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Like The Hawks of Dominique Wilkins and the Bucks of Sidney Moncrief, the Spurs of David Robinson have never made it to the NBA Finals. "It's time," says coach Gregg Popovich, who began his training camp with a challenge to Robinson and his other two top players, Tim Duncan and Avery Johnson. "I want them to feel the urgency now, every day, every game. I want them to feel the losses as if die playoff season is beginning right now."
To help Robinson and Co. reach the promised land, San Antonio imported some experienced guides. Swingman Mario Elie, guard Steve Kerr and forward Jerome Kersey have played in seven of the last nine Finals. Their other impressive numbers are five (championship rings), 296 (playoff games) and 104 (years on the planet). They should provide the Spurs with a greater sense of purpose and—despite their advanced age—a jolt of energy.
Kerr, 33, was an honors student at the Michael Jordan School of Last Minute Shooting. Just by waving for the ball near the three-point line he can make life easier inside for Duncan and Robinson. If Kerr is a specialist, Elie, 35, and Kersey, 36, are general contractors. Elie can stifle the most threatening opponent, create chances for his more famous teammates and win the game himself, if necessary, from long range. His 52.6% three-point shooting is second only to Scott Wedman's in Finals history. Kersey remains the same maniacal re-bounder and defender who appeared in the 1990 and '92 Finals with the Trail Blazers. "They've definitely overachieved," says Popovich of his new, old bench troops. "They've figured out how to play, what they do best. And they're tough-minded."
Elie spent the last five seasons in Houston, where he had a good view of the sputtering Spurs. "They lacked a little fire," he says. "They didn't have guys who'd been champions, who'd won hard playoff fights as I have. You can't be satisfied with having just a great regular season."
San Antonio's other new ingredient is a healthy Sean Elliott, who missed the latter half of each of the last two seasons with tendinitis in his quadriceps. "The quick first step is there, his jumping ability is there," says Popovich, who appreciates that the Spurs came closest to reaching the Finals in 1995 and '96, when Elliott was averaging more than 18 points a game. Says Elie, "Sean's the key to our team."
Elliott provided analysis of the '98 Finals for a San Antonio TV station. He kept close tabs on how the "less important" Bulls helped Jordan to retire as a champion. "I talked to both Jud Buechler and Steve [Kerr] about it, and they said the philosophy was to get everybody involved," says Elliott.
No matter how it's phrased, the lesson is always the same: Great players will forever be frustrated without terrific teammates. Robinson may have the help he needs to make it to the Finals. Finally.
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