If one were to put a face on the San Antonio Spurs of recent vintage, it would be either the expressionless mask worn by superstar forward Tim Duncan or the choirboy countenances of Good Guy Hall of Famers such as David Robinson, Avery Johnson and Steve Smith. The last team not named the Los Angeles Lakers to win an NBA championship, the Spurs had been too good for too long (first or second in the Midwest Division in 12 of the last 13 seasons) to be dismissed as bland, but consider: Their spiciest character was coach Gregg Popovich, a former Air Force captain whose unadorned style and choleric outbursts suggest a gym teacher just plain fed up with the lack of discipline in that eighth-period class.
The current Spurs, who had won 15 of 17 games at week's end to creep to within five games of the Dallas Mavericks for the best record in the league, have ingredients more in keeping with salsa-flavored San Antone. They have a sly smile, flashed by 20-year-old point guard Tony Parker, who even in the heat of battle looks as if he just got away with planting a whoopee cushion—or whatever form of mischief they favor in France, where he was raised as that country's best-known gym rat. They have end-to-end energy, supplied by Emanuel (Manu) Ginobili, a 25-year-old Argentine guard whose gung-ho antics prompt Popovich to shake his head and say, "He's quite a strange young man." And they have some street, provided by 6'8" swingman Stephen Jackson, the self-described "third-best-known person from Port Arthur, Texas" (behind Janis Joplin and Jimmy Johnson), a basketball gypsy who has been cut more times than a prelim palooka but whose rambunctiousness leads assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo to call him "the anti-Spur."
The salient question, of course, is whether the de-vanillazation of the Spurs makes them better equipped to overcome the formidable playoff obstacles in the Western Conference—primarily the Lakers, who have eliminated them two years in a row. The answer is yes. In three of their four playoff losses to L.A. last year, the Spurs blew fourth-period leads, partly because they were unproductive on offense once the Lakers marshaled their forces to stop Duncan. Now, San Antonio is better in transition, better able to break down a team in the half-court, quicker on defense, gnarlier in spirit and generally more unpredictable. "Wild and crazy in a good way," as Carlesimo puts it.
While the Spurs believe they can win their second championship in five seasons, they are also quietly washing the china and thinking about setting next year's table. Several years ago Popovich (then the G.M. as well) hatched a plan to have beaucoup cash available after this season for getting Duncan a high-priced sidekick, and, lo and behold, the money (about $14 million) is there. When the New Jersey Nets came to the new SBC Center last Thursday, the game seemed not so much a possible preview of the NBA Finals as a getting-to-know-you recruiting trip for point guard Jason Kidd, the most prized free agent on the market if, as expected, he opts out of his contract. ( Duncan will likely exercise his one-year option this summer to stay in San Antonio and become a free agent after next season, when he's expected to re-sign for the long term with the Spurs.) One young fan held up a sign that said S.A. KIDS WANT KIDD. An older fan countered with a sign bearing a diagonal line through Kidd's name, meaning S.A. Doesn't Want Kidd.
The incumbent S.A. point guard doesn't seem at all affected by the prattle about Kidd. The 28th pick in the 2001 draft, Parker surprised the NBA when he took charge of the veteran Spurs five games into his rookie season. Through Sunday, his shooting from the field (45.6%), from beyond the arc (35.2%) and from the free throw line (74.8%) had improved from last season, the result of daily summer workouts. He's also a better passer, a better defender and, most important, a better leader. He'll move the reigning MVP, whose name he pronounces "Teem," when he thinks Duncan should be moved, and he'll question Popovich, who he says is "like a second father to me," about strategy. From time to time Parker will still get his slender 6'2", 180-pound body into seemingly dire predicaments—his assist-to-turnover ratio at week's end was 2.26, 41st in the league—but he's able to get off a variety of half-hooks, teardrop runners and scoop shots, the kind of French pastry a smallish playmaker needs in traffic.
The best thing about Parker is that he combines youthful zest with an eagerness to learn. He and Popovich have more whispered conferences than a couple of lovelorn middle-schoolers, getting together for a consult at almost every free throw break. "It makes me feel comfortable," says Parker. Coach and quarterback also have a one-on-one strategy session for about five minutes before every game. The subject of their pre-Nets t�te-�-t�te was offensive output.
"I want you to get up 26 shots," Pop said. (How he came up with 26 instead of, say, 25, is a mystery.)
"Really?" said Parker.
"Really," said the coach. "If you take that many, it'll mean you stayed aggressive and didn't get caught up in this Kidd thing."
So Parker went out and took a game-high 23 shots, making 10 of them. More important, he hit five of nine in the fourth quarter, when the Spurs pulled away for a 92-78 victory. "Whatever Pop wants," says Parker, "I try to give him."