I guess if anyone has been guilty of that, it’s me.”
Not the tabloids exactly, but when Holt checked himself into a rehab facility in 2004, it did make the newspapers in San Antonio. He had been sober for almost 20 years before falling off the wagon. “It was a one-day story,” says Holt. ”There was no wrecked car, no DUI, no divorce. I knew I needed to take care of some things before I got myself in trouble again.” The only other thingHolt will say about the subject is that he hasn’t had a drink since he entered rehab.
It was booze that landed Holt in Vietnam. The son of a millionaire–his great-grandfather Benjamin Holt, developed the modern tractor, which led to the formation of Caterpillar, Inc.—Holt was a first-class screwup. In the summer of 1966 he was apprehended by police after trying to outrun them in a car (while inebriated, of course) and found himself standing before a judge in his hometown of Corpus Christi. “Kid, you’re on a bad path,” the judge told him. “You’re outdrinking your friends. You should consider going into the service.” That phrase–outdrinking your friends–inspired him to act. Holt soon enlisted, and by September 1967 he was in Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive began in January 1968, and with the 25th Infantry Division, holed up near the Cambodian border, Holt saw almost daily action until he mustered out in September ’68. During one firefight, Holt was shot in the base of the neck, patched up and sent back to duty within three days. He can recount other battles when he dragged men to safety or was dragged out of harm’s way himself. It was hellish. But the story that sticks with him was something that could have happened but didn’t.
“I was walking point, hacking through the jungle with a machete, when I came on across-trail,” remembers Holt. “There was a hidden grenade, but the tripwire went the opposite way from where I swung my machete. Had it gone the other way, it would’ve blown my brains out.
“I came out ofVietnam with two things: a grasp of how the collective good keeps people alive, and the fact that luck can play a big part in everything you do.” He chuckles. “Certainly that’s been true with the Spurs.”
He is referring, of course, to a pair of providential lotteries that earned San Antonio the right to draft David Robinson in 1987 and Duncan 10 years later.
After subduing the alcohol demons that pursued him for years after Vietnam, Holt bought a controlling 32% share in the Spurs before the 1996-97 season, which turned out to be a dark time in franchise history. Robinson was hurt and would play only six games; Duncan was still a senior at Wake Forest; Popovich, then the G.M.,would fire coach Bob Hill 18 games into the season and take over himself; Buford was the head scout; and Holt, by his own admission, “didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” San Antonio finished with a 20-62 record, andHolt remembers thinking, What did I get myself into?
But the Spurs stuck to a plan, one that will sound familiar to fans in New England. Holt instituted what Buford calls “a value-based management team that was in symmetry with what Pop wanted to do on the basketball side.” That is gobbledygook for: The organization comes first, and every decision will be discussed by everyone. “We believe that none of us are as smart as all of us,” says Holt. Lips would be sealed too. In refusing to answer a question about strategy or personnel moves, Popovich has maintained a favorite expression: “That’s family business.”
On the basketball side Holt would keep his nose out of the decision-making as long as Popovich and Buford (who became G.M. in July¬†2002 to let Pop concentrate on coaching) brought in people of character, which is what they wanted to do anyway. One of the few times Holt raised a flag was in the summer of ’03, when the basketball staff wanted to go after Latrell Sprewell, the guard who during a 1997 practice altercation had put his hands around the throat of P.J. Carlesimo, then the coach of the Golden State Warriors and now a San Antonio assistant. Sprewell was not offered a deal.
The search for personnel would be global (five international players earned rings this season), and every player had to be willing and able to do two things–defend, and pass the ball to an open teammate. Everyone would be treated with respect, but a bottom-line approach to winning was in effect: When a player failed to produce, or when his contract exceeded his future value, he would be traded, waived or allowed to leave as a free agent. Derek Anderson, Stephen Jackson andMalik Rose found that out.
So did two players still on the roster. In the summer of 2003, after San Antonio had won its second championship, Popovich looked second-year point guard Tony Parker in the eye and said, essentially, “We’re going after Jason Kidd in the free-agent market. Deal with it.” Kidd didn’t sign, and Parker, who was stung, remained in the fold and eventually dealt with it. Just before the trading deadline last season, Popovich told veteran guard Brent Barry he had been shipped to the New Orleans Hornets and shouldn’t bother boarding the team charter for a road trip. But the deal fell through, Barry hopped the plane bound for Memphis, and last Thursday he earned his second ring. “I’ve been pulled around a little bit here,” says Barry, “but at least it’s done to your face. I want to be around a winner, so it’s been worth it.”
The Spurs indeed seem to live in their own Never Never Land, allowing only glimpses into their inner workings, drawing on the bunker-mentality bonhomie shaped by their coach.”Pop defines the team,” says Duncan. “He always has, and as long as he’s here, he always will.” After San Antonio made short work of the Cavs last Thursday, there was Popovich stopping an interview in mid-sentence to hugDuncan, who was passing by. There was Argentine sixth man Manu Ginóbili conducting gab sessions in both Italian and Spanish and Parker giving his inFrench. There was backup point guard Beno Udrih, who is from Slovenia, walking arm in arm with Jacque Vaughn and asking to take a photo with him, even thoughVaughn had earned almost all of Udrih’s minutes during the season.
And there, finally, was Peter Holt, one-time drunk and war hero, standing in a hallway outside the Spurs’ locker room, across from Parker’s fiancée, TV star EvaLongoria, who smiled obligingly each time someone aimed a cellphone camera at her, which was often. Holt had been inside the locker room for a few minutes but wanted to leave the celebration to the players, “the ones who really accomplished all of this.” He smelled of victory champagne. “But all of it is on my shirt,” he promised, “and none of it went in my mouth.”