June, 1997. A kid from the Virgin Islands landed in San Antonio and 6,000 fans gathered at the Alamo to greet him.
Unwillingly. Shy. He walked to the podium and said: “It’s great being out here. I don’t know what to say. I just hope you’re ready to win a lot of games.” This was Timmy 20 years ago.
And he remained this way the following two decades: Shy. Humble. Efficient.
It’s ok to mistake Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs. They’re almost the same. I don’t even know who molded who anymore. Duncan, as the Spurs, was always sparse in words but consistent on the court throughout his long tenure as a Spurs player.
For the past two decades the San Antonio Spurs have offered us nothing but consistency. Consistency of excellency. Offensively, defensively, on and off the court.
I’m note sure there’s a secret formula for their success. But if there is, we will find it somewhere between this Bermuda Triangle compound by the triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs organization itself.
The San Antonio Spurs head-coach Gregg Popovich set the tone since day one. You could see back in 1997 he was different. He takes pride for thinking outside the box. Shortly after Duncan was drafted, Pop went to St. Croix, one of the islands composing the Virgin Islands, so he could personally meet his new addition to the team. They swam together, they spoke about life. Not so much about basketball. “It was like an instant respect and understanding of each other. Almost like we were soul mates”, Pop said.
Duncan was well impressed with Pop from the get-go: “It’s great to have confidence in who’s leading your organization and your team and knowing that they have your best interests at hand,” Duncan said in 2014. “That’s what made me stay and that’s what kept me here all these years.”
Even though Popovich has a military background having served five years of required active duty in the United States Air Force, he has a soft touch when dealing with people. Pop has a rare ability to communicate with and demands the same level of effort from Hall of Fame players like Duncan or David Robinson, but also from a rookie or a 10-day signee. They are all relevant pieces of the puzzle. Pop will make you feel like he cares about you because he actually does. It’s genuine. But you won’t be softened. Because at the same time he won’t let you be neglectful. He cares about you, he worries about, he takes you under his wing but he demands high standards. He demands professionalism. And, as I was told when I spend a couple of weeks within the Spurs organization: “We expect nothing but greatness in here.”
The San Antonio Spurs are not only an example of consistency in basketball but more importantly in sports by holding the best winning percentage in all major American sports with 63.47%.
Under Popovich, the Spurs have made 20 consecutive playoff appearances, set an NBA record with 18 straight 50-win seasons and won five championships.
When we are talking about this level of consistency it must be something bigger than offensive or defensive schemes.
Gary Neal, former Spurs player, believes Coach Pop is the main reason behind all this success. “He’s (Coach Pop) a totally different guy. He takes an interest in the players. That’s why everybody that goes through there pretty much does well. Because he can figure out what makes you tick and what makes you play better. I think he’s mastered that. I think a lot of the coaches in the NBA don’t take a personal interest in the players. They don’t know what’s going on in the player’s life. Pop, in my tenure there, was able to do that. I’m not just talking about locker room speeches or addressing the group. It’s bigger than that. It’s like when a group is wishing somebody happy birthday it’s not as special as when I come to you and say happy birthday. Pop will make that connection. He’s able to come to you and say, ‘Hey, how’s your wife doing?’ He’ll call your wife by her first name. Call your kids by their first names. It gives you a sense that he cares about you. Any player, if you feel like the coach really cares about you, is gonna go out there and do the best you can do night in and night out. Oh yeah, if you’re messing up, he’s gonna tell you the truth. But he tells you the good with the bad. That’s another quality. He lets you know your role, what he expects of you night in and night out.”
Pop will always state the secret behind this success it’s on Tim Duncan’s side because he was coachable. “Thank you for letting me coach you, Timmy” were his words at the Duncan’s jersey retirement ceremony.
It is true that when your star player leads by example and allows the coaching staff to coach, the whole team will easily follow his footprints. However, in this case, either Pop and Duncan’s should share merits.
Timmy and Pop have been together for all 1,001 of Duncan’s regular season wins. No other player-coach duo has won more than 775 games together. Obviously, RC Buford as General Manager, has done a terrific job finding great talents late in the draft, but Timmy and Pop were the cornerstone.
San Antonio Spurs Assistant Coach Ettore Messina told me he was impressed a 38-year-old Tim Duncan start practicing one month earlier than the rest of team back in 2014-15 season. That was a Tim Duncan with nothing to prove, yet he didn’t’ know any other way. That’s how greatness looks like, I guess.
Pop likes to use logic and he often likes to relativize things. He puts things in perspective. A loss is just a loss, a win is a just a win, and at the end of the day this is just a game. There are no pointing fingers, there are no bad habits. Win as a group, loose as a unit. Don’t take yourself too serious. “Get over yourself”, he likes to tell his players. Leave your ego at the door. Trust your teammate. And as Timmy said back in June 1997 “I just hope you’re ready to win a lot of games”. That’s what the Spurs do after all.