NBA's Spurs dig in without a fuss
The most successful US pro sports franchise during the past decade, the Spurs have adhered to old-school humility and attention to detail.
Apart from occasional courtside glimpses of a certain Desperate Housewife, games at San Antonio's AT&T Center are decidedly low-key by NBA standards. You won't see anything resembling a "Showtime" fast break by Magic Johnson or the sort of swoosh-happy excellence displayed by the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan's era. You certainly won't see players jawing at Spike Lee during playoffs, a familiar sight at Madison Square Garden in the 1990s.
The Spurs prefer a style best described as below the radar.
Tucked away in the nation's 37th-largest media market, the Spurs have an image as squeaky clean as the sound of sneakers on hardwood. As America's most successful professional sports franchise during the past decade, the team has adhered to no-frills, old-school humility and paid more attention to detail than most NBA franchises. Indeed, much of the Spurs' success stems from your grandfather's vision of basketball: low-profile, relentless competition, and an emphasis on character above all else.
The team is so unsexy that when it began its bid for a fourth NBA title last night, most of the national media and casual fans turned their attention to the coronation of "King James " – as in Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron – who was making his NBA Finals debut.
The Spurs see themselves as a team, not a collection of star players.
"I think the culture and the environment that San Antonio has created, led by Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, is a model for every NBA franchise," says Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach now serving as an analyst on ABC. "They get very good players who are highly coachable, who play for each other instead of with each other."
Popovich, the coach for 11 seasons, and Duncan, who came to the team in the 1997 draft after a stellar college career in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, provide the foundation for San Antonio's workmanlike culture and perfectionist attitude.
Owner Peter Holt, a decorated Vietnam vet, serves as the anti-Steinbrenner – and the anti-Cuban, as well. He persuaded Popovich to take over coaching duties early in his ownership tenure and helped the team secure a new arena with a successful public vote days after the Spurs won their first title in 1999.
Mostly, Holt demands quality players who also serve as solid citizens. You won't find petulant players on the Spurs roster. No Ron Artest here.
The tone begins with Duncan, a mild-mannered gentlemen off the floor – and a fierce competitor on it.
"In my opinion, he's the most underappreciated superstar in sports history," says Mark Jackson, a former NBA guard. "Not just basketball, but you go across the board. Because he's vanilla, because he's not self-serving, he's not pumping his own chest and not flashy. It's just substance. He's the greatest power forward in the history of professional basketball."
The two-time NBA MVP enjoys a strong supporting cast, as well. Start with the Spurs' lone stab at Lone Star State glamour – point guard Tony Parker. A native of France, Parker is better known as Mr. Eva Longoria – a nod to his engagement to the "Desperate Housewives" star – but he happens to be a brilliant point guard.
Another import, Argentina's Manu Ginóbili, provides a deadly long-range shooting threat, giving the Spurs a lethal combination of inside-out power. As Cleveland will soon discover, San Antonio also has a deep bench and plenty of help from role players. These include Bruce Bowen, an ace defensive stopper known for putting the clamps on top scoring threats.
Duncan became known as "The Big Fundamental" early in his career because of his textbook precision on the floor, but it is a title that fits all aspects of the Spurs franchise.
From basketball to business, San Antonio's dedication to excellence allows the franchise to attract and retain top talent, a rarity in a pro-sports environment increasingly controlled by big-city oligarchs.
"Usually, athletes today want to play in big markets and have the endorsement opportunities and the media coverage," says David Carter, executive director at the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "But the Spurs have become a franchise guys want to play for."
Bolstered by Holt's scandal-free mantra, fan support in a one-team town looks to be solid for years to come.
"Let's face it: In an era where we constantly see poor sportsmanship and steroids, [the Spurs] are a breath of fresh air," Mr. Carter says. "And they seem to be in the Finals pretty consistently, which doesn't hurt."