Success Aside, Spurs Seen as Sleepers

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, May 15, 2007


We say we want our star athletes smart and well behaved and our teams devoted to unselfishness and the pursuit of championships. But we lie through our teeth because every year, particularly in the NBA playoffs, we roll our eyes at the marvelous precision of the San Antonio Spurs. Save the basketball purists, the sporting public would rather see just about anybody other than the Spurs. They have to be the only championship team in history whose biggest star is an actress.

Tim Duncan has been the most reliable star in the NBA the last 10 years, perhaps too numbingly efficient to elicit any passion. The Spurs have won three championships the last eight years. They have a French point guard engaged to a TV star, a dashing South American acrobat and Olympic hero, a coach who majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy and once had designs on a career in counterintelligence. They're polite in public dealings, accept coaching and are personally accountable. They're smart, creative, and civic gods where they live. They're never, ever involved in embarrassing off-court drama. Yet, it all adds up to induce one big yawn from basketball consumers.

In the 2006-07 regular season, the Spurs ranked 21st among 30 teams in road attendance. That's right, 20 teams attracted more fans on the road than the three-time champs, including non-playoff teams such as Boston, Charlotte, Indiana, New York, Philadelphia and Portland. The Wizards, who have won only one playoff series in 25 years, drew more fans on the road than Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. "What do we have to do, take Eva Longoria on the road every trip?" Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford asked before the Spurs' 104-98 loss to the Suns in Game 4 of their Western Conference playoff series. "We even face it some in our own city. People have watched us for so long now be the same, they're just not affected until something really special happens."

The Suns, by way of contrast, sell 5,000 more season tickets than the Spurs. And on the road, the Suns drew more fans this past season than everybody in the NBA except the Miami Heat of Shaq and Dwyane Wade, the Cleveland LeBrons, and Kobe's Lakers. Even the Spurs are aware that most folks don't want to see them advance to the conference finals. They're not a big draw in-house and have had some of the league's most disastrous playoff television ratings. On the topic of being the team with zero sizzle, the Spurs like to say, "We are who we are," though one San Antonio official admitted privately Saturday that the club is worried that the team's lack of appeal to general sports fans will lead the league itself to not want the Spurs in the NBA Finals again.

It's quite a predicament for a team that has had in recent years the MVP (Duncan), the Finals MVP (Duncan), runners-up as the defensive player of the year (Bruce Bowen) and as the top sixth man (Ginobili) and one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People (Parker). And it has to be traced directly, as everything in the NBA is, to the team's best player, Duncan.

We're talking about a four-year college player and graduate of Wake Forest, a man so thoroughly skilled and practiced Shaq nicknamed him, "The Big Fundamental." Duncan's most serious offense in 10 years is laughing at referee Joey Crawford last month, leading to Crawford's suspension. Yet, Duncan is undoubtedly Captain Boring. He has, by his own design, no media profile. He's the anti-Shaq in that regard. Duncan has never said anything even remotely memorable, though he's terribly bright and disarmingly funny -- just always in private, when cameras are turned off and notebooks put away. Duncan is so beige he makes the team's previous beloved leader, the similarly low-profiled David Robinson, look drenched in color.

Asked if the team's marketing executives have come up with campaigns that would spice up Duncan, Buford said: "We're diligent in making sure the way we market our team accurately reflects the team's personality. Yes, they'd like to sell fireworks and things that may not fit the personality of our team. If we had an owner who wanted a circus . . . fortunately we've got an owner who supports our position. There's a tenure of success here that allows us to win those battles. Tim simply isn't going to get on the JumboTron and act like a clown. What we do works for our coach, works for our best player. It doesn't matter to [Coach Gregg Popovich], doesn't matter to Tim, doesn't matter to Manu, doesn't matter to Tony."

Bowen, the defensive ace, is the closest thing to a controversial element the Spurs have because of the aggressive way he plays defense. (He was assessed a flagrant foul yesterday for kneeing Steve Nash in the groin during Saturday's game, but was not suspended.)

Bowen, soon to turn 36, has the perspective of playing for the Celtics, 76ers and Heat as well as the Spurs. "What's newsworthy," Bowen said the other day, "is often trashy. We' re a blue-collar team, not one hyping itself up. We don't have anybody flashing three fingers when he makes a three-pointer. We don't have guys staring at opposing players after a dunk. The entertainment value has overtaken simple values. The whole sports culture increasingly values the wrong things." Even Bowen's summer camp is starless. He doesn't have celebrity players. He invites relatives, many of whom are professionals. He invites teachers and counselors to work with the kids who attend.

"We know what's said about us, but I don't think we resent it because we've learned over these years what gets results," Bowen said. "We're not going to say, 'Let's go to the Windsor knot because that's fashionable now. No. We just want to get the tie tied. We're not going to conform to what's trendy.

"We're going to say, 'Let's play better defense and not allow 24 layups in the next game.' Remember, just about every other team is trying to get what we've got."

Over the years, the culture of basketball has become addicted to the cult of celebrity. Shoe companies, beginning with Converse's early 1980s marketing of Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, defined who and what was important to basketball. Nike, Reebok, Adidas and others followed. Dennis Rodman's hair color and choice of wedding gown to promote a book became the subject of more talk than a drop-step move or a half-hook or using the bank shot, all of which is more important to Duncan than hair color. Basketball reached the point in too many subcultures where the show and the excitement it generated became more important than actually winning. If a team had both, like Michael Jordan's Bulls, fine.

But if winning comes without a show, without entertainment as is the case in San Antonio, the consumer is somewhere between politely interested and bored to tears. The Golden State Warriors -- featuring Stephen Jackson, whom the Spurs wanted no part of after he played for them during the 2003 championship season -- have been the stars of the first month of the 2007 postseason.

The rag-tag but entertaining Warriors are one loss from elimination, while the Spurs have an even chance against the Suns to advance, once again, to the Western Conference finals. The Spurs, once again, have the look of a champion, meaning they'll be with us through the middle of June, which by traditional sports values ought to be a good thing. But the reality is that consumers of a star-driven, drama-obsessed sport look on and wonder if another run by the exemplary champions from San Antonio is really what they want.

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