Wiedmer: Spurs can't be praised enough

Wiedmer: Spurs can't be praised enough

June 6th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

When it comes to NBA basketball, we obviously don't appreciate understated excellence in this country.

If we did, the dull dynasty known as the San Antonio Spurs wouldn't have been a part of the two lowest-rated NBA Finals since 1976.

This isn't their fault as they travel to Miami for Game 1 of tonight's Finals against the defending world champion Heat and its sun-bright star LeBron James.

Though no one much seems to know or care outside their charming mid-Texas town, the Spurs are attempting to win their fifth crown in 15 years, though it would also be their first since 2007, when they took out a 22-year-old James and the Cleveland Cavs.

No, the fault of not fully appreciating the Spurs is with all of us -- or at least all of you -- who've never fully embraced Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's cranky genius, 37-year-old Tim "The Big Fundamental" Duncan's steady excellence, 31-year-old Tony Parker's underrated quarterbacking and 35-year-old Manu Ginobili's nerveless flare for the dramatic.

Make all the fuss you want concerning the Heat's Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but the Spurs' Title Trio already owns three rings to the Heatles' one, and Duncan will be pushing for a fifth, having helped former Spur David Robinson claim the franchise's first title in 1999.

Moreover, they do it with no off-court controversy. They play, they stay (in San Antonio), they obey (the law).

"Teams continue to change and get better every year," Duncan -- who was the Finals MVP in 1999, 2003 and 2005 -- told the media earlier this week. "We seem to make minimal changes and we continue to compete at a high level."

It may seem that way, but the 1999 team was anchored by an aging Robinson, a rookie Duncan and point guard Avery Johnson. Parker and Ginobili arrived for the next three titles, their efforts greatly helped by defensive whiz and corner 3-point specialist Bruce Bowen, who also got help from Big Shot Bob Horry.

Now the Title Trio are backed up by veteran Boris Diaw, center Tiago Splitter and the defensive demon Kawhi Leonard (who'll start out guarding LeBron).

The lone constants through the Spurs' first four titles -- Duncan and Popovich.

If there is a parallel story of unsung success in American sports it would be difficult to find, though fans of UConn's men's basketball team -- which won three titles between 1999 and 2012 under Jim Calhoun -- may feel similarly unloved.

Still, that's three in 14 years. The Spurs won four titles in nine years, yet judging by the television ratings of those 2003 and 2007 titles, next to nobody noticed.

Whether fair or not, Popovich's transparent disdain for the media probably hurts a little. There are reportedly over-under betting pools all over America devoted to guessing how few words Pop will use to answer the required two media questions during in-game interviews.

Take eight words for both questions and you'll always be in the hunt. During one interview with ESPN's Doris Burke this postseason, Popovich even used the same one-word answer -- "Turnovers" -- to respond to both her questions.

And the Spurs swept that playoff series.

Or maybe Pop -- an Air Force Academy grad whose favorite hobby is collecting fine wine -- is simply being asked the wrong questions. Perhaps the first question should go something like this: "Do you have a favorite wine you like to sip when studying film on LeBron?"

Yet even Popovich knows that his fine wine is running out of time. Especially when facing the Heat, the NBA's version of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Parker had to convince Duncan not to retire after last year's postseason meltdown against Oklahoma City, when the Spurs lost four straight after winning the first two of the best-of-seven series. Neither Parker nor Duncan have gotten younger since then and the freewheeling Ginobili missed 20 games with injuries this winter.

"We've been on the verge so often the last few years," Duncan told ESPN earlier this week. "But it seems like forever since we've been in the Finals. It's just so hard to get here."

It's worth noting that every time Popovich has previously reached the Finals his Spurs have taken home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

But never before has he faced as talented a foe as the Heat.

"It's a basketball game," Pop said on Wednesday. "Go play it and see what you've got."

Unfortunately for the Spurs, the Heat have LeBron, the best player on the planet. So make it Miami in six over the most underappreciated but classiest sports dynasty of the past 25 years. So sad that so many have never realized how special the Spurs are until their time is almost done.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.