Super Model

Their style of play may not be captivating, but with four titles in the last nine years the Spurs have come up with a blueprint for success that's the envy of professional sports
June 24, 2007

The Vietnam medalsearned by San Antonio Spurs principal owner Peter Holt, which include a silverstar, three bronze stars and a purple heart, are displayed in a glass case inthe office of his Caterpillar dealership in suburban San Antonio. Actually,displayed is a bit misleading--the case hangs in a narrow hallway off the mainroom. The location suggests a trait shared by Holt and the NBA franchise he hasrun since 1996: Both have the hardware but neither feels the need to show itoff. ¶ With their fourth championship in nine seasons, this one completed lastThursday in Cleveland with a sweep of LeBron James's Cavaliers, the Spurs havebecome the most successful franchise in pro sports over the last decade, movingpast the New England Patriots, New York Yankees and Detroit Red Wings, each ofwhich has three titles. The tag of "model franchise" probably goes tothe Patriots, whose success has come in a sport more popular with the Americanpublic. Yet even the Pats admire the Spurs' combination of stability andhumility, high character and high achievement.

"To havesustained excellence over a decade is extremely difficult, and the Spurs havedone it as well as anyone," says New England vice president of playerpersonnel Scott Pioli, who has exchanged ideas about the right way to run afranchise with San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford. "What is reallyimpressive is their player development, the fact that they've brought in somany international players and integrated them into a system." Says JackRamsey, an ESPN analyst and longtime coach who won a championship in 1977 withthe Portland Trail Blazers, "If you're in the basketball business, theSpurs are who you want to be."

Unless, of course,you are bothered by their collective sin: They seem bland. Sure, their owner isa former hard-drinking hellion who got shot in the neck in Vietnam; their coachis a wine expert who speaks fluent Russian; their franchise player is thegreatest power forward in NBA history; their lefthanded Argentine guard, thehero of Game 4, barrels through the lane like a running back; and their2006 Finals MVP, a Frenchman, will soon say Oui, je le veux in one of thecelebrity marriages of the year. So they might not actually be bland. Butperception is all.

Any thought thatSan Antonio might gain traction in the attention wars was derailed by a Finalsthat lacked intrigue and, too often, offense. Ask coach Gregg Popovich if hethinks about his team's inability to connect with America and you will get ablank stare and one word: no. Ask superstar forward Tim Duncan and you will geta blank, tilted-head stare--Duncan looks at the media like an entomologistpeering through a microscope--that amounts to another no. The only one who willadmit to even thinking about the subject is Holt. "More recognition for ourplayers and our organization would be an acknowledgement that the way we dobusiness is a good way," Holt says. "So, yes, I want it for our playersand coaches. But only the right kind of publicity. I'm not interested in havingour team be in the tabloids." He laughs. "I guess if anyone has beenguilty of that, it's me."

Not the tabloidsexactly, but when Holt checked himself into a rehab facility in 2004, it didmake the newspapers in San Antonio. He had been sober for almost 20 yearsbefore falling off the wagon. "It was a one-day story," says Holt."There was no wrecked car, no DUI, no divorce. I knew I needed to take careof some things before I got myself in trouble again." The only other thingHolt will say about the subject is that he hasn't had a drink since he enteredrehab.

It was booze thatlanded Holt in Vietnam. The son of a millionaire--his great-grandfatherBenjamin Holt, developed the modern tractor, which led to the formation ofCaterpillar, Inc.--Holt was a first-class screwup. In the summer of 1966 he wasapprehended by police after trying to outrun them in a car (while inebriated,of course) and found himself standing before a judge in his hometown of CorpusChristi. "Kid, you're on a bad path," the judge told him. "You'reoutdrinking your friends. You should consider going into the service." Thatphrase--outdrinking your friends--inspired him to act. Holt soon enlisted, andby September 1967 he was in Vietnam.

The Tet Offensivebegan in January 1968, and with the 25th Infantry Division, holed upnear the Cambodian border, Holt saw almost daily action until he mustered outin September '68. During one firefight, Holt was shot in the base of theneck, patched up and sent back to duty within three days. He can recount otherbattles when he dragged men to safety or was dragged out of harm's way himself.It was hellish. But the story that sticks with him was something that couldhave happened but didn't.

"I was walkingpoint, hacking through the jungle with a machete, when I came on across-trail," remembers Holt. "There was a hidden grenade, but the tripwire went the opposite way from where I swung my machete. Had it gone the otherway, it would've blown my brains out.

"I came out ofVietnam with two things: a grasp of how the collective good keeps people alive,and the fact that luck can play a big part in everything you do." Hechuckles. "Certainly that's been true with the Spurs."

He is referring,of course, to a pair of providential lotteries that earned San Antonio theright to draft David Robinson in 1987 and Duncan 10 years later.

After subduing thealcohol demons that pursued him for years after Vietnam, Holt bought acontrolling 32% share in the Spurs before the 1996-97 season, which turned outto be a dark time in franchise history. Robinson was hurt and would play onlysix games; Duncan was still a senior at Wake Forest; Popovich, then the G.M.,would fire coach Bob Hill 18 games into the season and take over himself;Buford was the head scout; and Holt, by his own admission, "didn't knowwhat the hell I was doing." San Antonio finished with a 20-62 record, andHolt remembers thinking, What did I get myself into?

But the Spursstuck to a plan, one that will sound familiar to fans in New England. Holtinstituted what Buford calls "a value-based management team that was insymmetry with what Pop wanted to do on the basketball side." That isgobbledygook for: The organization comes first, and every decision will bediscussed by everyone. "We believe that none of us are as smart as all ofus," says Holt. Lips would be sealed too. In refusing to answer a questionabout strategy or personnel moves, Popovich has maintained a favoriteexpression: "That's family business."

On the basketballside Holt would keep his nose out of the decision-making as long as Popovichand Buford (who became G.M. in July 2002 to let Pop concentrate oncoaching) brought in people of character, which is what they wanted to doanyway. One of the few times Holt raised a flag was in the summer of '03, whenthe basketball staff wanted to go after Latrell Sprewell, the guard who duringa 1997 practice altercation had put his hands around the throat of P.J.Carlesimo, then the coach of the Golden State Warriors and now a San Antonioassistant. Sprewell was not offered a deal.

The search forpersonnel would be global (five international players earned rings thisseason), and every player had to be willing and able to do two things--defend,and pass the ball to an open teammate. Everyone would be treated with respect,but a bottom-line approach to winning was in effect: When a player failed toproduce, or when his contract exceeded his future value, he would be traded,waived or allowed to leave as a free agent. Derek Anderson, Stephen Jackson andMalik Rose found that out.

So did two playersstill on the roster. In the summer of 2003, after San Antonio had won itssecond championship, Popovich looked second-year point guard Tony Parker in theeye and said, essentially, "We're going after Jason Kidd in the free-agentmarket. Deal with it." Kidd didn't sign, and Parker, who was stung,remained in the fold and eventually dealt with it. Just before the tradingdeadline last season, Popovich told veteran guard Brent Barry he had beenshipped to the New Orleans Hornets and shouldn't bother boarding the teamcharter for a road trip. But the deal fell through, Barry hopped the planebound for Memphis, and last Thursday he earned his second ring. "I've beenpulled around a little bit here," says Barry, "but at least it's doneto your face. I want to be around a winner, so it's been worth it."

The Spurs indeedseem to live in their own Never Never Land, allowing only glimpses into theirinner workings, drawing on the bunker-mentality bonhomie shaped by their coach."Pop defines the team," says Duncan. "He always has, and as long ashe's here, he always will." After San Antonio made short work of the Cavslast Thursday, there was Popovich stopping an interview in mid-sentence to hugDuncan, who was passing by. There was Argentine sixth man Manu Ginóbiliconducting gab sessions in both Italian and Spanish and Parker giving his inFrench. There was backup point guard Beno Udrih, who is from Slovenia, walkingarm in arm with Jacque Vaughn and asking to take a photo with him, even thoughVaughn had earned almost all of Udrih's minutes during the season.

And there,finally, was Peter Holt, one-time drunk and war hero, standing in a hallwayoutside the Spurs' locker room, across from Parker's fiancée, TV star EvaLongoria, who smiled obligingly each time someone aimed a cellphone camera ather, which was often. Holt had been inside the locker room for a few minutesbut wanted to leave the celebration to the players, "the ones who reallyaccomplished all of this." He smelled of victory champagne. "But all ofit is on my shirt," he promised, "and none of it went in mymouth."


Clutch Shots

Game-by-game galleries of the best pictures from thisyear's NBA Finals.


"Yes, I WANT MORE PUBLICITY for our players andcoaches. But only the right kind," says Holt (left) of his underappreciatedSpurs. "I'm not interested in having our team be in the tabloids."

The Cavaliers never found an answer for Parker, who averaged 24.5 points andwas named Finals MVP.
PHOTOBOB ROSATOHE'S THE MANU After being held withouta field goal in Game¬†3, Ginóbili bounced back to score 27 points in theclincher. PHOTOBOB ROSATOSPURRED ON
Duncan shot a combined 10 for 32 in Games 3 and 4, but San Antonio got enoughoffense from other sources to complete the sweep.
Could Bryant be wearing red next fall?