Spicing Up the Spurs A point guard from France, an Argentine rookie and a hoops nomad have added flavor to once-bland San Antonio

March 17, 2003

If one were to put a face on the San Antonio Spurs of recent
vintage, it would be either the expressionless mask worn by
superstar forward Tim Duncan or the choirboy countenances of
Good Guy Hall of Famers such as David Robinson, Avery Johnson
and Steve Smith. The last team not named the Los Angeles Lakers
to win an NBA championship, the Spurs had been too good for too
long (first or second in the Midwest Division in 12 of the last
13 seasons) to be dismissed as bland, but consider: Their
spiciest character was coach Gregg Popovich, a former Air Force
captain whose unadorned style and choleric outbursts suggest a
gym teacher just plain fed up with the lack of discipline in
that eighth-period class.

The current Spurs, who had won 15 of 17 games at week's end to
creep to within five games of the Dallas Mavericks for the best
record in the league, have ingredients more in keeping with
salsa-flavored San Antone. They have a sly smile, flashed by
20-year-old point guard Tony Parker, who even in the heat of
battle looks as if he just got away with planting a whoopee
cushion--or whatever form of mischief they favor in France, where
he was raised as that country's best-known gym rat. They have
end-to-end energy, supplied by Emanuel (Manu) Ginobili, a
25-year-old Argentine guard whose gung-ho antics prompt Popovich
to shake his head and say, "He's quite a strange young man." And
they have some street, provided by 6'8" swingman Stephen Jackson,
the self-described "third-best-known person from Port Arthur,
Texas" (behind Janis Joplin and Jimmy Johnson), a basketball
gypsy who has been cut more times than a prelim palooka but whose
rambunctiousness leads assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo to call him
"the anti-Spur."

The salient question, of course, is whether the de-vanillazation
of the Spurs makes them better equipped to overcome the
formidable playoff obstacles in the Western Conference--primarily
the Lakers, who have eliminated them two years in a row. The
answer is yes. In three of their four playoff losses to L.A. last
year, the Spurs blew fourth-period leads, partly because they
were unproductive on offense once the Lakers marshaled their
forces to stop Duncan. Now, San Antonio is better in transition,
better able to break down a team in the half-court, quicker on
defense, gnarlier in spirit and generally more unpredictable.
"Wild and crazy in a good way," as Carlesimo puts it.

While the Spurs believe they can win their second championship in
five seasons, they are also quietly washing the china and
thinking about setting next year's table. Several years ago
Popovich (then the G.M. as well) hatched a plan to have beaucoup
cash available after this season for getting Duncan a high-priced
sidekick, and, lo and behold, the money (about $14 million) is
there. When the New Jersey Nets came to the new SBC Center last
Thursday, the game seemed not so much a possible preview of the
NBA Finals as a getting-to-know-you recruiting trip for point
guard Jason Kidd, the most prized free agent on the market if, as
expected, he opts out of his contract. (Duncan will likely
exercise his one-year option this summer to stay in San Antonio
and become a free agent after next season, when he's expected to
re-sign for the long term with the Spurs.) One young fan held up
a sign that said S.A. KIDS WANT KIDD. An older fan countered with
a sign bearing a diagonal line through Kidd's name, meaning S.A.
Doesn't Want Kidd.

The incumbent S.A. point guard doesn't seem at all affected by
the prattle about Kidd. The 28th pick in the 2001 draft, Parker
surprised the NBA when he took charge of the veteran Spurs five
games into his rookie season. Through Sunday, his shooting from
the field (45.6%), from beyond the arc (35.2%) and from the free
throw line (74.8%) had improved from last season, the result of
daily summer workouts. He's also a better passer, a better
defender and, most important, a better leader. He'll move the
reigning MVP, whose name he pronounces "Teem," when he thinks
Duncan should be moved, and he'll question Popovich, who he says
is "like a second father to me," about strategy. From time to
time Parker will still get his slender 6'2", 180-pound body into
seemingly dire predicaments--his assist-to-turnover ratio at
week's end was 2.26, 41st in the league--but he's able to get off
a variety of half-hooks, teardrop runners and scoop shots, the
kind of French pastry a smallish playmaker needs in traffic.

The best thing about Parker is that he combines youthful zest
with an eagerness to learn. He and Popovich have more whispered
conferences than a couple of lovelorn middle-schoolers, getting
together for a consult at almost every free throw break. "It
makes me feel comfortable," says Parker. Coach and quarterback
also have a one-on-one strategy session for about five minutes
before every game. The subject of their pre-Nets tete-a-tete was
offensive output.

"I want you to get up 26 shots," Pop said. (How he came up with
26 instead of, say, 25, is a mystery.)

"Really?" said Parker.

"Really," said the coach. "If you take that many, it'll mean you
stayed aggressive and didn't get caught up in this Kidd thing."

So Parker went out and took a game-high 23 shots, making 10 of
them. More important, he hit five of nine in the fourth quarter,
when the Spurs pulled away for a 92-78 victory. "Whatever Pop
wants," says Parker, "I try to give him."

Ginobili gives Pop so much that the coach calls him "our Doug
Christie," referring to the do-everything Sacramento Kings guard.
A glance at the 6'6" Ginobili's stat line against the Nets
reveals his value: 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds, five
steals. A few of the thefts were works of art (not to mention the
steal he almost made when, with his back to the ball, he sensed a
pass was being thrown over his head, threw up his hands at the
last moment and made a deflection). When Kidd fell asleep for a
moment, Ginobili flicked the ball out of his hands. When Kidd
stormed downcourt against Parker, Ginobili leaped out and knocked
the rock away. Rodney Rogers thought he saw an open Kidd;
Ginobili jumped into the passing lane and picked off the pass. "I
have always been a--do you say it this way?--good stealer," he
said. Yes, Manu, you can say it that way.

Ginobili, who speaks English fluently even though it's his third
language (behind his native Spanish and Italian, which he picked
up during his three years as a pro in Italy), almost can't
believe his good fortune in landing in the NBA, never mind with a
contender. "I heard I got drafted, and my first response was,
'Me? You sure?'" says Ginobili, whom the Spurs took with the 57th
pick in 1999. "Nobody was thinking about me as an NBA player at
the time." He limped into camp with a right-ankle injury suffered
at the world championships last summer and sat out most of
December. By the time he had healed, Popovich was comfortable
starting Jackson and small forward Bruce Bowen. Ginobili has
since found his niche as a reserve swingman who can ignite the
Spurs with his defense, his passing or his snaking, southpaw
forays to the hoop.

To a certain extent, Ginobili feels as if he's playing for his
homeland, which is beset with political and economic problems.
"When you do something good, my people really attach themselves
to you," he says. "They're looking for somebody to be proud of. I
feel good that it's me." He gets about 50 hits per day on his
website (manuginobili.com), and double that after he plays well.
Ginobili looks around at the Spurs' spacious new training
facility in suburban San Antonio (built, not coincidentally, a
five-minute drive from Duncan's house), spreads his hands and
beams. At that moment Carlesimo breaks into the conversation,
points to Ginobili and says, "Major league a------."

Manu smiles. "You see how they treat me?" he says.

Jackson may feel even more relieved than Ginobili to have found a
home (he hopes) in San Antonio. He's lived a lifetime since he
played in the 1996 McDonald's All-American game with future pros
Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal, Mike Bibby and Tim Thomas. Jack, as
the Spurs call their third-leading scorer (11.7 points per game),
admits that he was "a kid who knew everything and wasn't as
coachable as those other guys." After skipping college he was
taken in the second round by the Phoenix Suns, who waived him.
Jackson played in Australia, Venezuela and the Dominican
Republic, and at two CBA stops, La Crosse, Wis., and Fort Wayne,
Ind. He has also been cut by four NBA teams and was soundly
dissed by Nets coach Byron Scott after he spent an unhappy and
unproductive 2000-01 season in Jersey. Jackson almost climbed off
the merry-go-round in '98. Three days after returning to Port
Arthur following his release by the Timberwolves, his brother,
Donald Buckner, was beaten to death in a quarrel over a woman,
his head split open by a pipe. "A little bit of me died with
him," says the 24-year-old Jackson, "and playing didn't seem
worth it. But then I thought, I don't know anything but
basketball."

Catching on with the Spurs, a quality franchise 300 miles west of
his hometown, has been a dream. For all his travels, Jackson has
never forgotten Port Arthur. He plans to reopen Jackson &
Company, the defunct soul food restaurant owned by his late
grandfather, and raise his profile in the town. "Janis has some
stuff in a museum and Jimmy has a boulevard named after him,"
said Jackson. "Me? I'd like a boulevard."

An eponymous San Antonio street--Tim & Tony Lane has a nice ring
to it--might one day honor Duncan and Parker should they continue
as the Spurs' top twosome. Considering that Duncan is only 26
(even though it seems as if he's been around forever), they have
the potential to become the second coming of Stockton & Malone, a
tandem that can beat teams in transition ("Many people don't
realize how Teem loves to run the floor," says Parker) or torture
them with pick-and-rolls. Parker has played so well that lately
the idea has taken hold around San Antonio that the team should
not go after Kidd, an understandable but hopelessly quaint
sentiment. (Career triple double scoreboard: Kidd 49, Parker 0).
Another theory is that Parker and Kidd could coexist in the
backcourt. They could share the playmaking chores, and, on
defense, Parker could check the whippets while the 6'4",
215-pound Kidd handles what Carlesimo calls "the big-ass guards."

San Antonio has met the Kidd Question head on, as one would
expect of Team No Turmoil. Popovich, who because of NBA tampering
rules can't talk specifically about free agents, has told his
team, "This is a business. Any damn thing can happen."
Translation: Of course we might go after Jason Kidd. Parker has
heard the same thing in his private talks with Pop and has gotten
the message. "Who knows what happens in the future?" Parker said
last week, sounding like a 10-year veteran. "Maybe we win the
championship and everything's fine. But maybe we lose in the
conference finals or earlier and we're mad and we want to make
some changes. Jason Kidd is the best point guard in the league.
Every team he's gone to has gotten better." Could he envision
them in the same backcourt? "Of course," Parker says. "We both
know how to play the game. We would know how to stay out of each
other's way."

As for right now, though, the Spurs could hardly be more
delighted with the performance of all three of Teem's young
playmates. With or without Kidd, these kids appear to be all
right.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [T of C] HOTSPUR Guard Emanuel Ginobili is San Antonio's candidate for NBA rookie of the year (page 50). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG NELSON NO KIDDING Unruffled by talk of Kidd's coming next season, Parker has improved in every phase of the game. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES G-WHIZ In addition to his often spectacular defense, Ginobili has given a spurt to the Spurs' attack. COLOR PHOTO: KENT HORNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES NEW JACK CITY A fiesty Jackson has finally found a home just hours from his beloved Port Arthur. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN SMASHMOUTH Malik Rose shows the Nets' Jason Collins that while the Spurs have added some new faces, they haven't changed their rugged ways. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER REACH FOR THE SKY Duncan has a rare double in his sights: a second NBA title and a second consecutive MVP award. COLOR PHOTO: JAMES NIELSEN/AFP YAO-DY, PARDNER Ming's Rockets, the weakest of the three Texas teams, were more than a match for the road-weary Nets. COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES WHIP HAND Nash and the Mavs got Kidd's tour of Texas off to a rocky start. COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON TWO FOR THE SHOW The partnership of Parker and Duncan could become the Spurs' version of Stockton and Malone.

Road To PERDITION
Teams traveling to Texas these days in search of wins often come
up empty

Ah, a road trip through Texas--it used to be so much fun for NBA
players. A stroll along San Antonio's picturesque Riverwalk. A
quiet dinner in a ritzy North Dallas eatery. A clandestine
excursion to one of those high-class "gentlemen's clubs" in
Houston. You could stretch the legs, pamper the palate, unleash
the libido and still come away with at least one win, maybe two.

Not anymore. Texas has become a perilous place for guests; just
ask the Nets. Last year's Eastern champs arrived on March 3 with
a conference-best record of 38-22. They lost to the Mavericks
88-79 the next night, got ambushed by the Spurs 92-78 last
Thursday and wrapped up a painful Texas Three-Step by being
stomped by the Rockets 83-71 last Saturday. After recovering to
beat the Hornets in New Orleans on Sunday 102-92, the Nets limped
home with a tenuous 1 1/2-game lead in the Atlantic Division. "Any
road trip, you're happy to get it over with," says New Jersey
guard Lucious Harris. "But this one, we're especially happy."

The Nets aren't the first visitors from the East to get
Texas-barbecued this season: At week's end Eastern teams had gone
4-32 in the Lone Star State. Even the better Western clubs have
taken some licks in Texas. The Kings and the Timberwolves have
lost both of their games in Houston and one each in San Antonio.
The T-Wolves have also gone down in Big D. The Lakers were 0-3 in
Texas, and the Trail Blazers have lost in both Dallas and
Houston. The combined record of those Western powers on trips to
the state: 5-12.

Not since 1989-90, the last season in which all three Texas teams
qualified for the playoffs, have so many been bushwhacked. During
much of the '90s the Mavericks were one of the league's doormats;
their 48-14 record through Sunday was the best in the NBA. San
Antonio's 43-18 mark was third best. And in the middle of the
struggle for a playoff spot were the Rockets, who, at 32-30, had
already won four more games than they did last year.

Each member of the Texas trio boasts an All-Star skyscraper:
7-footers Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas and Tim Duncan in San Antonio
and 7'5" Yao Ming in Houston. All three teams have a certain
frenetic element, too, the Mavs' supplied by the whirligig shot
making of point guard Steve Nash, the Spurs' by the derring-do of
Argentine swingman Manu Ginobili and the Rockets' by the
unpredictable racehorse backcourt of Steve Francis and Cuttino
Mobley.

Then, too, the Texas teams have distinct styles, making multistop
trips to the state even more difficult; teams that have hit all
three cities in one swing are a combined 2-13. Dallas, the NBA's
highest-scoring outfit (102.6 points per game at week's end),
runs opponents into submission and bewilders them with a mixture
of zones. The Spurs are a hard-nosed bunch who rely on man-to-man
D and the shot blocking of Duncan and, when he's healthy, David
Robinson to hold opponents to a league-low shooting percentage
(41.9). The Rockets are an amalgam of their Texas rivals, still
trying to find a balance between Francis's open-court brilliance
and Yao's blossoming low-post presence; they're not nearly as
consistent as the other two, but when they're on, they're as good
as anyone. Says a weary Harris, "I guess that's why they say,
Don't mess with Texas." --J.M.

For NBA news plus analysis from Jack McCallum go to
si.com/basketball.

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