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After subduing the alcohol demons that pursued him for years after Vietnam, Holt bought a controlling 32% share in the Spurs before the 1996-97 season, which turned out to be a dark time in franchise history. Robinson was hurt and would play only six games; Duncan was still a senior at Wake Forest; Popovich, then the G.M., would fire coach Bob Hill 18 games into the season and take over himself; Buford was the head scout; and Holt, by his own admission, "didn't know what the hell I was doing." San Antonio finished with a 20-62 record, and Holt remembers thinking, What did I get myself into?
But the Spurs stuck to a plan, one that will sound familiar to fans in New England. Holt instituted what Buford calls "a value-based management team that was in symmetry with what Pop wanted to do on the basketball side." That is gobbledygook for: The organization comes first, and every decision will be discussed by everyone. "We believe that none of us are as smart as all of us," says Holt. Lips would be sealed too. In refusing to answer a question about strategy or personnel moves, Popovich has maintained a favorite expression: "That's family business."
On the basketball side Holt would keep his nose out of the decision-making as long as Popovich and Buford (who became G.M. in July�2002 to let Pop concentrate on coaching) brought in people of character, which is what they wanted to do anyway. One of the few times Holt raised a flag was in the summer of '03, when the basketball staff wanted to go after Latrell Sprewell, the guard who during a 1997 practice altercation had put his hands around the throat of P.J. Carlesimo, then the coach of the Golden State Warriors and now a San Antonio assistant. Sprewell was not offered a deal.
The search for personnel would be global (five international players earned rings this season), and every player had to be willing and able to do two things--defend, and pass the ball to an open teammate. Everyone would be treated with respect, but a bottom-line approach to winning was in effect: When a player failed to produce, or when his contract exceeded his future value, he would be traded, waived or allowed to leave as a free agent. Derek Anderson, Stephen Jackson and Malik Rose found that out.
So did two players still on the roster. In the summer of 2003, after San Antonio had won its second championship, Popovich looked second-year point guard Tony Parker in the eye and said, essentially, "We're going after Jason Kidd in the free-agent market. Deal with it." Kidd didn't sign, and Parker, who was stung, remained in the fold and eventually dealt with it. Just before the trading deadline last season, Popovich told veteran guard Brent Barry he had been shipped to the New Orleans Hornets and shouldn't bother boarding the team charter for a road trip. But the deal fell through, Barry hopped the plane bound for Memphis, and last Thursday he earned his second ring. "I've been pulled around a little bit here," says Barry, "but at least it's done to your face. I want to be around a winner, so it's been worth it."
The Spurs indeed seem to live in their own Never Never Land, allowing only glimpses into their inner workings, drawing on the bunker-mentality bonhomie shaped by their coach. "Pop defines the team," says Duncan. "He always has, and as long as he's here, he always will." After San Antonio made short work of the Cavs last Thursday, there was Popovich stopping an interview in mid-sentence to hug Duncan, who was passing by. There was Argentine sixth man Manu Gin�bili conducting gab sessions in both Italian and Spanish and Parker giving his in French. There was backup point guard Beno Udrih, who is from Slovenia, walking arm in arm with Jacque Vaughn and asking to take a photo with him, even though Vaughn had earned almost all of Udrih's minutes during the season.
And there, finally, was Peter Holt, one-time drunk and war hero, standing in a hallway outside the Spurs' locker room, across from Parker's fianc�e, TV star Eva Longoria, who smiled obligingly each time someone aimed a cellphone camera at her, which was often. Holt had been inside the locker room for a few minutes but wanted to leave the celebration to the players, "the ones who really accomplished all of this." He smelled of victory champagne. "But all of it is on my shirt," he promised, "and none of it went in my mouth."