There will be much to-do, if the San Antonio Spurs win one of the next two games, about Tim Duncan winning his third NBA championship ring and about the amazing Robert Horry winning his sixth.
What you won't hear much about is Tony Massenburg winning his first championship ring, an accomplishment that in many ways is more impressive.
You won't hear about Massenburg because he's played only 28 minutes in 21 playoff games this postseason for San Antonio. He didn't play at all in Sunday night's overtime thriller, hasn't played one second in 12 of those 21 games. The fact that Massenburg is still in professional basketball after all these years, 15 to be exact, is a stunner. It's an odyssey that began at the University of Maryland so long ago that he played with Len Bias, and actually was sitting in Leland Memorial Hospital when Bias was pronounced dead 19 years ago last Sunday. Massenburg was part of a time at Maryland so dark and tragic that a lot of the school's basketball-obsessed alums are just finding out he played there for Lefty Driesell, Bob Wade and Gary Williams.
From College Park the road snaked through 12 different NBA franchises in 15 years, from San Antonio where he was cut as a rookie, through Boston, Charlotte, Golden State, Los Angeles (Clippers, not Lakers), Philly, Toronto, New Jersey, Vancouver/Memphis, Houston, Utah and Sacramento. They were all lousy when he was there. And that doesn't even count a couple of years playing in Spain. He's one of two players in NBA history (Chucky Brown is the other) to play for 12 different teams.
The first coach to cut him: Gregg Popovich, his head coach now and back then an assistant to Larry Brown, who is one of Massenburg's favorite coaches. It was Brown who told him he could last in the league quite awhile if he concentrated on playing defense and rebounding.
He was once signed to a 10-day contract to fill in for Larry Bird when the Celtics star had a bad back. Massenburg, 6 feet 9 and 250 pounds, has voluntarily guarded Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone when his teammates were tired of getting dunked on or torched for 40. He has started as many as 50 games in a season, averaged as many as 28 minutes per game and had a couple of seasons averaging 10 or more points. But through most of the 15 years he has been a role player, a defender and rebounder who coaches love because he'll do the inglorious stuff divas don't want to do, because he'll practice hard, stay in great shape, play multiple positions or out of position and never, ever complain.
"A lot of young guys don't know my story," Massenburg said the other day. "[Teammates] know I'm just a guy that's stayed in the league, but I've never had a major stage to perform on or gotten the big contract or led the league in any category. . . . I was never the guy they ran plays for, but I found ways to score. . . . But I get respect on the court because players know players."
Tim Duncan knows players. Because Massenburg's son lives in San Antonio, Massenburg winds up spending his share of offseason workouts and games here, even though he still makes his home in Maryland. Duncan, after going up against Massenburg time and again in the offseason, went to Popovich and said, "Pop, get that guy." And as Massenburg says, "He [Duncan] is why I'm here."
Of course, they couldn't be more dissimilar. Two early championships and the prospect of winning another this week means Duncan, whether he wants to or not, is playing for history. Massenburg is playing because he loves it. "It would be the culmination of a lot of years and hard work," Massenburg said of the notion that he, too, could win a ring. "Some guys come in and everything goes as planned. They have great careers and they ride off into the sunset. And then some guys, bam, you're hit with something you weren't prepared for and it's all about how you respond.
"I've found it challenging," he said. "Anybody can be happy and easygoing when it's all going in your favor. But can you still be professional when it's not? I don't get caught up in 'Why did everything happen for that guy? Why has it not happened for me?' That's just life.
"Basketball is a microcosm of life. . . . I don't expect to be given things. I didn't come into the league with any big shoe deals, anything like that, people kissing your butt, all-American status and the things that go along with it. . . .
"You know what kept me going? Just knowing that I knew I could help a team," Massenburg said. "I know what it is to be a professional. . . . A lot of guys would have quit or refused to play for bad teams. I was on a string of six or seven real bad teams: Vancouver, L.A., New Jersey, Toronto in the first year of expansion. . . . I see guys that come in and don't want to work, don't want to practice and really don't give a cookie about their teammates. All they think about is what they want from the game. It irritates me. . . . I'm in a world people would give their right arm to live in. I have no fear of getting cut or getting traded; it happened early and often."
Massenburg came into the league anything but cavalier about his opportunity, in large part because of Bias's death and the ensuing depression at Maryland. He was at the end of his freshman year, living one dormitory over from Bias on June 19, 1986, when Bias ingested too much cocaine, had a seizure and died. He can still see Lonise Bias, Len's mother, walking into the room where he and other teammates were waiting, and hearing her say, "Len's gone." He remembers it so vividly, that Mrs. Bias wasn't crying at that moment, that her voice was strong and steady. "Every bit of it is burned into my memory forever," he said the other night.
And he remembers the stigma that freshman class of 1986 carried for years and years. Dave Dickerson, the longtime Maryland assistant and now head coach at Tulane was in that class, as was Greg Nared, the longtime executive at Nike who is so often seen (but not recognized) accompanying Tiger Woods at golf events. "Nobody would touch us," Massenburg said of the players there when Bias died. "When Lenny died, people scattered like roaches when the lights came on. Nobody wanted to be associated with us. It was such a black period . . . a blackout.
"I was bitter for a while. . . . I didn't know what to do. When you go back to the [dorm] room and see your face on television and people are talking about drugs . . . it doesn't give you a very confident feeling about how people are looking at you. . . . I had to grow up."
He had grown up so much during the Bias tragedy he was ready, whether he knew it or not, for whatever professional ball could throw his way.
More than anything he was adaptable. He embraced where he was, even in 1992 when he was with four teams that one season. He could always get along with new teammates, quickly learn the new offense. "I never had the cushion to do anything else," he said. "It was always, 'Prove yourself right now.' "
P.J. Carlesimo, the Spurs assistant who has been following Massenburg's career since he was coaching at Seton Hall, said: "I didn't realize way back when that he'd be around this long. I think of him almost like I think of Kevin Willis now. He's physical and a banger, but also can score. He can certainly rebound. I think he still has something in the tank."
Massenburg is 37 now and a virtual basketball encyclopedia. There's nothing he hasn't experienced really, except a championship season. His career started out in what he calls "the chitlin' circuit" but could end up with a championship. He'll return to Calvert County in the offseason to his home in horse country, owning perspective even if not a ring.
"I've made a good living," Massenburg said. "I'm happy. I'm thankful."