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The Boris Diaw Experience: Spurs big man as unique as they come

Boris Diaw is interested in filmmaking, coffee and traveling the world—but not being an All-Star. And the Spurs wouldn't have it any other way.  

Get all of Andrew Sharp's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers. This story appeared in the May 9, 2016, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. 

It's not hard to find basketball players who grew up with professional sports in their blood. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were raised by fathers in the NBA. Kobe Bryant's dad played for the 76ers and then in Italy. Tony Parker's father was a star at Loyola of Chicago and had a pro career in Belgium. Spurs reserve forward Boris Diaw is part of this tradition, but with a twist. He grew up learning the game from his mother.

Élisabeth Riffiod starred for the French national team before retiring to raise her family in Bordeaux. When it was time for her two sons to play sports, she pushed them to try everything before basketball. "Those parents that are obsessed with their kids playing a sport, becoming supergood or playing professional," Diaw says, "she was really against that."

So Boris played handball, volleyball, track and field, rugby. Of course he played soccer. He tried fencing too, which is fantastic to imagine now that he's 6'8" and 250 pounds. Boris didn't totally commit to organized basketball until practices forced him to quit judo as a teenager. He retired as an orange belt.

Today he's asked to pick three things that describe him best. He lists traveling, food, photography and movie production. That is more than three things, and not one of them is NBA basketball, but it does lead to a digression on safaris, his favorite vacations: "You go in the middle of the savanna for 10 days, and you feel like you've had a month. It's so peaceful and quiet. Seeing the animals is so calming, in their habitat just sleeping. It's very restful."

We're at a boutique coffee shop in downtown Memphis, in the middle of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We're drinking something called a Hummingbird, which the menu describes as a "lavender honey steamer."

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This is a tradition among Diaw and his San Antonio teammates. On the road they venture to find the city's best coffee shops. "Whether it's a 20-minute drive or just around the corner," guard Patty Mills says, "we keep a record of the cool ones."

When you think of NBA teams on the road, the first thought is not coffee adventures. But the Spurs have always been a little bit different.

I went to Memphis because the Spurs are still different, but they've changed a bit too.

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Talk to the Spurs, and they are quick to shower praise on the round, 34-year-old big man who plays like a guard and can defend multiple positions. "He understands spatial relationships on the court," coach Gregg Popovich says. "He can find open people, he can post up for us. He allows us to stay big when the other team goes small. His versatility's real important to us."

Parker, who has known Diaw for nearly 20 years, adds, "Especially against OKC and Golden State, you know they're going to go small, so Boris can be a great advantage." Tim Duncan harks back to a matchup with LeBron James, when the Spurs beat the Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals. "[Diaw] was a huge deal. You could put him in the post and he was able to make plays."

Intelligence, versatility and unselfishness are the themes that everyone hits. Fellow coffee enthusiast Mills adds disbelief to the list. "From guarding LeBron to hitting a turnaround fadeaway jump shot, there's stuff that he does ... I catch myself thinking 'Why am I so surprised?'" says Mills. "It's fun to watch."

Mind you, Diaw clocked in with 6.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 18.2 minutes a game this season. In the Spurs' 124—92 blowout of the Thunder in the opener of their Western Conference semifinal last Saturday, Diaw nearly replicated that line: six points, four rebounds and four assists in 18 minutes. He's not LeBron or Steph, and the Spurs do have MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard playing next to Duncan, the greatest power forward of all time. As far as national recognition, Diaw settled for 13th place in the Sixth Man Award voting.

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But he's more than that. At the very least, the sixth man who grew up playing six sports personifies the depth and versatility that now define this team.

San Antonio won 67 games this year, the most successful season of Popovich's 20-year tenure. Through the regular season Diaw and the Spurs' bench had a net rating of +10.9, best in the league. Halfway through the year, ESPN's analytics website FiveThirtyEight noted that San Antonio's second unit alone was playing at a 64-win pace. That's a pretty significant advantage for a coach who's made his living off shrewd adjustments for the past two decades.

"Pop's the best at that," Duncan said the day after the Spurs beat the Grizzlies in Game 3 of their series. "So many different combinations he can put out there. You could see it last night. He was tweaking and tweaking and tweaking until he found a combination that worked."

In that game, Diaw played 10 fourth-quarter minutes as the Spurs turned a one-point deficit into a 96--87 win.

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Diaw's mother is known as the first French woman to shoot a jump shot, but she preached unselfishness to her son. French coaches did the same. But Diaw's altruistic DNA has been less welcome in some places than others. After the Hawks took him 21st in the 2003 draft, his rookie year went fine. He was playing for Terry Stotts, who had finished his playing career in France and understood the European game. Stotts would speak French to him, and Diaw would try to respond in English. It was a happy marriage.

After the season Stotts moved on, Mike Woodson took over and things devolved. Diaw can laugh about this now: "[Woodson] didn't have much, in my opinion, experience with European basketball. There were a lot of DNPs."

This hints at the tension that's defined his career, between old-school NBA principles and a more European philosophy. Take two more examples.

Diaw's career nearly bottomed out at the end of his time with the Charlotte Bobcats. His weight ballooned and he wasn't connecting with a coach who didn't appreciate his passing tendencies. As Paul Silas told The Charlotte Observer when Diaw was finally bought out in '12, "Some of the things that would go on, like not shooting the ball, passing all of the time, that doesn't help us. I needed hoops, and he could put the ball in the hoop. When that wouldn't happen, it was very disturbing."

At one point Silas asked his starting forward, who was in the middle of a five-year, $45 millon contract, whether he'd like to be an All-Star one day, and Diaw said, "Not really."

Asked about that now, Diaw seems incredulous that this is even controversial. "My goal is to win a championship," he says. "I'm not trying to be sixth man of the year. I'm not trying to be most improved. Would you ask somebody, Do you want to be MVP? If that happens because people think I was playing very good that year, great, I'll take it. But is it my goal? To say, Screw my teammates, I'm just going to score points so I can be MVP, or I can be an All-Star? No. We were building [in Charlotte]. We won nine games, and I want to be an All-Star?"

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