Over the next three days—or two or maybe four, neither can remember—the two men swam and lay on the beach and ate, talking about life and family and priorities. Everything but basketball. Despite a difference of nearly 30 years, they connected in a way few athletes and coaches do. Today Popovich tears up just talking about it. "I really cherish that time," he says. "It was like an instant respect and understanding of each other. Almost like we were soul mates."
From that point on, the two were on the same page. Other than a brief flirtation with the Orlando Magic in 2003, when Duncan was a free agent—he and Pop stayed up late drinking beers in Pop's backyard, talking it through—Duncan never wavered in his commitment to the team. This, in turn, allowed Popovich to build his highly successful system, the tenets of which were simple: The offense runs through Duncan, the defense runs through Duncan, and if you don't like it, you're gone. It holds true to this day. "I like role players who aren't very good but have a skill," Pop says with a chuckle, though he is not joking. "I know who's going to have the ball on our team, and need players who understand this."
8 Captain Jack
In 2001, when Stephen Jackson was in his second year and Duncan in his fourth, Jackson used to get so mad when he was subbed out of the game that he'd walk in a giant arc to the bench, nearly reaching the opposite baseline in an attempt to stay as far from Popovich as possible. Once seated, Jackson would unleash a stream of profanity so curdling that nearby fans would turn ashen. When it got to be too much, Duncan would approach Popovich. "I got him," Duncan would say.
And the funny thing is, Duncan did. He'd take Jackson aside, put a big, lanky arm around him and break it down. He'd joke with him, hang with him, make plans to play paintball with him. They made for an odd couple: Duncan, one of the squarest players in the league, and Jackson, who never met a club he couldn't close down, a team he couldn't tear apart or a bottle he couldn't pop.
This season, after an 11-year separation as Jackson moved from one team to another, seven in all, the two men are reunited in pursuit of another championship, and this is what Jackson has to say about Duncan: "I'm humbled to be able to say that Tim Duncan is a good friend of mine."
Turns out lots of people feel that way. During his 15 years with the Spurs, Tim Duncan has had 116 teammates. They range from the celebrated (David Robinson) to the not-so-much (Cory Joseph), with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Last year Duncan tried to count them all but couldn't do it. Throughout, Duncan has been the center around which all else has orbited.
Most important, he's allowed Popovich to coach him. For 15 straight seasons Pop has gone after his franchise player in practice. We're talking neck veins bulging, spittle flying, a Gatling gun of obscenities. And all Duncan has done is stare back, absorbing it. "He hasn't always liked it," says former teammate Sean Elliott, now a team announcer, "but he takes it. You know how important that is for the rest of the team to see?"
Or, as one Spurs coach puts it, "How could a guy like Stephen Jackson complain when Pop was motherf------ Tim every day?"
9 The Sage