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Spurs attained their elite status the old-fashioned way: They earned it

Their style hasn’t been spectacular, far from it, but the results have been — four titles in 11 years for Coach Gregg Popovich, star Tim Duncan and a changing supporting cast. And they’re not done yet.

April 03, 2010|By Mark Heisler

Shaq & Kobe & Timmy . . . as the tagline for "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" went, imagine the possibilities.

It only seems as if Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers, the Spurs and whoever Shaq is with have been duking it out with each other forever.

It's actually just 11 years, since the spring of 1999 when the Spurs won the first of their four titles, after which the Lakers won the first, second and third of their four titles in the decade . . . with the grand showdown yet to come?

Kobe, Timmy, Shaq, the Lakers and the Spurs are now tied at four titles. Whoever wins No. 5 gets an era named after them.

Even Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who cares less than anyone in the NBA, or the world, about popular opinion, acknowledges feeling the rivalry.

"It has gone through my head, sure," Popovich said recently. "I'm human. I sit there, I watch the silly shows you guys are on. It's been mentioned a lot. . . .

"Sure, it goes through your head. And if the three of them were honest, it's probably gone through their head. I won't lie to you and say, ‘No, what the hell are you talking about?'"

Happily for Bryant, he was 20 in the spring of 1999, making him 31 now. Duncan, who turned 23 that April, will be 34. O'Neal, who had just turned 27, is 38.

Kobe also plays with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and, the Lakers hope, Andrew Bynum.

Happily for O'Neal, he's in Cleveland with LeBron James.

Duncan has a refurbished supporting cast that's more athletic than it was but needs a center bigger than 6-5½ DeJuan Blair, or younger than Antonio McDyess, who's 35.

(Hey, Shaq will be a free agent! If things don't work out, how about going home after all these years?)

(Or not.)

Old Spurs never die, or at least not Popovich and Duncan, who have turned over one entire supporting cast, and are working on their second.

Even in their heyday, the Spurs were spurned as small-market ratings-killers who got in the way of the Lakers, the NBA version of a three-ring circus everyone wanted to see, if only to see if the clowns got in a fight.

No one is remembered for the way they carry themselves, but the Spurs were special.

They didn't blow cigar smoke, brag, complain, intrigue, work officials, make excuses or indulge in conspiracy theories, at least above the level of radio talk-show hosts.

When they got the ever-loving stuffing beaten out of them, as in 2001 when the Lakers swept them, 4-0, in the West finals, winning Games 3 and 4, 111-72 and 111-82, the Spurs said they got the ever-loving stuffing beaten out of them, or as Popovich put it:

"Custer had no idea."

The Spurs are now rebuilding on the fly. Unfortunately for them, the Lakers are already rebuilt with Twin Tower 7-footers, Gasol and Bynum, like the Spurs with Duncan and David Robinson.

The Lakers developed one of their 7-footers, and traded for the other.

Of course, every general manager or coach in the West could tell you where he was the moment he heard the Lakers got Gasol from Memphis for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, Aaron McKie and two No. 1 picks.

"Well, as I've said before, Pau Gasol changed the landscape of basketball in the NBA, as far as the West is concerned and championship-caliber basketball," says Popovich.

"He's a great player, perhaps the most versatile big man in the league right now. It makes them really, really good."

Popovich would have said more, but it was hard to talk with his teeth clenched.

If you want to look at it this way, Popovich is playing with house money, having won four more titles than anyone ever imagined, starting with himself.

If Popovich had looked at it that way, he might not have won Nos. 2, 3 or 4.

"I don't think my owner's going to fire me tomorrow, but I feel failure, just like everybody else," he says. "I feel a responsibility to getting these guys back to what they were. That's my concern or fear, of whatever you want to call it. . . .

"I think the overriding common denominator with me, I still think I'm a Division III coach. Because that's what I am.

"I'm really a Division III coach who had a lot of good fortune and ended up in a situation, as I've said before, where I didn't screw it up.

"Beyond that, I sometimes wonder what the hell I'm doing here. Do we really have those championships? Did we really do that?

"I just shake my head because, at heart, I'm a Division III coach."

Popovich really was an NCAA Division III coach at Pomona-Pitzer, but if he wanted to coach in college again, I'm sure he could land a Division I job.

Actually, he's a Spur for life, at a crossroads, with owner Peter Holt having ventured deep into the luxury tax for the first time, with Manu Ginobili in his free-agent year while playing the best ball of one of the most intermittently spectacular NBA careers.

Insiders say the decision to pay up to keep Ginobili or lure 7-foot Tiago Splitter, their 2007 No. 1 pick from Spain, depends on how the Spurs do in the playoffs.

In that case, I hope it turns out well somehow.

They really have those championships. They really did that. If anyone ever earned the right to die with their boots on, the Spurs have.

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