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Spurs Have Ring, No Bling

With most of the attention once again on the Lakers, defending champions will be able to do what they do best: go quietly about their business.

October 08, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — The way Tim Duncan sees it, there's no use getting upset.

For three seasons, the star of the San Antonio Spurs watched as the Lakers won NBA championships and hogged the limelight.

Now his team is the reigning champion and, still, not much has changed.

By signing free agents Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the off-season, the Lakers are once again the talk of the league and favored by many to reclaim the title.

Duncan shrugged. "Every year it's like this," he said.

The Spurs refuse to get defensive about the curious position in which they find themselves, relegated to underdogs even as they were being fitted for rings last week.

"The writers can predict what they want," veteran center Kevin Willis said. "We're still the champions. No matter what they say, the Lakers still have to come here and take it from us."

Not all the hype swirling around the Lakers is related to their virtual Hall of Fame lineup. The felony sexual assault case against Kobe Bryant has sparked a media frenzy.

About 75 reporters -- three to four times more than usual -- showed up for the team's training camp in Hawaii. Coach Phil Jackson quipped about giving his players "a little media training in real quick order."

The Spurs, by contrast, opened camp in subdued fashion, chatting with two dozen reporters in the ballroom of a San Antonio hotel.

This team takes its cue from the soft-spoken Duncan, "the leader without saying a word," as Manu Ginobili described him.

Duncan's style befits an unassuming city, hours southwest of brighter lights in Dallas and Houston, the populace seemingly accustomed to being overlooked.

"Just because some team may get more headlines, that doesn't make us scared of them," guard Bruce Bowen said. "We get enough headlines ourselves."

At the same time, General Manager R.C. Buford conceded that the media have good reason to wonder about whether his team can defend the title.

In the months since they hoisted the trophy, the Spurs have lost David Robinson to retirement and Stephen Jackson to free agency. Also gone are Steve Smith, Speedy Claxton, Danny Ferry and Steve Kerr.

"This isn't the team that won the championship," Buford said. "This is a different team that will take time to work together."

With ample salary cap room in the off-season, the Spurs took a much-publicized run at free agent Jason Kidd but succeeded only in bruising the ego of their young point guard, Tony Parker.

They did, however, pull off a three-way deal for Ron Mercer and Hedo Turkoglu, a combination that might compensate for the loss of Jackson and his 12 points a game.

Seven-footer Rasho Nesterovic was signed to fill the void left by Robinson's departure.

Duncan thinks his supporting cast might be deeper and more talented than it was last season. He even sees a trade-off to losing the leadership of veterans such as Robinson and Kerr.

"Adding new players, that adds a whole new level of hunger," he said.

Yet he backed off when asked to make a prediction, no boastful words coming from the reigning most valuable player.

Informed by reporters that a slimmer-looking Shaquille O'Neal had proclaimed himself back in MVP form, Duncan turned snappish.

"I don't know what MVP form is," he said. "I'm going to try and help my team win games. If that leads to another MVP, that's great. If not, we're here to win games."

If anything, the Spurs hope to stay in the shadows while they pull things together. Maybe that's why, even as Payton was saying the Laker season would be a failure if it ended with anything less than a title, San Antonio brass was playing things down.

"I don't think we're going to know what we have till close to January or the All-Star break," Coach Gregg Popovich said. "We're going to be OK. We're not going to be a bad team. Championship-caliber play is a different story."

In the meantime, Buford said, "It would be hard not to pick [the Lakers] as favorites."

But one of his free-agent acquisitions, Robert Horry, was not convinced Malone and Payton will be content to play supporting roles in Los Angeles.

"It's a totally different situation when a guy comes in and is used to getting the ball a lot," he said. "Guys are used to a certain path and once that path goes another way, they get kind of frustrated."

After spending the last seven seasons in the media glare, Horry seemed less willing than other Spurs to concede the spotlight to his former teammates.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "I hope it doesn't work out for them."

*

(Begin Text of Infobox)

Tinker Ball

A look at how the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs changed their roster:

*--* THEY'RE BACK

*--*

F-C -- Tim Duncan

G -- Tony Parker

G -- Manu Ginobili

F -- Malik Rose

G-F -- Bruce Bowen

C-F -- Kevin Willis

*--* THEY'RE GONE

*--*

C -- David Robinson

G -- Stephen Jackson

F -- Steve Smith

G -- Speedy Claxton

F -- Danny Ferry

G -- Steve Kerr

*--* NEWCOMERS

*--*

C -- Rasho Nesterovic

F -- Ron Mercer

F -- Hedo Turkoglu

F -- Robert Horry

G -- Anthony Carter

G-F -- Devin Brown

*--* GOING GLOBAL

*--*

The Spurs have eight players in camp from foreign countries:

Turkoglu: Turkey

Nesterovic: Slovenia

F-C -- Sean Marks: New Zealand

G-F -- Alex Garcia: Brazil

Igor Rakocevic: Yugoslavia

Parker: France

Ginobili: Argentina

G -- Elias Ayuso: Puerto Rico

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