San Antonio Spurs have been the best team in pro sports, but you wouldn't guess it
"Fans are hypocrites" who demand things they don't really want, says NBA reporter
Despite Spurs' .702 winning percentage, Tim Duncan doesn't get respect of other big stars
Spurs tip off Sunday against Oklahoma City Thunder in Western Conference finals
LeBron James is cocky. Kobe Bryant is a ball hog. Kevin Garnett is a thug. Dwight Howard got his coach fired. And Metta World Peace? Ugh, Metta World Peace.
These are the constant groans of NBA fans filling message boards and Twitter. We’ll leave it to you to debate their merits in the comments below, but the message is (supposedly) clear: We want better role models, less individualism and players who show respect for the game.
So what about the San Antonio Spurs? They are, for the most part, none of those negative things. They’re the winningest pro franchise in the country over the last 15 years, led by two men, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, who epitomize humility. They play as a team – quiet, dignified. They’ve accrued four rings since 1999, and they’ve done it without a whole lot of chest thumping, hooting and hollering.
This year, only the now-dispatched Chicago Bulls matched their regular season record at 50-16, and the Spurs are heading into Sunday’s Western Conference finals with several days’ rest after sweeping their first two opponents.
So, why don’t we love them? Nay, adore them?
Well, it’s because we’re kind of jerks. No, San Antonio, we’re not talking about you. Clearly, you’re gaga over them. We’re talking about the rest of the country. We’re talking about you, casual sports fan.
Sunday -- Game 1,
Tuesday -- Game 2,
Thursday -- Game 3,
June 2 -- Game 4,
June 4 -- Game 5,
June 6 -- Game 6,
June 8 -- Game 7,
Where’s the love? Why aren’t you decked out in silver and black?
“Because fans are hypocrites,” Turner Sports reporter and NBA guru David Aldridge stated bluntly. “People say one thing … but they won’t watch guys who do it the right way.”
I’m as guilty as the next fan. I’ve been an Atlanta Hawks fan since I was old enough to make these kinds of decisions, so I viscerally despise the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, yet I’ve watched almost every minute of their playoff games. I even stayed up late to take in the Los Angeles Lakers-Oklahoma City Thunder series.
Yet when the Spurs are on, my attention is far from rapt. I might tidy up the living room during the game or run an errand. If anyone plays me in Scramble With Friends, they’ll get an immediate reply.
“I think we’re all fallible that way,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society. “We are drawn to celebrity. We are drawn to grandeur in many respects. There’s a push-pull in each of ourselves – the lure of grandeur versus the beauty of hard work.”
It’s not just sports, either, said Lebowitz, whose organization strives to tap sports for positive social change. You see it with movie stars and politics as well.
“We award abhorrent behaviors and don’t spend a lot of time celebrating behavior that ought to be celebrated,” he said. “The way our culture is, we often say we want one thing, but we often bow down to negativity and the celebration of the egregious.”
Type “San Antonio Spurs” or “Tim Duncan” into Google alongside the word “boring,” and you will see how many column inches writers have devoted to the topic. Never mind that the Spurs averaged 103.7 points per game during the season (second in the league) or that they’ve won 18 straight, including their first eight playoff games.
ESPN’S Stuart Scott tweeted this week, “I’m NOT 1 of those ppl who thnk Spurs r boring 2 watch. I LUV the way they play” – thereby affirming the nation’s overriding sentiment on the matter.
Author Frank Deford wrote a column for NPR this week, mockingly wondering why wildly successful head coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t think he’s a genius or why Duncan doesn’t ever try to get Pop fired.
“Tim Duncan is not only not known just as Tim, he is not even known as Duncan. In fact, he is always called ‘Tim Duncan,’ to make sure we remember who he is,” he wrote. “So it’s really not even going to seem like the NBA if Tim Duncan and Pop lead San Antonio back to the championship. Of course, outside of the Greater Alamo area, maybe nobody will even notice.”
Ouch, but true. Spurs games aren’t exactly ratings grabbers.
To be fair, the NBA appears to want to capitalize on this fan ambivalence rather than correct it. Go ahead and peruse the NBA Playoffs commercials on YouTube, and you’ll notice a dearth of Duncan and the squad’s other stars, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – none of whose jerseys makes the list of the league’s 15 best-sellers.
In a 60-second playoff spot that aired last month, featuring one of those hyperkinetic highlight montages, 25 players are featured before you see the first clip of Duncan dunking 35 seconds into the commercial.
By then, James, Bryant, the Jazz’s Devin Harris, the Thunder’s Kevin Durant, the Clippers’ Blake Griffin and the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry had been featured numerous times. Even the Mavs’ Ian Mahinmi and the Knicks’ Iman Shumpert get face time before you see Duncan.
Who, you ask? Exactly.
Parker and Ginobili get even less love. The Spurs’ point guard, who had one of his best seasons ever and came in fifth in MVP voting, isn’t featured until the 55th second. You won’t see Ginobili until a few seconds before the commercial ends.
“People don’t find Tim Duncan doing the drop step terribly exciting,” Aldridge said of one of the big man’s most potent moves in the paint. “Tim’s just not a guy people get excited about seeing.”
It’s a disappointing thing to hear about a guy who has averaged 20 points and 11 boards for a decade and half, switching from power forward to center with an ease in which the average man might change his underwear.
As a power forward, Aldridge considers Duncan among the top two or three of the last 30 years. As a center, he’s in the top five or six, somewhere behind luminaries Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, Aldridge said.
Yet the four NBA Finals in which the Spurs snared their championships – 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 – are among the lowest-rated finals in recent history, Aldridge said, and it has a lot to do with Duncan’s low-key nature.
In a recent Sports Illustrated cover story (at least our pals at SI are giving Duncan his props), Chris Ballard reported that the 6-foot-11 star veteran out of Wake Forest was content to stay out of the spotlight. He largely eschews endorsements and long interviews for the most part and is content “100 times out of 100” to spend his off days with his wife and two kids.
“With the media, I just keep it basic, surface, to the point,” Duncan told the reporter. “You’re here to talk about basketball. I’ll give you what you want, and let’s go home. I don’t really care about anyone getting to know me, or getting into my life or anything else like that.”
New Orleans (636,000)
Oklahoma City (705,000)
San Antonio (845,000)
Salt Lake City (954,000)
Yet with almost no hype, no trash talking, no taunting opponents, no pompous show of powdering one’s hands, Duncan has led the team to unprecedented success: The Spurs own a .702 winning percentage in Duncan’s 15 years in the league – better than any MLB, NFL, NHL or NBA team in the land, according to SI.
Popovich has always surrounded Duncan with players who suit the star’s personality and playing style, just as he did with David Robinson when the Naval Academy graduate anchored the team.
Pop’s mentality is just as important to the Spurs’ culture as Duncan “quietly leading the team to excellence year in, year out,” Lebowitz said. He knows the game’s challenges and how to get the best out of his squad, and there is a “great human reciprocity between him and his players.”
He teaches his players how best to carry themselves as part of the Spurs’ brand, and the players know how to wear it, even if the jerseys don’t sell so well, Lebowitz said.
“You can’t base success on monetization,” he said.
Establishing the culture has been important to the team’s success, Lebowitz said, pointing to Parker and forward Stephen Jackson as examples.
Parker went through a divorce to actress Eva Longoria last year after facing allegations that he cheated on her with an ex-teammate’s wife. Captain Jack, as he’s known, rejoined the team midseason this year, his sixth team change since he left the Spurs in 2003. A key figure in 2004’s “Malice in the Palace,” Jackson until this year was better known for his big mouth and his penchant for nightclubs.
This season, there has been little mention of Parker’s or Jackson’s pasts, as both have quietly made themselves invaluable to this year’s championship campaign. While Parker has had an MVP-caliber season, Jackson has come off the bench, averaging an awfully helpful nine points, four rebounds and two dishes per game.
“This is a team that has achieved through cooperative culture,” Lebowitz said. “I don’t try to match it up against another ballclub. I just say, ‘There’s a place that’s doing it right.’ “
Heap all the credit you want on Popovich, the reigning and two-time NBA coach of the year, but Aldridge said the success wouldn’t be possible without Duncan, who “allows Gregg Popovich to coach him.”
Unlike some of the big stars in the league, Duncan allows Pop to “yell at him, curse at him and treat him like a dog,” and Duncan’s teammates have to follow suit, Aldridge said.
“Their whole team is predicated on all these people who can play with Tim and around Tim,” he said. “(Popovich) has said he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his years in the NBA coaching a bunch of jerks.”
It’s a model Lebowitz wishes more teams would follow. Call the Spurs boring all you want, but true basketball fans appreciate the grace and efficiency with which Duncan & Co. knock down opponents. What’s more, Lebowitz sees in Duncan – and previously, in Robinson – a quiet champion whom he wouldn’t mind any of his five sons striving to emulate.
And for fans such as Lebowitz, there are some things more important to society than selling jerseys.