Commentary

THE NBA'S MOST BORING TEAM IS HAVING WAY MORE FUN THAN THE REST OF THE LEAGUE

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:55 PM ET
By Ric Bucher

Exhibit A in the case of The San Antonio Spurs vs. The People Who Call Them Dull and Boring: Manu Ginobili's frozen drawers.

Last November, as the Spurs star warmed up before a game, reserve Sean Marks snatched his teammate's underwear and stashed it in a small training room freezer. While Ginobili showered after helping beat the Knicks, Marks hung the now-stiff V-shaped boxer-briefs at the foot of Manu's locker, just where they'd been left hours earlier. The rest of the team fell out when the Argentine picked up his cold-as-a-daiquiri,bentas-a-boomerang shorts and said, "What the !?"

"Needless to say," says Brent Barry, "he went home wearing nothing but a layer of gabardine."

Feel free to see the Spurs as a bunch of drones who toil under the iron fist of an ex-military man in a no-frills system. Most of the league has the same impression; only Salt Lake City registers lower on the NBA's Dour Scale. "When I was with other teams, you'd hear about how this wasn't a fun place to play," says Marks, who gets cracked on for his resemblance to actor Will Ferrell in the same way assistant P.J. Carlesimo's likeness to a certain home-repair maven has him answering to the name Bob Vila. "That couldn't be further from the truth," adds Marks.

They don't wear headbands at odd angles, or body sleeves on their arms or legs. The only monotonous element of this team is its perpetual title contention. The Spurs have been in the hunt eight years running-collecting two championships-and their talent base and cap flexibility should keep them there for six more. Even as so many recent contenders have been torn apart by internal strife, the Spurs are mentally tighter yet emotionally looser than ever.

The joke, as it turns out, is on the rest of the NBA. Gregg Popovich, he of the gruff sideline demeanor and quick hook, considers one trait imperative as he molds his squad: a sense of humor. Hard as it may be to believe, what the Spurs are best at-aside from playing stifling D and running the league's most multifaceted offense-is pulling pranks and cracking wise. "If there is no humor, there is no ability to take criticism or handle embarrassment," Popovich says. "We really are big believers in getting over yourself. If you're taking away from the group, you don't need to be here. It's that simple."

They may be deadly serious on the court, but, trust us, the Spurs are laughing on the inside.

THEY DON'T troll nightclubs. There's no high-stakes card game, a staple on most team flights. No-wage spades is as wild as it gets. Two of the most popular all-time Spurs are Bible thumpers David Robinson and Avery Johnson. Outside interests run more to X Games than to X-rated. Tim Duncan has a paintball course on his property and organizes contests in the off-season. He also sets up video game battles, both in person and online. (Yes, your squad leader could be the Big Fundamental.) With half the roster calling San Antonio home year-round, he can always find competition.

But it is exactly this communal, clean-cut closeness that has wiped away inhibitions and tunneled through social hierarchies. Everyone in the SBC Center is fair game. Once former forward Danny Ferry discovered the cushioned seats of the team bench could absorb moisture without revealing telltale marks, he often poured water on them, then waited for the moment when an assistant coach would unknowingly show a soaked backside to the crowd. This being the Spurs, the humiliating prank didn't stop Ferry from being hired as the team's basketball operations director when he retired.

The unwritten protocol is that families, wives and girlfriends are out-of-bounds except when Pop feels like teasing Tony Parker about dating Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria. Then again, Parker had already got his own digs in at the season ticket-holders luncheon last fall. Taking the podium, he unfurled Ginobili's Olympic gold medal and asked bronze winners Popovich and Duncan if they wanted to have their picture taken with it.

Christmas is a time for giving, but in San Antonio, it's also a time for dishing it out. Slovenian rookie Beno Udrih, dubbed One-25 after Barry suckered him into a $125 haircut, got a year's supply of gift certificates to a local hair-salon chain. Ginobili, he of the formidable schnoz, got a turbo nose-hair trimmer. Bruce Bowen's gift was a Mr. Potato Head, because, well, surely you've noticed the resemblance. And former Spur Malik Rose, who took a particular delight in skewering the team's foreign players, is now the proud owner of a Euro-styled man purse, shoulder strap and all.

The vibe, of course, flows top down from the primary cutups, Pop and TD. In a late-season practice, when Popovich mistakenly referred to a play as Thumbs Down, 45 Ice, Duncan quickly raised his hand and said, "Orwe could call it Thumbs Down, Five Ice." Video coordinators James Borrego and Paul Rivers took their turn to tweak the coach in a film session, tacking to the end of a game tape a segment titled, "Always Have Your Hands Ready," in which a deflected pass catches an unsuspecting Popovich in the groin.

The team's biggest star has always lived by his boss' keep-it-loose philosophy. Theirs is the closest coach-player bond in the league. Duncan routinely stops by Pop's house to plop into his coach's favorite chair and talk about life. "I don't want to say it's a father-son relationship," Popovich says. "That would be presumptuous. That would have to come from him." It does. "I respect him on those terms," says Duncan.

They discovered a shared conviction in the power of not taking yourself too seriously the first time they met in Duncan's native St. Croix. The center's four-year career at Wake Forest had made him the undisputed first choice in the 1997 draft, and Popovich, whose Spurs were picking first, wanted to find out about whom he'd earned the right to hire. The first move was made by Duncan, when he convinced Pop to try a local shaved-ice drink that is a nonalcoholic cross between ouzo and grappa. "Most godawful thing I've ever had," Popovich says. "He laughed at me like I was 12 years old. But I told him, 'You opened the door, Jack.'" Duncan learned quickly who he was dealing with as well. "He was more approachable than I expected," says TD of the coach who rolled island-style throughout his stay. "People feel they have to separate themselves when they're in his position. He is atypical."

As is the coach, so is the player. The No. 1 pick had no qualms about reporting for summer league duty. But when Duncan, a righty, had a lefthanded jump hook swatted by a no-name center, it was payback time for Pop. "Nice shot," he said. "We're going to be realgood this year."

Duncan didn't miss a beat: "I told you you screwed up taking me."

THE PURPOSE of the comic relief is to balance Pop's nonnegotiable demand for execution and focus. Wins and division titles don't satisfy him; only playing better than the day before does. Act for a second as if the job is done before the Larry O'Brien is in hand and you're in for it. With four minutes left in a late-season romp over the Nets, Popovich blistered Parker for screwing up the Spurs' 2-3 zone. A minute later, with the crowd applauding Duncan as he headed to the bench after a 19-point, 8-rebound, 4-assist, 4-block night, an exasperated Popovich pulled out a clipboard to show the big man how he messed up a diagonal cut. Duncan listened dutifully.

"This is the first team I've been on where everybody is treated the same," says reserve Tony Massenburg, who has been with a record-tying 12 NBA teams. (His Christmas present was a book on how to survive after 40; he's 37.) "Usually a coach will yell at the man next to The Man to make his point," he continues. "Pop gets in Tim's face and Tim takes it. That lets everyone know when Pop chews you out, it's strictly about what you need to do to get better. He can do that because of Tim- the most laid-back superstar I've ever known."

An eavesdropping Barry says, "Yeah, I hate guys like that."

Barry signed a four-year deal with the Spurs last summer for $4 million less than the Blazers offered in large part because of Duncan. Barry was also impressed by the thoroughness of the Spurs' background check. Instead of calling coaches and GMs, the brass reached out to former teammates and friends. Bowen could have made $4 million this season but decided on a three-year deal with a team option for a fourth year that pays him $3.5 million per. Ginobili took a six-year, $52 million offer last summer; he could've gotten a lot more elsewhere. Maybe not everyone wants to be a Spur, but those who are know what they have is unique.

During each practice, a coach puts an arm around or pats the back of every man on the roster. In film sessions, half the time is spent on breaking down well-run plays and doling out praise. "In most places, you just try to survive a film session, because it's all about how bad you are," Barry says. "I've never seen a coach who has the pulse of a team the way Pop does."

Popovich, an Air Force Academy grad, is fluent in Russian and Serbian and has a familiarity with Eastern European culture, which may help to explain why the Spurs seem such a comfortable fit for foreign-born players. But again, his way pervades the Spurs' culture.

Udrih and Rasho Nesterovic were having a postgame dinner back in November in a Boston restaurant with then-Celtic Jiri Welsch. Duncan entered with Robert Horry, and when he spotted the table of players, he walked over. "Hey, Jiri," he said. "What's going on, fellas?" When Duncan left, Welsch was in disbelief. "Our stars would never come over like that," he told Udrih and Rasho. As if on cue, Ricky Davis walked by. He nodded and kept going.

Neither his three years in other towns nor facing the Spurs in the second round of these playoffs has unraveled the connection Sonic Antonio Daniels has with the franchise. Daniels still lives in Pop's San Antonio 'hood and works out at the Spurs' facility in the off-season. He has yet to find a team unity to match what he had when he wore black and silver. "It says something when guys hang out together when they don't have to," he says. "We have that in Seattle, but it's not quite what I experienced in San Antonio."

TO BE fair, Popovich wasn't always such a devotee of individual humility and collective chemistry. He was a hotshot student and basketball player out of Merrillville (Ind.) High when he was accepted by the Academy. But it wasn't long before he was knocked off his pedestal. As a plebe, he had to recite one of the four verses of the national anthem before he could sit down to his meal. He was reprimanded constantly for dressing sloppily, talking back and tardiness. It quickly became clear that it didn't matter what he'd done but what he could contribute. Later, as an assistant to down-home Air Force head coach Hank Egan, Popovich observed how a personal touch could not only lift a team above its talent level but also forge relationships that lasted far beyond the hardwood.

He got his chance to prove that style could work in the give-me-mine NBA when he was hired by the Spurs as GM in 1994. He added "head coach" to his bio two years later. Nearly a decade on, he is still delegating authority freely. Everyone's opinion is heard. R.C. Buford, who took over the GM job in 2002, has complete freedom to pursue out-of-the-box thinking and keep up with the latest advances in psychology, nutrition and training techniques (when he's not roaming the globe in search of the next Manu). While Popovich has always had a free hand off the court, it's only been in the past three years that he has loosened the on-court reins, the better to accommodate the improvisational wizardry of Ginobili and Parker. But the proper gauge of the Spurs way is not to be found during the game.

Sean Elliott's career might not have garnered a retirement ceremony with another franchise. But the March night when they lifted Elliott's No. 32 jersey to the rafters is final proof that for the Spurs, individual statistics aren't the measure of the player or the man. To this team, a man who battled a debilitating kidney disease as he played for his team's first championship, then fought back after transplant surgery to play again, is worth honoring in perpetuity. The fans agreed, as 19,000 stayed after an afternoon game against the Jazz to offer repeated standing ovations to Elliott and his former teammates.

Elliott, of course, took the moving moment to respond in typical Spurs fashion. He ribbed Popovich about his "obscene" coach's shorts and Johnson for his Louisiana-inflected pronunciation of "Japan." Even Duncan, who hobbled out for the 50-minute celebration despite having left the game with a sprained ankle, got a shot for visiting Elliott in the hospital after his transplant to challenge his drug-addled teammate to video game battle.

"What we have really hits home when you see something like that," says Barry.

Ginobili, meanwhile, never has figured out what he did to warrant the freezing of his boxers. "I don't know what I did to Sean that day, but I'm sure it was something," he says. "I have been known, when Sean falls asleep next to me on the plane, to poke him and ask, 'Are you awake?'"

The gold medal Argentine national team, Ginobili says, has the same fun-loving approach as his Spurs, which tells him it's not just possible to laugh your way to a championship, but that there's no better way to do it. "I have no concerns," he says. "We are on the way to where we want to be. We have everything."

Especially, contrary to what you've heard, fun...

ICE STORM

Before TD, Pop and Manu, The Iceman defined the Spurs way. Now, George Gervin speaks up about his team and his game.

I came from Motown, but I found a home here in San Antonio. The Spurs always have been great about working in the community and have always brought in guys with character. No one brings in more ex-players for functions or gives them more jobs in the organization.

These guys know doing something for someone else makes you feel good. That's why my favorite player is Bruce Bowen. He talks to kids about literacy. He went back to get his degree. He sets a positive example.

Bruce is one of the few guys on our team who isn't a foreigner, who gets a lot of playing time. I've got nothing against the foreign players-in the league or on our team-but they don't understand the history of America. I see the attraction for coaches: the foreign guys want to fit in, and you need to have guys who play their role. American players are just not as manageable. They need vision. Bruce has it. He knows the history.

Go back to the '50s and '60s. A black guy had to go through hell to get a fair shake. And we've got this young fella with Indiana going into the stands over a cup of ice? That's where the league could better utilize the 50 greatest players. Running us around the country and calling us legends and giving guys a chance to hear the roar of the crowd again is nice, but I want more than that. I don't need anybody to tell me I'm one of the 50 greatest. Give us a shot at our young pros. What we went through can help them. If they don't want to listen, we can say to them, check my stats. You don't think I know something about this league?

Many young players will never see their potential. I see some of their mothers in the stands, wearing jerseys and bling and jumping up and down, and I think, we've got babies raising babies. My mom used to watch like a lady. Give your mom a nice life and everything she ever wanted, but keep her off the TV.

Yeah, the league is at all-time highs in attendance and making money. How's the product? You hear a different clap now than when I played. You get the corporate clap, the polite golf clap. In HemisFair Arena, it got so loud, it was like an earthquake. We had the hardworking, 9-to-5 guys coming to forget about their day. Now you have to be with the right company to get a good seat. It's a place to talk business.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Spurs. I just love the game-and what it means-a bit more.

GROUP THINK

The Spurs aren't the only team left that has aced chemistry. BY CHRIS PALMER

SUN BLOCK

A little-used vet shall lead them.

Watch reporters try to talk to Steve Nash. Bo Outlaw, the well-traveled 12-year pro, has always got his eye on the league MVP. If he senses the conversation getting too earnest, he'll pick up some loose paper, or anything else he can find lying around on the rug, and dump it on Steve's head.

Amare Stoudemire gets a different brand of protection. After Game 2 of the Suns' first-round series with the Griz, Stoudemire was soaking his feet in a bucket of ice as a reporter approached. "Young fella doesn't talk until after he showers," Outlaw screamed. The press backed away.

Once Stoudemire got fresh and clean, Outlaw's space got tight again. After a reporter stepped on his sandals and another shoved his recorder in front of Outlaw's face, the sheriff said, "I'm a simple guy. All I want is space." Stoudemire heard Outlaw's well-known baritone and turned to see what the fuss was about. Outlaw threw a smile at Stoudemire and continued, "I don't ask for much, just room to get dressed."

Stoudemire busted out laughing. He knows who's in charge.

HEAT TREATMENT

Shandon Anderson is an easy target. "These young boys keep it loud in here," he says. "They tease me and say I'm old. I tell them if you get to be 31 in this league you're doing something right." This is another team full of 778kidders, and no one is untouchable.

"Look at him," says Damon Jones as Shaq leaves the room. "He's pure flubber. And what's up with that suit?" Shaq walks back in as if he's sashaying down the runway. The locker room erupts.

Anderson, like Shaq and the rest of the guys, takes the ribbing in stride, because he knows it's only business. After a March win at the Garden over the Knicks, word passed that Isiah Thomas was in the hallway. Anderson had blamed Thomas for snapping his consecutive games streak when he played for the Knicks. But Anderson knew enough not to expect backup. "Don't worry," Jones bellowed as the team emerged from the locker room. "We gonna protect you from Isiah." Jones could see Anderson's embarrassment at the issue being revisited. As if that mattered. "Where's he at?" Jones went on.

Next to Jones, Dwyane Wade smiled and shook his head. "See what we deal with every day?"

PISTON RING

It's fitting their lockers are across from each other, because Rasheed Wallace and Darko Milicic are polar opposites. One is the mouth that never stops roaring, the other rarely speaks. One was the final piece of a championship puzzle, the other a square peg.

But talk to anyone in a Pistons uni, and they'll tell you they are equals off the floor. "We treat everyone the same," says Rip Hamilton. "When he's out with us, Darko really gets going." If the players are planning a night out, Milicic gets an invite just the same as Rasheed.

On the night before road playoff games, the Pistons go out to dinner. No coaches, just the fellas. They've been doing it since their second-round series against the Nets last season. "People stare at us when we walk in 12, 15 deep, but that's how we roll,'' says Lindsey Hunter. In December, Hamilton and Chauncey Billups had a shopping spree at a local department store for underprivileged kids. Just as the backcourt duo began wheeling around their carts, Rasheed bounded through the door. An athlete shows up to a charity event on his day off without being invited? Unheard of.

Except in Detroit.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer