In the fifth and final installment from his new book The History of the San Antonio Spurs (© Whitman Publishing, LLC), Sheridanhoops columnist Jan Hubbard (twitter: @whyhub) writes about what is arguably the greatest Spurs’ team ever – the only championship team that included Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. (You can order the book here.)
The story in 2003 wasn’t Parker or Ginobili. It wasn’t even Duncan, who was the first player since Michael Jordan to win consecutive Most Valuable Player awards. He also won his second Finals MVP award with monstrous averages of 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds and 5.3 blocks as the Spurs defeated the New Jersey Nets in six games. That included 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocked shots in the Spurs Game 6 victory.
Still, because of sentiment, the story was David Robinson, who at age 37 retired after the series. It was the last of 14 seasons and a career that established him as one of the great centers in NBA history. Robinson made the All-Star team 10 times, was one of only 12 players in league history to exceed 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, won one MVP award and one defensive player of the year award, was a scoring champion one season and played on two championship teams.
Robinson went out in style. He took only eight shots in his last game as a Spur, but made six of them, had 13 points and hit the boards hard for 17 rebounds. After the game, Robinson was asked if he had a bittersweet feeling.
“There was absolutely nothing bitter about it,” Robinson said. “It was all sweet. Everything that came along, I swallowed it up. This is my last game – streamers flying, world champions. How could you write a better script than this?”
The perfect ending for Robinson coincided with an uneven start by Ginobili, who quickly became a fan favorite and a Popovich irritant for his wild and crazy antics. Ginobili had been drafted in 1999 after the Spurs’ first title, but they were hardly excited about the pick. They had a chance, in fact, to get him with a second-round pick, No. 40 overall. Instead, that pick was used to draft Croatian guard Gordan Giricek, who played for five teams and had a career average of 9.6 points in six seasons.
“Everybody thinks we are so smart for taking Manu with a late second-round pick,” [general manager R.C.] Buford said. “If we were that smart, we would have taken him instead of Gordon Giricek.”
Unlike Parker, the Spurs did not see brilliant talent in Ginobili. He was a quirky, flamboyant player who was capable of doing something outrageous – like swatting a bat out of the air during a game played, perhaps appropriately, on Halloween.
(The bat had been flying around the arena, sailing down on the players and even halted play. When it got too close to Ginobili, he simply took a swing at it and hit it. He then carried what he thought was a dead bat off the floor and put it in a garbage can but later found out that the bat was simply stunned and escaped. Because the bat could not be found and tested, Ginobili had to get a series of precautionary rabies shots. “They were very painful,” he said. “If I’d known that, I’d never hit the bat.”)
While his instincts were his greatest ally, they also tested Popovich’s patience. There were occasions when Ginobili might put on his best Harlem Globetrotter routine and take the ball behind his back and through his legs while twirling a revolution or two and then throw an over-the-shoulder pass to an open teammate. He probably could have executed a simple shovel pass for an easy two points.
He was flashy, but Popovich – the military man – did not like flash.
“He would make passes that were unnecessary in certain situations and he could do it in a more efficient manner,” Popovich said. “I would go to him and say ‘Manu, we don’t need that right now. Here’s the score, here’s the time, I’m not sure what can we do about this.’”
Ginobili speaks three languages fluently but he would look at Popovich like the Spurs coach was speaking in tongues.
Change the way he plays?
With every bit of diplomacy that he could summon while still remaining true to his basketball values, Ginobili would explain the situation.
“We can do nothing,” Ginobili would earnestly tell his coach. “I am Manu and this is how I play.”
Although Popovich remembers multiple occasions for such a conversation, Ginobili laughs today and says, “It only happened once. I was upset and I shouldn’t have said it. It was after a very awkward behind-the-back pass and I was frustrated. But he understood that’s really how I felt the game. It was just part of me.”
In 2003, the Spurs may have had the most special team in their history – a 37-year-old legend in Robinson, a 21-year-old bundle of excitement in Parker, a fascinating 25-year-old rookie in Ginobili and one of the dominant stars of his era in the 27-year-old Duncan.
For that one glorious season, eras intersected. Duncan and Robinson had combined for one championship. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili would win two more.
But in 2003, they were together – four of the five key players in the history of the San Antonio Spurs. Somewhere close by, no doubt, George Gervin was smiling.
© Whitman Publishing, LLC
PREVIOUSLY: Excerpt #4: How The Spurs Ended Up With Tony Parker
PREVIOUSLY: Excerpt #3: The crafty dealings that landed George Gervin in San Antonio
PREVIOUSLY: Excerpt #2: Colorful but futile start for Spurs franchise in Dallas
PREVIOUSLY: Excerpt #1: As Popovich nears 900 victories, a look at the early days
CHECK OUT JAN HUBBARD’S ARCHIVE FROM SHERIDAN HOOPS.COM. GREAT STUFF ON THE NBA THEN AND NOW.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.