Popovich, Spurs understand value of players with something to prove
Several years ago Spurs coach
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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,
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.
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."
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.