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Spurs of the Moment

They are successful, visionary, and humble. If only we could say the same for our presidential candidates.

By June 2016Comments

Gregg Popovich, who has coached the Spurs to five titles, talks with Tim Duncan during a game in December 2015.
Photograph by APp/Eric Gay

The political season, most of us would probably agree, has been disheartening. After a Republican presidential primary filled with incivility and misinformation, we now know that Donald Trump will be the party’s nominee. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a dispiriting prospect; I’ve been sick of Trump’s vicious histrionics for months. On January 14, in fact, I faced a choice. The Republican candidates were set to debate in South Carolina, which was soon to hold an important primary. But that same night, the San Antonio Spurs played LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. As a journalist who specializes in Texas politics, I figured I should watch the debate, but as a lifelong Spurs fan—and, really, as an American—I wanted to watch the game instead. In the end, the choice was an easy one. Debate viewers would have heard more put-downs and trash talk than at an average NBA game and more depressing pronouncements about the country’s being in decline and not winning anymore. No one would ever say that about the Spurs. That night’s game was a close, hard-fought contest, but the Spurs prevailed, as they usually do.

The Spurs may, in fact, be the most fundamentally sound institution in the country at this time. That remains the case even after their loss to Oklahoma City in the second round of the NBA playoffs this week. They had the finest regular season in team history, winning 67 games and losing just 15. In most years, the Spurs would have been the best team in the NBA—except this season saw the concurrent success of the Golden State Warriors, who followed their 2015 championship by breaking the league record for wins, with 73.

The Spurs exited the playoffs earlier than many fans and experts predicted, but they will likely remain contenders next season, seeking their sixth title since joining the NBA, in 1976. Only three other teams in the league have won more. To make the “race for seis” even more notable, the Spurs’ five titles have all come since 1999, when Gregg Popovich coached a squad led then by the august David Robinson and the young power forward Tim Duncan to its first ring.

A lot has changed since that first trophy, in 1999, across the nation and the state. The latter, for one, has grown to include some 27 million people, 7 million of whom have never lived in a state without a legendarily good basketball team playing in a strikingly unassuming way, in a strikingly unassuming city. The Spurs may not be the most exciting basketball team, and they have never been the most dramatic, popular, or visible group, even here in Texas. But they are, without question, the best franchise in the NBA, if not American professional sports: the most successful, the most consistent, and the most admirable.

One trait that makes the Spurs unique is the duration of their excellence. It’s almost unheard of for a professional team to remain a title contender for seventeen consecutive years. The other standout NBA teams of the recent past—Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, James’s collection of mercenaries in Miami—have all slipped back into mediocrity or, in the Lakers’ case, the cellar. This is normal enough. Success in sports is cyclical. Stars age and decline or get hurt; teams eventually make bad trades or draft bad players—all seemingly except the Spurs, who quietly, even stoically, just keep winning.

It’s possible that Duncan, who turned forty in April and has spent his entire professional career with the Spurs, will retire this offseason. Guard Manu Ginobili is said to be considering the same decision. Pop had once been expected to coach the team only until Duncan’s retirement but indicated last year, when the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge to a four-year deal, that he intended to stay with the Spurs through the duration of that contract, meaning that he would leave the team prepared for Aldridge and forward Kawhi Leonard to lead the next chapter.

There’s good reason to think that the team’s future, thus equipped, will remain bright. Leonard was an obscure and untested rookie back in 2011, drafted fifteenth overall that year by Indiana. The Spurs’ offer to trade the popular guard George Hill as part of the deal for Leonard was considered risky at the time; several years later, it has come to seem characteristically prescient. The same could be said of the team’s effort last year to bring Aldridge, a onetime star at Seagoville High School, in Dallas, and the University of Texas, back to the Lone Star State. After nine seasons with the Portland Trailblazers, Aldridge was an established star, and an expensive one: to free up funds for his salary, Duncan took a pay cut. Those efforts reflect an approach to management that might be better described as stewardship. And the same vision can be seen all down the Spurs roster; the team includes players like Patty Mills, the first indigenous Australian to ever win an NBA championship, and Boris Diaw, once a standout in the French professional league who had become a forgotten man in Charlotte until the Spurs scooped him up in 2012 after he was waived by the Bobcats.

Yet despite being Texas’s all-time greatest professional sports team—tell me why I’m wrong, Cowboys fans—the Spurs retain the modest, down-to-earth, hardworking ethos of chronic underdogs, or perhaps a community bowling league. They just quietly go about their business, even eschewing media attention. Some years ago,Texas Monthly’s Brian Sweany, now the editor in chief, managed to score an interview with Duncan and thus captured one of the best players in league history in what might be considered, by either man’s standards, a display of wretched excess: having met Sweany for lunch at Chili’s, Duncan ordered two chicken sandwiches, accompanied by two glasses of pink lemonade.

Since then, however, we have been rebuffed. In 2014 my colleague Michael Hall was politely denied by the team’s public relations specialists after sending a letter proposing a proper feature story on how the Spurs became the best franchise in American professional sports: “It’s not our style to talk about our own success.”

The team’s aversion to publicity presents a somewhat awkward predicament for those of us who are, as it happens, both journalists and Spurs fans. In my professional capacity, I think it would be fair to diagnose the team’s position on this matter as ultimately untenable: if the Spurs aren’t comfortable receiving praise or credit, they should have thought of that before they decided to be such a comprehensively good team for the better part of my lifetime. At the same time, it would be rude of me to ignore their preferences after all the Spurs have done for me. I had just finished kindergarten when my dad was assigned to Randolph Air Force Base; San Antonio was the fifth place we’d lived in those five years and the first city where a professional sports team was so integral to the community that even a child could recognize it. Only in retrospect did I realize that the team I would come to love during the next several years was a team that deserved it, having earned its fans not merely by its success but by its winsome virtue.

I won’t praise the Spurs, then, if they’d prefer not to be praised, but I am a little hard-pressed to come up with a reason to fault them. I suppose it could be said that they aren’t guaranteed to win any given game and that they’ve occasionally gone years without winning a championship. Some of their losses, in fact, have been painful. All Spurs fans remember game six of the 2013 finals, when the team, less than a minute from another title, squandered a five-point lead with 28 seconds to play and lost in overtime. It technically wasn’t until game seven that the Miami Heat won the championship, but it was the end of game six that cast everyone into despair and would prompt Pop to confess, some months later, that he had spent the summer in a “lugubrious” state of mind. But then, in true Spurs fashion, they came back and won the title the very next year.

Perhaps the more telling loss came in 2015, when the Spurs were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers. It was a tough series and ended with the Spurs’ getting edged by the barest of margins, 111–109, in the seventh and deciding game. At a bar in East Austin, a group of friends spent several moments in stunned silence, until one ventured that it was, perhaps, for the best: the anxiety had been overwhelming. I heard myself, through a fog, disagreeing: of all the things that elicit concern in life, the Spurs are, in my experience, the most worthwhile.

In retrospect, that sounds overly churlish, and so I should probably clarify what I meant. There are plenty of people I worry for, pray for, and lose sleep over, and all of them deserve my concern, but I don’t particularly imagine that my efforts on their behalf are of much use. The Spurs, meanwhile, take care of one another and the team’s business. In a league once characterized by flamboyant behavior—and frequent misbehavior—the Spurs go to work, year after year, and acquit my adopted home city, and my adopted home state, with a level of commitment and dignity we should aspire to emulate.

That is, I think, what makes the team so great. As a Spurs fan, I’m not exactly bored of winning, but it’s possible to be sanguine about loss. Regardless of the outcome of any given game or season, I know the fundamentals are strong. The Spurs’ success isn’t contingent on the physical health of a single superstar. It’s due to the team’s well-diversified bench, its humble and hardworking approach, and its genuine commitment to a common purpose. At a time when our politics brims with boastful, ill-tempered incompetence, the Spurs are an example to us all.

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  • David

    Brava!!! Very nice tribute. The Spurs will remain a contender for years to come. They play as a team in the tradition of Russell’s Celtics, the Showtime Lakers, and the Bulls under Phil Jackson (even though those teams had much more charismatic stars). It takes special people (in the Spurs case it started with Pop, Duncan, and Robinson) to do that and I agree with you that they are to be commended for being true to their principles. The Spurs are not boring to watch if you understand basketball, and I don’t think you meant to suggest that they are. The five-out, “dribble-drive” offenses now so prevalent in the NBA are boring to watch and it is interesting to note that only teams that have employed offensive systems that emphasize passing, spacing, and movement without the ball have won multiple titles (i.e., the teams above and the Rockets when Hakeem was playing and the Knicks under Holtzman). All of Central Texas is very fortunate to have the Spurs and the great leaders that have made the team what it is. UT fans are about to get a taste of that with their new coach. I didn’t grow up here – lived in New York when the Knicks when Reed, Frazier, Monroe, Bradley, and Debusschere played, then in Boston when Bird was there, and then became a Bulls fan like everyone else in the world – but I’ve become a Spurs fan because they are the class of the NBA. I think they were the best team this year, but they are in transition and it is hard for the young guys who are now the guys who have to carry the load to do that as consistently as Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker did for years. The young guys hit a rough patch right at the time when the Thunder guys got in a groove. I feel bad for them. But they will be back. Leonard and Aldridge – it doesn’t get much better than that.

  • aerorazavi

    “Yet despite being Texas’s all-time greatest professional sports team—tell me why I’m wrong, Cowboys fans—the Spurs retain the modest, down-to-earth, hardworking ethos of chronic underdogs, or perhaps a community bowling league”….ummmm.
    Spurs have as many championships won as the Cowboys, so I am not seeing how Spurs win here. If you want to look at conference championships, Cowboys win.
    And you are projecting the City of San Antonio onto the team. Nobody in the Association actually thinks of the Spurs as underdogs.
    Also the Cowboys saw success under two different head coaches.
    Can the Spurs accomplish that?

    • Alyssa Burgin

      You totally do not get it. This is not just about winning–it’s about winning with grace, and humility, and all those traits which are the exact opposite of what the Dallas Cowboys represent. It’s about grownups playing together as a TEAM, about representing the best of the community, about doing their jobs and not seeking loudmouth glory (“me, me look at ME”) like so many professional athletes. The Spurs are a team with class, a reflection of their coach, who, by the way, put the team’s loss into perspective at his press conference today where he talked about astronomers’ discoveries of Earth-like planets in the Universe this week, and commented on just how small basketball was in proportion.

      • Jed

        it must be just me who finds popovich’s schtick offputting.

        you want to remind us how insignificant basketball is in the big picture, pops? how about giving back some of the millions you have been paid to coach it?

        as for the greatest pro franchise in texas’s history, i’ll take the longhorns under royal.

        • Sky Mirror

          Yes, Jed. It is just you.

          • Jed

            me and every reporter who has ever had the misfortune of having to interview him.

            pop reminds me of phil jackson. no one ever needed to tell these guys how smart they are.

          • Raul_Bloodworth

            And nobody will be telling you how smart you are.

      • donuthin2

        very well said.

    • nrojb

      Winning percentage.

      Not being a flaming ship of grabage captained by an egomaniacal a-hole.

    • donuthin2

      The Cowboys were once great and rightfully were tagged America’s team. That went away with Jerry Jones, even with the winning with Johnson. They were then and have been since, a classless group that could use some of the character of the Spurs organization.

  • donuthin2

    Thanks Erica. A great tribute to a great team including management and coaches. We started watching the Spurs several years ago when our grand kids were visiting. We watched with them and got hooked. Yes, it is very different than the politics we have to endure. The politicians could use some of the character that the Spurs display.

    BTW, most of the sports announcers are almost as bad as many of the political media. They try their best to bring out the bad side of the Spurs, but just can’t get it done.

  • Neil Sapper

    Ms. Grieder, I don’t always agree with your political assessments (a little too reddish), but your Spurs essay (“Spurs of the Moment”) was spot-on. So brickbats for a lot of your political commentary and kudos for your basketball acumen. You deserve Espuelas de Oro (italics unavailable) for this essay. Thank you.