Under Brown the Spurs won 56 games in 1989-90 and 55 games in '90-91, finishing first in their division both seasons. But they quickly exited the playoffs each year, a distressing San Antonio trait. A missing player? Bad luck? Bad coaching? The maddening curse of being pretty good but not great? Or is it just the lack of a spark, that mysterious thing known as heart? "Now that's the $64 question, isn't it?" says McCombs.
It's possible that Brown, who was quickly snapped up to coach the Los Angeles Clippers, couldn't find the Spurs' big pumper. He went halfway through the season without naming a captain because he couldn't decide who could carry the responsibility. Robinson was too young, Strickland too irresponsible, Elliott and Anderson too soft. Tough old Vinnie Johnson, the Microwave, could have borne it, but he wasn't a starter. On the day before Brown left the team, the Spurs awarded the embroidered C to Cummings, a 10-year veteran and ordained Pentecostal minister. "People said he and I were always at odds," says Cummings. "But it was just that we both are such competitors. He called me a couple days later and said some things that really mean a lot to me."
Bass is wound pretty tight himself, but he's not a perfectionist or string puller like Brown. He loosened up the Spurs by letting them free-lance more on offense, telling them to shoot whenever they felt good, regardless of the time left on the shot clock. "With Bob, every mistake isn't so critical," says Robinson. "You feel like you can make up what you just missed. He doesn't make you so nervous."
No matter what this season's outcome, Bass insists he won't coach after this year. "Absolutely not," he says. "It's not what I want to do. I become a social misfit when I coach."
McCombs says he'll wait until after the season to do serious interviewing for the job, but already the names of the usual suspects are floating around. Wouldn't Detroit's Chuck Daly like the warm weather? Mike Fratello, the former Atlanta coach, must be getting bored with his TV gig. Wasn't that Stan Albeck, a onetime San Antonio head man, glad-handing every Spur employee at a recent home game? When former Bulls coach Doug Collins showed up in San Antonio to work the Celtics game for TNT, he was hounded by reporters who asked him one major question.
"Gentlemen, I do not want to coach," Collins proclaimed to all. Pause. "But if I did, I'd love to coach this team." He then asked a question of his own: "Who has a better starting lineup?"
Almost no one. With Robinson at center the Spurs have an instant defense and possibly the most agile big man in the history of the game. The 6'8" Elliott is the team's best shooter, a hardworking athlete with untapped potential. Anderson, 6'8", who went out of the lineup Feb. 17 with a stress fracture of his left tibia—he's due back in about a month—has the moves and open-court skills of Chicago's Scottie Pippen. The 6'9" Cummings is a proven scorer and team man. Strickland is erratic and has a penchant for showing up late for practice. His lack of leadership earned him a spot on the bench last week. But he can be as good as he wants to be. All the players are as quick as cats. Off the pine there is instant O from the Microwave, who has replaced Anderson for now, and solid muscle in the middle from 6'9", 265-pound Antoine Carr and 6'9", 240-pound Sidney Green. Ten-year vet and three-time all-NBA-defensive-team member Paul Pressey moved into the starting lineup while Strickland tried to get his jump shot and his mind in order. Last week the Spurs lost to the Clippers, beat Minnesota and Philadelphia and on Sunday lost to Houston 90-83. At week's end they trailed Utah by 5½ games in the Midwest Division.
Obviously that early February win over the Celtics was misleading, as Boston's backup center Joe Kleine noted at the time. "Hey, teams naturally play better for a new coach," he said. "They get the adrenaline going, and it's easy to play at home. But take a long road trip—that's when you can tell."
The Spurs could tell something was wrong during the Golden State fiasco. Strickland seemed to be in a daze. The Spurs committed 27 turnovers. "This was an aberration," McCombs said afterward.
But then it happened again the next night in Seattle. The comforts of the new airplane hadn't made a damn bit of difference. Elliott played tentatively, Anderson couldn't hit anything, Strickland's jump shot deserted him.