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Popovich, Spurs understand value of players with something to prove

(Editor's note: This story appeared in the March 9 issue of Sports Illustrated.)

Jacob Riis would no doubt be surprised to learn that 95 years after his death he would be inspiring a professional basketball team in the belly of Texas. But the 19th-century social reformer may well be the patron saint of the San Antonio Spurs.

Several years ago Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was reading a book by Riis and was struck by a passage. "It was more meaningful than, 'There's no I in team' or 'Winners never quit' or crap like that," Popovich says. So he mounted a copy of Riis's Stonecutter Credo on the wall of the team's locker room. Hung between the dressing stalls of Manu Ginóbili and Tim Duncan, the framed placard reads:

"When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."

Popovich then ordered framed copies of the quotation translated into the various languages his players spoke. It was a small touch, but one that reveals much about this decade's winningest NBA franchise. That is, for all the talk about the team's diversity of tongues -- the French point guard, the Argentine swingman, the Caribbean-born center -- this is an organization united by the Tao of Pop. "There's just a Spurs way, and everyone gets on the same page real fast," says Portland assistant coach Monty Williams, who both played and coached under Popovich. In AT&T Arena, a venue perfumed by eau de rodeo, this is why four-time champion San Antonio (39-19 at week's end) remains among the league's ruling class.

The Spurs' way, of course, has an X's-and-O's component. It relies heavily on defense and spacing and opportunities created by power forward Duncan and top-shelf point guard Tony Parker. But the real underpinnings are philosophical. "We get guys who want to do their job and go home and aren't impressed with the hoopla," says Popovich. "One of the keys is to bring in guys who have gotten over themselves. They either want to prove that they can play in this league -- or they want to prove nothing. They fill their role and know the pecking order. We have three guys who are the best players, and everyone else fits around them."

Put another way, Duncan, Ginóbili and Parker are tenured professors, and the Spurs have surrounded them with a rotating cast of dynamic adjuncts. This season's most notable visiting faculty members, swingman Roger Mason Jr. and center Matt Bonner, would fall into the something-to-prove category.

The 28-year-old Mason arrived in August as a free agent from Washington, where he had been a reserve. In San Antonio he quickly became a starter, siphoning playing time from stalwarts Bruce Bowen, 37, and Michael Finley, 36. His game is based on energetic slashing, bushwhacking his way to the hoop, but he is also a capable spot-up shooter, drilling jumpers when defenses have collapsed on Duncan or double-teamed Parker. At week's end he was averaging 12.0 points and had made 43.6% of his threes. And his scoring has been timely as well. Taking over for the famously clutch Robert Horry, who retired, Big Shot Rog has already won four games with shots in the waning seconds.

Mason was overdue for a karmic make-up call. His father was a successful D.C. ophthalmologist who died suddenly of kidney failure when Roger Jr., the oldest of four kids, was 11. A comfortable childhood was suddenly filled with financial stress, but Mason's mother, Marsha, a nurse, refused to scrimp on education. Roger spent three years at the Sidwell Friends school, where he counted Chelsea Clinton among his classmates. ("I knew her a little," he says, "but, man, there was a lot of Secret Service!")

A second-round pick by the Bulls in 2002, the architecture major at Virginia was surely the first player thrilled to be drafted by Chicago because it meant being close to Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. But after two injury-riddled seasons with the Bulls he had a cup of Gatorade with the Raptors, then endured an odyssey that took him to Israel and Greece and a series of NBA training camps. He stuck with the Wizards in 2006 and filled in ably when Gilbert Arenas was hurt last season. But Washington was reluctant to exceed the luxury tax threshold, and he accepted San Antonio's two-year, $7.3 million contract offer. "Maybe 12, 13 teams showed serious interest," the 6'5" Mason says. "The Spurs told me they wanted me as a contributor, and I wanted to be here."

Mason remains humble. Before San Antonio played in D.C. last month he entered the Verizon Center through a back door so he could greet the ushers, security guards and maintenance workers he'd befriended during his time with the team. (He then scored 25 points in a 98-67 Spurs win.) The humility only disappears when he gets on the court. "I've always known I could play at this level," he says. "It was just a question of getting in the right situation. Now that I got it, I feel like this is just the beginning."

Bonner can rival Mason with tales of basketball vagabondage. He, too, was drafted by the Bulls (in 2003, out of Florida) but then cast off. He spent the '03 season in Messina, Sicily. That city was ground zero for the Black Plague pandemic in the Middle Ages, and while there Bonner didn't feel so hot himself. He contracted a nasty case of salmonella, which he attributes to not being able to wash dishes properly because he lacked hot water in his apartment. When Bonner didn't eat for six days, ran a 105° fever and began hallucinating, the team finally dispatched medical attention. "They sent over the team dentist," recalls Bonner. "Should we take him to the hospital? Nah, just give him an IV in his bed."

After the season Bonner signed with Toronto, where he played for two years. The 6'10" redhead became a Raptors fan favorite, not least because he was frequently spotted riding public transportation to the downtown arena. With no such option in San Antonio, he reluctantly drives himself. His tricked-up wheels? A 2006 Pontiac Grand Prix, bought in his native New Hampshire so he could avoid paying sales tax. Then again, Matt's father, Dave, a recently retired mailman, was in San Antonio last week -- yes, to watch his son play but also, he says, because "Matt needs me to drive some of his furniture back to New Hampshire. Guess he didn't want to pay for the shipping." Popovich's bit about Spurs players not being enticed by the trappings of celebrity? Bonner might be the exemplar.

Like any system, San Antonio's can be rigid and a bit cold. Players who have outlived their usefulness can see their roles fade. Last month defensive stalwart Bowen was dangled as trade bait. George Hill, an eager rookie point guard, has taken work from veteran Jacque Vaughn. Bonner's emergence in the frontcourt -- after two years on the Spurs bench he has developed into the NBA's top three-point marksman, despite an unorthodox jumper that originates near gut level -- hastened the retirement of Horry and has deeply cut into the playing time of Fabricio Oberto, the mined gem from a few seasons ago.

The system, on the other hand, also means that players know the reality and manage expectations accordingly. Asked about his reduced role, Oberto says, "If I'm not playing and the teams wins, that's perfect." Perfect? "Look, everyone wants to play, [but] everyone wants to win more." Mason has noticed the abiding irony. "It's funny, on the losing team you can have the egos and selfishness. This is a winning organization -- they've earned the right [to ego] -- and there's no one self-centered. Total team. We'll exercise in the pool and all 15 guys are in there. It's just different here."

And that carries over on the court. This year's collective offered a representative glimpse of the Spurs' way during a 99-84 win over the Blazers last week. A half-court possession in the third quarter resembled one of those movies that tacks between the past and present. As the ball swung between the familiar Spurs (Parker, Bowen) and the valuable newcomers (Mason, Bonner), each passed up a good shot for a better one. Finally, Bonner spotted up without hesitation and drained a three-pointer.

And the stonecutters take another thwack.

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