The notion that the San Antonio Spurs are the Dads of the NBA isn’t exactly new, yet that doesn’t make it any less apt – it doesn’t take much effort to picture Tim Duncan in pleated khakis, Tony Parker wooing the ladies of KinderCare, or Matt Bonner burning one in the garage to Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie.
Of course, it’s unclear if any of those players would have achieved maximum dad-itude had they plied their trade elsewhere (Bonner’s two seasons in Toronto prove inconclusive), or if they’re merely products of the Spurs’ even-handed, altruistic system, which values selflessness, toughness and a lack-of-flash above all else. Grilling ability is also a plus.
But we’re going with the latter. Because over the past two decades, as the NBA has undergone seismic shifts both culturally and stylistically, San Antonio has remained a conscientious constant. Since 1994, they’ve had one losing season, taken 13 division titles and won 4 NBA championships. Tellingly, they’re also the only franchise to have three different players win the league’s Sportsmanship Award, which, we assure you, is an actual thing.
And they’ve done it by remaining true to those core tenets. From the moment Gregg Popovich returned from exile (also known as Oakland) in ’94 to become the Spurs’ general manager, he let it be known that the team would play his way. Pop jettisoned Dennis Rodman, brought in players like Avery Johnson and Will Perdue, and watched as David Robinson won the league’s MVP award. But it wasn’t enough; within two years, he’d take over as head coach.
And that’s when the Spurs’ Dad Era was off and running. In ’97, San Antonio took Tim Duncan with the first overall pick, and in the stoic forward, Popovich had found the perfect disciple, an unselfish, fundamentally sound big who played both ends of the court like a man possessed, even if his demeanor didn’t show it. That Duncan began his career (and won his first two titles) under the tutelage of not only Pop, but Robinson – a “Dad” dude if ever there was one – seemed fortuitous from day one; a raw talent who played high school ball in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he only received scholarship offers from four colleges.
Yet, thanks to his abilities and Popovich’s system, he blossomed into one of the game’s all-time greats, possessing a skill set so polished (and a demeanor so unassuming) that he’s earned the nickname “The Big Fundamental.” Robinson retired following the ’02-’03 season, Duncan stepped in to the leadership role, and the Spurs’ machine never skipped a beat.
Over the next decade, Popovich would build around Duncan, bringing in Tony Parker from France and Manu Ginobili, an Argentinean who had found success in Italy. The high-character supporting cast would change year-after-year – Brent Barry, Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, Robert Horry, Richard Jefferson and Kurt Thomas, to name just a half dozen – but the success didn’t, and neither did the message: Buy in, or be gone.
And now, after surviving the rough-and-tumble NBA of the ’90s, battling foes like Hakeem’s Houston Rockets, Dirk’s Dallas Mavericks and the Kobe/Shaq L.A. Lakers, and briefly suffering a mid-life crisis sometime around 2011 (when they went up-tempo), the Spurs stand one game away from their fifth NBA Championship. That they can win it on Father’s Day seems appropriate.
Especially with this team, which may be the most paternal of the Dad Era. They are unselfish to the extreme, running a pass-happy offense that is both efficient and potent. And yet, their leading scorer, Parker, ranked 41st in the league, at 16.7 per game, and no one on the team averaged more than 30 minutes a night (by comparison, Carmelo Anthony led the league at almost 39). They’ve seamlessly integrated another series of castoffs – Danny Green, Boris Diaw, etc. – and indoctrinated young Kawhi Leonard into the secrets of the system, turning the keys to the dynasty over to the 22 year old in the process.
They have, in a sense, kept on keeping on, yet this team also feels like the beginning of something new. The Big Three are aging, and soon, they will be gone. Yet you get the sense that the Spurs have already built the foundation for the future, but if this really is the end of the Dad Era, perhaps we should try to learn from their example. After all, the results speak for themselves.
The Spurs have built a quiet dynasty through hard work, determination and loyalty. They are open-minded and accepting, welcoming outsiders into their fold, yet they are quick to close ranks to outliers. They share and provide. They lead by example, they take time to teach, and they put the family first. Like all dads, they serve as a reminder of our past; they are one of the last links to an era that will soon be forgotten. Also like dads, they have never been cool, because they don’t have time to be concerned with crap like that.
If they win their fifth championship, perhaps they’ll finally receive the recognition they deserve. But you get the feeling they’re not particularly concerned with their legacy. So maybe they’ll celebrate with a few Michelob Lights then call it a night. There’s still work to be done, somewhere. Dad never rests.