Tuesday February 12th, 2008

When you've been been singing the same songs year after year like Springsteen has done, or reading the same lines of Shakespeare as Olivier used to do, or coaching the same principles for a dozen seasons as Gregg Popovich is doing today in San Antonio, doesn't the work grow tiresome? How do you find new perspective and inspiration from the same simple job performed a thousand times already?

Olivier is no longer with us and Springsteen was unavailable to comment, but here is Popovich at 59. His defending champion Spurs are the NBA's oldest team, dealing with injuries and fatigue and new potential challenges from the reinvented Lakers, Suns and Celtics, and never mind the Mavericks, Pistons, Jazz, Nuggets and Hornets.

"They've been through it so much and they know how difficult it is,'' Popovich said of his players and their pursuit of Tim Duncan's fifth championship. "They know that peaking early or being super-excited early is really fool's gold. If people know how difficult it is, then you really don't want to face it until you have to face it. And you do what you have to do to hang in there, but you're not going to let all stops go until it's time to do it. Because it's a tough road.''

Let's say the Spurs are operating at maybe 75 percent of capacity. Yet in the playoffs -- if they're able to recreate their play of last spring -- they'll suddenly look as hungry as a team that's never won anything. This is not to say that they're coasting through the regular season. They are instead building toward the postseason.

There must be many secrets to remaining young as the work grows old, and for Popovich one fundamental principle is to view the 82-game schedule as a lab of experiment. As few other coaches are able or willing to do, he turns NBA games into high-intensity practices. He assembles odd lineups to see how well they mix together in a variety of situations. Just now Matt Bonner has been benched in the middle of a fine season in order to provide minutes to Robert Horry, to learn what he can do. To see the Spurs play in February is to be invited behind the curtains to their rehearsal for the playoffs. This is the way Popovich has been running the Spurs since their first championship season after the lockout in 1999.

"I always felt that what was most important going into the playoffs was our health and our energy,'' he said. "At that point [in 1999], David [Robinson] was on the backside of his career, and so it was important to make sure that we didn't overplay him. Avery [Johnson] was on the backside of his career, Mario Elie was on the backside of his career, Sean Elliott was on the backside of his career. So from the beginning our concern has been on our health and energy, and then with that trying to be playing the best basketball we could play. And that always meant keeping minutes down, and taking the hits now and then if you're going to lose a game because of it -- but to have all of those things in place for the playoffs. It's not something that I manufactured, but something that seemed like the way it had to be done because of the personnel.

"And now it's pretty similar with Timmy and Horry and Bruce [Bowen] and Fin [Michael Finley] -- these guys are older now. It's still the same dynamic.''

And yet at least twice last year Popovich publicly wondered if he had lost the attention of his team, if it had grown tired of his demands. "I said it when we were 14th in the league in field-goal-percentage defense,'' he said. "It was both an honest and a dishonest statement at the same time. Because on the one hand we were playing so inconsistently defensively, and since that's who we are, I had to be wondering if they were still listening or if the message had gotten old and they were taking me for granted or they're tired of hearing it. And that was the honest part.

"The dishonest part was I thought it would still be good to mention publicly, to give them a little kick in the pants as a group -- not to anybody individually -- to realize that, hey, you guys are way off the mark. And in that sense possibly they would listen to what was going on.''

Look where the Spurs are today: ranked 14th in field-goal-percentage defense. Asked if his team should be judged based on its current play, Popovich admitted, "Probably not.''

It's important to emphasize that the Spurs aren't throwing games, and that they aren't trying to survive the schedule or wish away the regular season. They take on the aggressive marathoner's approach of trying to build toward an ultimate challenge.

Popovich keeps himself fresh by dictating the terms. He views the regular season from his iconoclastic perspective. He doesn't appear to embrace the celebrity of his success, but instead puts it to work in a different way.

"What's fun are the practices and the games,'' he said. "And the other thing is that you have a hammer in the community. You can get some things done if you have a desire for helping a certain organization because of the notoriety, because that's the way our society is built. If Joe Blow comes off the street and wants to try to help someone, they might not even listen to that guy or gal. But for us, that recognition that we have helps us have an impact.

"We've had the [Spurs] Drug-Free League we've been working since the early '90s when I was with Larry [Brown, who was head coach]. It started with over 200 kids and now we've got over 20,000. We play all over Texas, we've started the same league in some other NBA cities. They make a pledge about being drug- and alcohol-free, and they have to obey certain rules. The coaches are all trained before they're allowed to coach the kids. We've fired coaches because they don't get it, because they think it's about winning or beating up on the other team by pressing them for the entire game. Well, they're not allowed to do that kind of crap.

"And then we have [Roy Maas'] Youth Alternatives, for kids who have been sexually or physically abused and they have to get taken out of the home. You talk to some of those kids, and you realize how blessed you are, how much you take life for granted and how many people out there -- more than one would think -- seem to have it bad than have it good. I'm starting to think the good is the aberration, and the bad is out there but we all just ignore it, we don't want to see it, that it's better not to see it because it makes you uncomfortable all day long.''

The perspective of a dozen years in charge has made the work more satisfying. Last summer, Popovich said, "was the first time I told Timmy and Tony [Parker], Manu [Ginobili] and Bruce -- guys that had been here -- I said, 'We're going to enjoy this one. Every time we talk to each other or see each other this summer or you're with each other, I want you to say, wow, wasn't that great? We want to laugh and say, hey, we won another one, and just enjoy the hell out of it all summer. And then the first day of camp, we're all going to forget it and put it behind us. But until then we're going to soak it up and enjoy it every day.'

"And it's really the first one we did it that way with. We had just focused on the next year and the next year and the next year. But we took time and enjoyed that one thoroughly without a doubt."

If the Spurs win for a fifth time this June, they'll surely be asked which title is "the sweetest.'' Maybe the answer is that they've grown more comfortable with winning as they've grown older together.

"Now we've forgotten it,'' Popovich said of last year's success. "If we hadn't forgotten it, all the teams that are playing well right now -- both East and West -- would make us forget it real quick. Because there's, what, seven or eight or nine teams that could win this thing."

But one team knows better than all the others how to win it.

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