They remain an unlikely trio, even all these years later. A spindly French point guard. A madcap Argentine swingman. A stoic giant from the Virgin Islands. This is the biggest of the Big Three?
Perhaps you dispute this. Perhaps you point to Bird, McHale and Parish; or Pierce, Garnett and Allen; or Jordan, Pippen and Rodman. Or maybe the most recent, hype-heavy threesome of LeBron, Wade and Bosh. If so, you no doubt have valid points. Certainly, many are more famous, others more individually brilliant. (And all are more American, if that counts for anything.) But if this is about winning and teamwork, then it's hard to argue against Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili and Tim Duncan. They have 10 rings among them and, with this year's trip to the NBA Finals, more postseason wins (98) than all but one trio in NBA history: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper (who combined for 110 wins and five titles). And, really, they were more of a Big Two-and-a-Half.
Not so the Spurs' triumvirate. The members are codependent. Duncan needs Parker just as Parker needs Ginóbili and Ginóbili needs Duncan. All of them need San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, their caustic leader/mentor/drill sergeant. They have spent 11 seasons together, and they are no longer young. Duncan is 37. Parker is 31. Ginóbili is 35 but thinks he's 25. His body is closer to 55.
That they have stayed together this long is remarkable. That they came together at all is too. It's easy to forget now, but Parker was the 28th pick in 2001 and only the third Frenchman to play in the NBA. Ginóbili had been the 57th pick two years earlier and didn't arrive in the league until 2003. Yes, the Spurs drafted Duncan No. 1 in 1997, but only because an injury-riddled season put them in the lottery, which they won. This was no superteam, no concocted dynasty. Rather, theirs is a story of chance, sacrifice and trust. It is a story that begins a decade ago, in San Antonio.
It's the late fall of 2001, and Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer is sitting at an outdoor café, talking about the team's rookie point guard, a 19-year-old from Paris named Tony Parker. Budenholzer has been with San Antonio since 1994, when he started as a video scout, compiling VHS tapes and living off comped Subway sandwiches. Since then he's seen plenty: David Robinson at his peak, a 37-year-old Dominique Wilkins leading the team in scoring during the dark years, coach Bob Hill replaced in December 1996 by Popovich, the arrival of Duncan the following season, an NBA title. Now the Spurs are retooling on the fly, in what will become classic Pop fashion. Derek Anderson is gone, replaced by Steve Smith. Malik Rose increasingly spells Robinson, who is now 36. It is Parker, though, who is the most intriguing piece. He is quick and shifty, but also raw and lacking a jump shot. On the court he's shown flashes of brilliance. The problem, as Budenholzer says, is that "we never know what he's going to do."
If Parker is particularly vexing, it is partly because Duncan never was. He came into the NBA ready-made, starting 82 games and averaging a double double as a rookie. In his second year the Spurs won a ring. He has been named first-team All-NBA in each of his four years in the league. He does not require a whole lot of coaching.
But Parker? Parker drives his coach crazy. Pop goes hoarse yelling at the kid during practices. He curses and spews. But he still plays him. A lot. Because a 38-year-old Terry Porter isn't the future, and neither is Antonio Daniels. So night after night Pop rolls out Parker, and night after night he lives with the turnovers and wild drives, the 41.9% shooting from the floor. The Spurs lose games they should win. Their playoff position slides. Fans wonder if Pop knows something they don't. After all, isn't the goal to win? Isn't the team trying to be a contender?
Now it is the summer of 2003 and Pop's gamble has paid off. Behind 14.7 points a game in the playoffs from Parker and the continued brilliance of Duncan, the Spurs win their second Finals, dispatching the Nets in six games. They do it with defense and teamwork and all those other Spurs-y things, but they also do it thanks to an unorthodox, 25-year-old rookie fresh from Kinder Bologna of the Italian league.
Even at this early stage of his career, the 6'6" Ginóbili is different. He seems to be playing soccer on a basketball court. Rather than cutting and pounding and jackhammering, he swoops and pirouettes and floats. He does so much wrong, yet it often ends up being right. Pop doesn't know what to make of the kid, other than to love him. Ten years later Popovich will say that he never did coach Ginóbili, that if anything, "I had to learn to shut up and stop coaching, because if you put him too much in a cage, you lose his benefit." Here was a player fueled not by stats or pride or fear—definitely not fear—but by pure intuition. That, and desire. Years later Kobe Bryant will say that there are only a few players in the league whose competitive fire he really respects. Ginóbili will be at the top of a short list. That guy, Bryant will say, "is a motherf-----."
During his second season in the league Ginóbili blossoms, averaging 12.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists while starting half the Spurs' games. He signs a big contract, marries his longtime girlfriend and leads his country to an improbable gold medal at the Olympics. Afterward, he returns to his home in Bahia Blanca, 350 miles southwest of Buenos Aires.
His popularity there, and across Argentina, is such that he spends most of his time at his parents' home, inside. To go out is to be mobbed by fans, to feel like "one of the Rolling Stones," as he says. So he hangs out, lies low. Seeing him there, eating lunch with his parents, he doesn't look that far removed from the spindly teenager who was forever in the shadow of Pepe Sànchez, his friend who was the local star growing up. Ginóbili still can't believe his good fortune, or his fame. After lunch he takes a reporter upstairs to his room. The walls are covered with posters of Michael Jordan.
June 2007. The Spurs are in the Finals for the third time in five years and the Big Three is operating at the height of its collective powers. Under the tutelage of shooting coach Chip Engelland, Parker has added a midrange jumper. Ginóbili is healthy and at his reckless best. And Duncan is, as always, the anchor, covering for his teammates on defense, swinging the ball on offense and depositing one line drive bank shot after another off the glass. Theoretically, the trio should be popular. Parker is the dream boat, squiring a beautiful actress. On the court he is a blur, zipping around big men like they are traffic cones. Ginóbili is the slashing dunker, fond of uncorking wild behind-the-back passes. Whether you like fundamental basketball, timely assists, acrobatics, deep threes or hero ball, Ginóbili offers something for everyone. His influence will be seen in the years to come, as more and more players mimic his elongated Eurostep drives.
And then there's the 6'11" Duncan, the unrequited love of assistant coaches the world over, a big man so technically sound, so completely rational in his play, that his greatness can be difficult to discern. There's nothing sexy about not leaving your feet on a shot fake, or making the correct pass to the wing out of a double team, or showing-and-recovering on a screen. Unless, that is, you find studied excellence to be sexy.
It takes all of four games for the Spurs to defeat the Cavaliers and their 22-year-old phenom, LeBron James. In doing so, San Antonio scores more than 85 points only once. Outside San Antonio the public is indifferent. Apparently, all this winning is boring. Duncan is boring. Defense is boring. The TV ratings are abysmal.
No one on the Spurs cares one bit. It is their third title of the decade.
Let's move ahead now to February 2012. Things have changed in San Antonio. Though the Spurs are consistently successful in the regular season, they have yet to return to the Finals. New role players have come and gone but the Big Three remains, a nucleus that gets more rickety by the year. Ginóbili is a part-time player now. Duncan has spent years battling various injuries, forcing Pop to limit his minutes. (Occasionally Popovich lists his center as DNP-OLD when holding him out of games.) No one expects them to make the Finals anymore. The end is in sight.
So here is Duncan, perched on a brown couch in his room at the Denver Marriott. He has spent many years trying to live up to his reputation as the league's most boring player, and he has been largely successful. He's more reflective now, though, more willing to take stock. He talks about how his "mortality as a player" is not known. "We all try to hold on to the game as long as possible," Duncan says. "Do it as much as you can until you can't do it anymore. Some guys, it's taken away from them before they're ready."
Fifteen years into his career, Duncan has had nearly 120 teammates. He was particularly close to some, including Daniels, Rose and Bruce Bowen. But there are none he respects like Parker and Ginóbili. "Manu's a different breed," Duncan says. "He's the ultimate competitor. He doesn't care if you're down 20. If he's on the floor, he's trying his damndest to do everything he can to win."
To Popovich the three men have become like sons, if wildly different ones. He refers to Duncan as being like a "soul mate," and talks about how they've been an integral part of each other's lives for what feels like forever. "The same thing has really occurred with Manu and Tony," Popovich says. "Just because of the time spent. I mean, Jesus, Tony was 19 when he came in. I've been mentoring and talking to him about life all this time. When you're that close to people for that long, you develop a relationship that's loving and trustful." As for Ginóbili, Popovich remains in awe of what he's accomplished. "With Manu, he's like Michael and Kobe minus the same level of talent. There's a lion inside his chest like those two guys, and you respect the hell out of that. He amazes me on a daily basis, what he does. How did he figure this out? How did he become such a great player, growing up so far away from what you call city basketball or big-time basketball? It's crazy."
Three months later, propelled by a rejuvenated Duncan and a healthy Ginóbili, the Spurs will make the Western Conference finals for the first time in four years, then take a 2--0 lead on the Thunder. There are visions of another championship run, of one last stand. In the end, youth will win out. Oklahoma City wins four in a row to advance. The window closes another inch.
Now jump to this May. The Spurs are holding shootaround at a health club in San Francisco before a conference semifinal game against the Warriors. There is a reassuring familiarity to the scene. Pop sits courtside, legs crossed, frowning. Duncan practices free throws, his form as rigid as ever. Parker is off to the side, talking to a reporter in French. Ginóbili approaches the rest of the media, smiling. He pats one reporter on the back, says hello by name to two others. At 35, his hair has thinned to a fuzz, and he has aged the most visibly of the three. And yet he cannot alter his style of play. So Popovich must quarantine him for stretches, limiting his minutes lest he sprint and tumble and drive and flop his way to another injury. Ginóbili is not a good candidate to morph into a spot-up shooter in his later years, like Allen. Manu knows but one way to play.
Over on one sideline stands Budenholzer. He's now in his 19th year with San Antonio, having advanced from the film room to, in 2007, the lead assistant. Only Pop is longer-tenured. Many times over the years Budenholzer has said he has "the best job in the NBA." And yet, in two weeks he will accept the head coaching job with the Hawks, lured away by former Spurs forward Danny Ferry, now Atlanta's general manager. Budenholzer loves the Spurs, but to stay would be a daunting challenge. Succeeding Pop? Without the Big Three? That may not be the best job in the NBA.
In the meantime, to the surprise of most everyone, the Big Three rallies for one more push. The Lakers never materialize as the threat they appeared to be. The Thunder loses All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook to a knee injury early in the playoffs, turning the West into a wide-open race. After surviving against Golden State, San Antonio sweeps the Grizzlies to land back in the Finals for the first time in six years.
So now it is the Saturday before the Finals begin, the Spurs awaiting the winner of the Heat-Pacers series. It is an off day, and their mentor/leader/drill sergeant heads to the practice facility and is surprised to find Duncan shooting jumpers with assistant coach Sean Marks. Pop tries to shoo Duncan out of the gym. You should be resting, he says. Duncan just stares back. In the end it is he who shoos away his coach.
The 64-year-old Popovich laughs while telling this story on the phone a couple of hours later. He is stir-crazy from the weeklong layoff. He spends his time watching film and arguing with his assistants about how much to do in practice. Should they prep more or rest their veterans? Pop is too consumed to read a book or watch TV or go to a movie. "It's really sick, I guess," he says. "I just go on adrenaline until it's over."
Though he doesn't say it, Popovich surely understands the potential finality of this postseason. While the Spurs may make it back to the Finals in years to come, it is unlikely to be with Ginóbili, Parker and Duncan as their three best players. So Pop takes some time to reflect on all they have accomplished. He lauds their character, how they cheered for teammates and were patient with the endless cast of role players who came in year after year. He calls the three of them "family," talks of how he drinks wine with Tony and Manu and Cokes with Tim. Earlier in the morning he sat in the film room with Ginóbili, discussing how to defend the pick-and-roll against Indiana and Miami, like a couple of old coaches.
"To this day I can't believe it all fit together like it did," Pop says of his trio. "If you say, How did you guys find Ginóbili, you must be really good scouts, my response is, 'Are you s----ing me?' He was a competitor, and we liked his style. But it was the 57th pick. What the hell, let's take a shot. Same with Tony. He was the 28th pick. There's not a lot of pressure there. We didn't know all this would happen in the beginning. It really is a credit to the three of them."
And now the unknown. Over the coming weeks, the three veterans, with their veteran coach, will try to win four more games in the Finals. They will shout in the huddle and debate during practice. They will bust their coach's balls, and admonish the younger Spurs when they fail to rotate or go over the screen or take an open shot. When given an opportunity to throw one another under the bus to the media, they will politely decline.
And in the end the three men will either win their fourth title together or they won't. This will matter, of course, but not nearly so much as the journey that got them here.
Says Pop of Ginóbili, "I had to stop coaching him because if you put him too much in a cage, you lose his benefit."
There's nothing sexy about Duncan. Unless, that is, you find studied excellence to be sexy.
"To this day, I can't believe it fit together like it did," Pop says of his trio. "It really is a credit to the three of them."
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Photograph by DARREN ABATE/AP
BACK FOR ONE MORE The Spurs' troika (pictured in 2008) has won three Finals in three tries—but the last appearance for the thirtysomethings was six years ago.
HENRI SZWARC/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGES
INTERNATIONAL SENSATIONS The trio took its act to Parker's home of France for an exhibition game (above) in October 2003, four months after celebrating a Finals victory over the Nets.
MANNY MILAN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PARKER AND DUNCAN)
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NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (PARKER AND GINÓBILI)
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CHRIS BIRCK/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
FOURTH MUSKETEER San Antonio's other constant has been the acerbic Popovich (top center, in 2005), who refers to his three stars (right, in '08) as "family."
GARRETT W. ELLWOOD/NBAE VIA GETTY IMAGES
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JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (2003)
TROPHY TIMES The triumvirate racked up a total of nine rings in (clockwise from top left) 2003, '05 and '07—though Duncan and Popovich had already won one each in 1999.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (2005)
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NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (2007)
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ROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
THREE ENTERPRISE Win or lose in the Finals, Ginóbili, Duncan and Parker will be able to smile at their legacy: 626 victories and a .706 winning percentage.