As the San Antonio Spurs' newly chartered Boeing 737 prepared to take off into the rainy Seattle sky two weeks ago, team owner Red McCombs looked like a man who shouldn't have made it past the metal detector.
His players were relaxing in their black-leather, fully reclinable seats with the 60 inches of legroom between rows. Ol' Red, from Spur, Texas, by way of Workyer Buttoff City, said loud enough for at least some of the players to hear, "There's more action on this plane than there was on the court tonight!"
No protest. Not a peep from anyone.
The SuperSonics—then the Pacific Division's fifth-place club—had just humiliated the supposedly ascendant Spurs 108-91. The Spurs had looked like kids recently introduced to Dr. Naismith's game and not yet familiar with such subtleties as the jump shot, the free throw or the dribble. Down by three at the half, the Spurs shot just 29% in the third quarter and fell behind by 12. They tried to rally in the fourth, committed eight turnovers (giving them 20 for the game) and lost by 17. During the game they missed 13 of 32 free throws. Guard Rod Strickland was fooled on a jump ball batted by Seattle center Benoit Benjamin to streaking guard Dana Barros for an uncontested layup, the kind of play that normally doesn't work after high school. High-flying forward Sean Elliott played 36 minutes and pulled in one rebound. After three quarters, swingman Willie Anderson was two for 13 from the field, and at one point All-World center David Robinson was one for six from the free throw line. A group failure, indeed.
And this from a club that is so talented that some analysts felt this was the year in which the Spurs could contend for the NBA title. Sure, it was just one ugly loss in a long season. No big deal. But the same thing had happened the night before.
That pasting had come in Oakland, a 109-94 beating by the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs had been ahead at the half, but in the third quarter they collapsed, scoring just 18 points and turning the ball over 10 times. Chris Mullin and Sarunas Marciulionis of the Warriors swiped the ball so many times from Strickland, Anderson and Robinson that it was almost cruel. The 7'1" Robinson took just one shot the entire second half and was outscored 14-2 by his 6'9" counterpart, Tyrone Hill, a 7.9-points-per-game scoring machine.
"We haven't played like this since I've been the coach," said a stunned Bob Bass afterward. Bass is the team's vice-president of basketball operations, but the veteran administrator had taken over the Spurs—for the fourth time in his career—after head coach Larry Brown quit and/or was fired by McCombs on Jan. 21. Over the next three weeks Bass had led the team on a quick and heady 7-2 run that made folks think that all those little intangibles—cohesion, confidence, consistency—had fallen into place at last for this quirky team.
The high point came on Feb. 11, when the Spurs pounded the visiting Boston Celtics 100-84 in what Bass said was probably the team's best effort of the season. All the tension and uncertainty of Brown's reign seemed to have been replaced by gung ho good spirit and freewheeling play. The Spurs' league-leading defense (a .441 opponents' field goal average as of Sunday) overwhelmed the Celtics, and Robinson scored a game-high 23 points, some of the baskets coming off jams of passes sailing impossibly high into the ozone. The Admiral looked every inch like the league MVP he might be, a perfectly muscled, tiny-waisted giant ranked in the top 10 in the league in five statistical categories—scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, steals and blocked shots.
Plus, he was happy. A thoughtful, bright but fairly stubborn man, Robinson had decided before the season that the Spurs needed to charter a private plane for road trips rather than travel on commercial airlines. Most other teams already chartered, he reasoned, and the benefit to the players' health and sanity would offset the Spurs' half-million dollar cost by coming back to the club in the form of W's. "It's another part of the puzzle," he told McCombs. But the owner wasn't swayed, and so in late November Robinson wrote an open letter to McCombs ripping him for not heeding the center's request. The lecture pleased Ol' Red about as much as a snakebite, but he got the plane. Also, Robinson approved of Brown's departure, though he respected the man and had nothing to do with the strange, waffling way the coach split. It still isn't clear whether Brown left at McCombs's urging or because he felt it was time to move on. "Larry asked to be terminated," says McCombs, and Brown agrees that he made such a request. But McCombs wasn't heartbroken to see him go.
One thing that is clear is that Brown felt frustrated by his failure to motivate the Spurs to move to the next level of excellence, to that of, say, the Chicago Bulls or the Portland Trail Blazers. He went to McCombs in December after the Spurs had dropped five straight games, the most consecutive losses since Robinson joined the club in 1989, and told the owner he was at his wit's end. Hired in 1988 to give the losing Spurs a high-profile personality while the club waited for Robinson to come aboard, Brown is well known as a teacher, taskmaster and perfectionist best suited for handling eager youngsters with tough hides and burning desire. But he can irritate veterans with his constant harping and unnerve players who are overly sensitive, as he eventually did with the Spurs. Veteran forward Terry Cummings often clashed with Brown over Cummings's new role as a rebounder and defender rather than gunner, and the talented but mercurial Strickland sometimes seemed to be regressing as a floor leader.
Under Brown the Spurs won 56 games in 1989-90 and 55 games in '90-91, finishing first in their division both seasons. But they quickly exited the playoffs each year, a distressing San Antonio trait. A missing player? Bad luck? Bad coaching? The maddening curse of being pretty good but not great? Or is it just the lack of a spark, that mysterious thing known as heart? "Now that's the $64 question, isn't it?" says McCombs.
It's possible that Brown, who was quickly snapped up to coach the Los Angeles Clippers, couldn't find the Spurs' big pumper. He went halfway through the season without naming a captain because he couldn't decide who could carry the responsibility. Robinson was too young, Strickland too irresponsible, Elliott and Anderson too soft. Tough old Vinnie Johnson, the Microwave, could have borne it, but he wasn't a starter. On the day before Brown left the team, the Spurs awarded the embroidered C to Cummings, a 10-year veteran and ordained Pentecostal minister. "People said he and I were always at odds," says Cummings. "But it was just that we both are such competitors. He called me a couple days later and said some things that really mean a lot to me."
Bass is wound pretty tight himself, but he's not a perfectionist or string puller like Brown. He loosened up the Spurs by letting them free-lance more on offense, telling them to shoot whenever they felt good, regardless of the time left on the shot clock. "With Bob, every mistake isn't so critical," says Robinson. "You feel like you can make up what you just missed. He doesn't make you so nervous."
No matter what this season's outcome, Bass insists he won't coach after this year. "Absolutely not," he says. "It's not what I want to do. I become a social misfit when I coach."
McCombs says he'll wait until after the season to do serious interviewing for the job, but already the names of the usual suspects are floating around. Wouldn't Detroit's Chuck Daly like the warm weather? Mike Fratello, the former Atlanta coach, must be getting bored with his TV gig. Wasn't that Stan Albeck, a onetime San Antonio head man, glad-handing every Spur employee at a recent home game? When former Bulls coach Doug Collins showed up in San Antonio to work the Celtics game for TNT, he was hounded by reporters who asked him one major question.
"Gentlemen, I do not want to coach," Collins proclaimed to all. Pause. "But if I did, I'd love to coach this team." He then asked a question of his own: "Who has a better starting lineup?"
Almost no one. With Robinson at center the Spurs have an instant defense and possibly the most agile big man in the history of the game. The 6'8" Elliott is the team's best shooter, a hardworking athlete with untapped potential. Anderson, 6'8", who went out of the lineup Feb. 17 with a stress fracture of his left tibia—he's due back in about a month—has the moves and open-court skills of Chicago's Scottie Pippen. The 6'9" Cummings is a proven scorer and team man. Strickland is erratic and has a penchant for showing up late for practice. His lack of leadership earned him a spot on the bench last week. But he can be as good as he wants to be. All the players are as quick as cats. Off the pine there is instant O from the Microwave, who has replaced Anderson for now, and solid muscle in the middle from 6'9", 265-pound Antoine Carr and 6'9", 240-pound Sidney Green. Ten-year vet and three-time all-NBA-defensive-team member Paul Pressey moved into the starting lineup while Strickland tried to get his jump shot and his mind in order. Last week the Spurs lost to the Clippers, beat Minnesota and Philadelphia and on Sunday lost to Houston 90-83. At week's end they trailed Utah by 5½ games in the Midwest Division.
Obviously that early February win over the Celtics was misleading, as Boston's backup center Joe Kleine noted at the time. "Hey, teams naturally play better for a new coach," he said. "They get the adrenaline going, and it's easy to play at home. But take a long road trip—that's when you can tell."
The Spurs could tell something was wrong during the Golden State fiasco. Strickland seemed to be in a daze. The Spurs committed 27 turnovers. "This was an aberration," McCombs said afterward.
But then it happened again the next night in Seattle. The comforts of the new airplane hadn't made a damn bit of difference. Elliott played tentatively, Anderson couldn't hit anything, Strickland's jump shot deserted him.
The Microwave was doing a slow simmer in the postgame locker room. "Childish selfishness," Johnson said. "It's time to grow up. Ridiculous!"
"We just weren't ready to play," said Strickland with a shrug.
"I don't know. We just weren't ourselves."
Or maybe they were.
"No, I don't believe that was us," said Robinson, buttoning his shirt before heading out to the bus, which would take him to the plane. "You can't put it in words, what's wrong. But it's simple. It's not the coaches, not bad players—it's just...playing. I really believe this team has character." He thought for a moment.
"We got guys who want to win," he went on, shaking his head. "It's just weird."