Wearing an Air Force cap and a deadpan gaze, Gregg Popovich stood in the Spurs' training facility in San Antonio the other day, explaining how he has managed the transition of superstars. From David Robinson to Tim Duncan to now the cosmopolitan duo of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
“I'm very fortunate in that I didn't have to,” Popovich said. “I dealt with grown-ups.”
Pop had more to say, and I'll get to that in a minute. But Pop didn't have to say anything else. He said it well. The stately Spurs have been built around grown-ups. Including the current squad that threatens to give Oklahoma City a June swoon, leading the Thunder 2-0 in the NBA's Western Conference Finals.
Nobody in OKC wants to hear it, but it's not the Thunder's time. That seems clear not just because of what happened in San Antonio the last few days, but what's happened in San Antonio the last few weeks.
Popovich has produced an epic team. The Spurs have won 20 straight games, the fourth-longest win streak in NBA history, and he's done it with adults. The Spurs are grown-ups. They are Duncan and Parker and Ginobili, 30somethings all, multiple-NBA champions all, plus Pop, their drill sergeant of a coach and franchise-builder. They have established a culture, a seriousness, that isn't always fun but is stunningly effective when put with the right pieces. Which the Spurs absolutely now have.
So call it bum luck for the Thunder. The Boomers have done nothing wrong. The opposite is true. They've done almost everything right in trying to microwave the process of becoming NBA champs.
But this is a dues-paying league. The Jordan Bulls. The Bad Boy Pistons. The Kobe Lakers. Even the greatest of teams must wait on their coronation.
The '77 Blazers, with young'ns like the Thunder, are the lone precocious champ in NBA history.
With its four musketeers all under the age of 24, the Thunder had a shot to join those Bill Walton Blazers.
This seemed like a wrinkle in time, since the West was crying out for a crown prince. The Lakers grew old. Dallas rebuilt despite a title. Portland imploded. The Spurs were five years removed from their last of four championships.
But Popovich's longtime conscripts stayed strong. Duncan and Ginobili were drafted by the Spurs in the '90s, Parker only 18 months past Y2K.
NBA championships are won with long-term veterans. The 2011 Mavs. The 2009-10 Lakers. The 2008 Celtics. All were led by weathered elders who might have lost a bounce in their step but had gained more than a grain of grit and guile.
Did you notice who was on the court for the Spurs when they stormed past the Thunder with a fourth-quarter rally? Second-year man Gary Neal and four players off Pop's 2003 title team. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Stephen Jackson.
The Spurs have paid their dues and now reap the bounty.
And who can harbor ill will? While the Heat Gerry-rigged a contender through some kind of superstar chamber, and the Lakers tried to stay relevant with a fleece of the Hornets (revoked by the league), the Spurs are back as basketball's team with an old-school concept. Great ballplayers who put the team, the organization and the franchise first.
“Grown-ups,” as Popovich said, “who had character and prioritization already set in their lives, their values, that kind of thing.
“So when Timmy came along, David (Robinson) understood his talent and made it very easy for Tim to start becoming the go-to guy. As Timmy got older, he understood the value of Manu and Tony and was able to share that spotlight with them.
“I never had a talk, never had a discussion, a meeting, or anything with any of those guys. We just did it, and the process kind of morphed along. It's because of their character we were able to do it.”
Nothing is assured, not even for these Spurs and most definitely not for the Thunder. But the horizon looks promising in Oklahoma City. Pay your dues, display some patience and these baby Boomers should one day grow up to be like the Spurs.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.