Some 350,000 souls lined the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio last Saturday to revel in the Spurs' third NBA championship in seven seasons. Most of them wouldn't have been surprised if the players and coaches had gotten out of their barges bedecked with silver tinsel and walked on the dirty water. � Around the league, the franchise first made famous during its ABA days by the Iceman, high-scoring George Gervin, and now in the capable hands of another iceman, the 7-foot Tim Duncan, is admired almost as highly for the way it's run as for how often it wins. The Spurs are like the tastefully appointed colonial on a maple-lined street: built to last and so cozy that no one wants to leave.
The three main cogs (Finals MVP Duncan and guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) are signed through 2009-10. The key supporting players (defensive ace Bruce Bowen, frenetic guard Brent Barry and offensive rebounder Nazr Mohammed) are signed through next season. Clutch shooter Robert Horry has a $1.2 million option for 2005-06; he'll probably get a new, two-year deal. And in case new blood is needed, San Antonio's $46.7 million payroll is well under the cap, ranking 24th of the 30 teams in the league. Domestic free agents consider the Alamo City a prime destination because Duncan is a selfless superstar. Foreigners feel the same way because Ginobili ( Argentina) and Parker ( France), as well as Rasho Nesterovic and Beno Udrih ( Slovenia), have turned the team into a mini- U.N. The most likely international pickup this summer is 6'9" banger Luis Scola, Ginobili's teammate on the Argentina team that won the 2004 Olympic gold medal; the Spurs picked Scola in the second round of the '02 draft.
The fans in this one-team town are laid-back--"The peacefulness of the city," says Horry, "somehow gives you peace"--but fiercely loyal. About 5,000 of them were waiting at the airport at 3 a.m. when the team arrived from Detroit after a 96-95 Game 5 victory. They've turned the banal pep phrase Go Spurs Go into a civic mantra. go spurs go banners hang from buildings; go spurs go buttons adorn lapels; go spurs go mats rest in some urinals at the SBC Center. In the last case the words light up when ... well, they light up from time to time.
Best of all, the man who runs the operation with vision and wit--both of them piercing--isn't going anywhere. "After we got done here what we got done," said Gregg Popovich, whose humility fits him as comfortably as his baggy gray coaching shorts, "I don't know why I'd want to do it anywhere else."
Add this all up, and, well, it's fair to posit that the Spurs are on the verge of becoming a....
"Don't say dynasty," begs general manager R.C. Buford. "It's way too early for that."
Perhaps. The team that outlasted the Detroit Pistons 81-74 in a terrific Game 7 last Thursday night at the SBC Center hardly fits the juggernaut profile. It doesn't take care of the ball (the Spurs had 110 turnovers in the seven games, 41 more than the Pistons), misses foul shots in bunches and commits more than its share of bonehead plays. With the Spurs leading 79-71 and 16 seconds to play in Game 7, Parker fouled Rip Hamilton as he drove to the basket, a cardinal--and clock-stopping--sin. Popovich was so angry that he sent a bottle of talcum powder zipping down the scorer's table. It slid smoothly for about five feet before colliding with a water bottle. "I was a little upset with Tony," Pop said later.
But if San Antonio claims another title or two after taking the 2003 and '05 crowns, the dynasty tag will surely apply. At 29, Duncan has at least six more years at the top of his game if he stays healthy; predictably, he didn't talk much during the Finals about his recently sprained ankles, but they were a factor in his getting 16 shots blocked by the Pistons. Ginobili, 27, as worthy a Finals MVP choice as Duncan, has "only scratched the surface in terms of what he can be as a player," Duncan says. Parker, 23, has presumably learned the lessons of overpenetrating (22 turnovers in the Finals). He will improve if, as he relaxes this summer with his Desperate Housewives girlfriend, Eva Longoria, he slips in a Steve Nash video to see the many ways he might more reliably deliver the ball. And the 6'7" Bowen is content--nay, ecstatic--with his role as a stopper. "This is the first place I've been where they respect what you can do," says Bowen, 34, who played for the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, "rather than concentrate on what you can't."
Most Spurs employees who leave San Antonio do so reluctantly. It's normally a slam-dunk decision for an exec to take a higher position with another team, but Danny Ferry, Buford's top aide, agonized for days before last week accepting the Cleveland Cavaliers' offer to run their basketball operations, the post that had been dangled in front of Pistons coach Larry Brown. "When everybody shows up in early October you know you have a chance to win a championship," says assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo. "You're going to work for a great franchise in a town where the loyalty is unlike anything in pro sports. What's the downside?"
And those who characterize the defense-driven Spurs as boring have some rethinking to do. Parker may be the NBA's fastest player, moving so quickly when he heads for the basket that he is almost by definition out of control. After Ginobili's many improbable forays into the paint during the playoffs, it's impossible not to rank him among the most exciting players in the league. Horry, 34, now in possession of six championship rings from three franchises, will no doubt spend much of the 2006 postseason blithely missing three-pointers in passels before tossing in a bunch of ones that help win games, as he did in making 15 of 31 against Detroit. As for Duncan, the Big Fundamental, well, he's boring in the same way that, say, pitcher Greg Maddux was boring in his prime. If precision without pretension doesn't light your fire, that's on you.