With the NBA finals set to tip off tomorrow between the Spurs and the Heat , SI senior writer Chris Ballard tells the story of the San Antonio’s talented trio—Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker—a group of mismatched teammates making one last final push for its fourth title after 13 seasons together. The three stars appear on a regional cover of this week’s SI.
Although there are more famous trios in NBA history, Ballard says, “if this is about winning and teamwork, then it’s hard to argue against Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili and Tim Duncan. They have 10 rings among them and, with this year’s trip to the NBA Finals, more postseason wins (98) than all but one trio in NBA history: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper.” (PAGE 54)
Each player took a different path to stardom. After being drafted No. 1 overall in 1997, Duncan averaged a double double his rookie year as a starter and helped the Spurs win a title in his second season. Ever since, he’s been one of the most consistent stars in the NBA. “There’s nothing sexy about Duncan. Unless, that is, you find studied excellence to be sexy,” says Ballard. (PAGE 58)
Parker, a late 2001 first-round draft pick as a 19-year-old from France, drove coaches and fans crazy early in his career with turnovers, wild drives and poor outside shooting. Yet coach Gregg Popovich’s patience paid off when the Spurs won their second title, in 2003, thanks to Parker’s improved play, along with the continued brilliance of Duncan, and the energy from Ginóbili, then a 25-year-old rookie from Argentina. Ten years later, Popovich says of the acrobatic Ginóbili, “I had to stop coaching him because if you put him too much in a cage, you lose his benefit.” (PAGE 56)
The trio, which also led the Spurs to titles in 2005 and 2007, now returns to the finals tomorrow for the first time in six years with different roles, but the same goal.
“To this day I can’t believe it all fit together like it did,” Popovich says of his trio. “If you say, How did you guys find Ginóbili, you must be really good scouts, my response is, ‘Are you s—-ing me?’ He was a competitor, and we liked his style. But it was the 57th pick. What the hell, let’s take a shot. Same with Tony. He was the 28th pick. There’s not a lot of pressure there. We didn’t know all this would happen in the beginning. It really is a credit to the three of them.” (PAGE 60)
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is known for winning and to a lesser extent, his reluctance to open up to the media—until now. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, contributing writer Jack McCallum, who received rare access to coach “Pop” and also spoke to those who know him best, uncovers that the man who has led the Spurs to four titles is also a foodie, a French movie buff, a former intelligence offer, a wine enthusiast and a father figure.
McCallum writes: “One does not interview Popovich so much as scrounge for scraps, rather like a pigeon at a park bench (PAGE 64).” Pop reluctantly agreed to fact check what McCallum found in his research. Amongst the scraps, McCallum finds that he is “smart, funny, compassionate and even warm” and that “his sophistication goes well beyond the grape,” referring to his known love for wine. Pop also speaks to Serbian players in their native language; reads Russian literature; and discusses Argentine politics and political conspiracies with Manu Ginobili.
How did Pop become the man he is today? After graduating in 1970 with a degree in Soviet Studies from the Air Force Academy, where he also played basketball, he briefly served as an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey. This is why many draw military parallels to his coaching style.
Pop says: “The only reason the word military is used around here is because I went to the Academy. But the correct word is discipline. And there are disciplined people in Google, in IBM and the McDonald’s down the street.” (PAGE 67)
After active duty, Pop returned to the Academy as an assistant coach and earned his master’s in physical education and sports sciences from the University of Denver. In 1979 he took a job as head coach (and assistant professor) at Pomona-Pitzer, two small California schools known for academics that share an athletic department. Pop later interned with Larry Brown at Kansas for a season in 1987-88 and followed him to become an assistant with the spurs in 1988. “It was obvious right away the he was the whole package,” says Brown. “Pop has great character, great passion for sport and great intelligence. Pretty much all you want.” (PAGE 66)
Pop then served two years as an assistant with Golden State before returning to the Spurs as general manager in 1994. McCallum writes: “Pop jettisoned coach Bob Hill, installed himself, heard thousands of boos, built a team based on defensive principles, drafted Duncan, brought order to chaos, won a championship, closed the curtain and settled in for a long run as the pasha of the Republic of Pop.” (Page 66)
Despite his knack for discipline, Pop has also built strong relationships with his players. For example, star point guard Tony Parker had a different style than predecessor Avery Johnson. Parker says: “I told Pop I didn’t want to be a point guard who just runs the team. After that Pop adapted his coaching more to my play and Manu’s play. You can talk to Pop. A lot of coaches you can’t.” (PAGE 66)
As McCallum knew his limited time with Pop was nearing an end, he attempted to bring up innovation. Pop responds: “Oh, hell, I don’t know anything about innovation. Here’s my innovation: I drafted Tim Duncan. Okay? End of story.” (PAGE 67)
Tony Parker has lived the good life during his 12 years in San Antonio: His Spurs have won three NBA titles, and he is one of the NBA’s most recognizable celebrities, San Antonio’s only rapping French nightclub owner and coach Gregg Popovich’s frequent dinner companion. Parker is finally the Spurs’ go-to guy after years of being treated like an intern, and Michael Rosenberg writes that he has never felt more at home (page 51).
Tim Duncan is the most successful player of his generation. In the 15 years since Duncan was drafted, no other team in the four major pro sports has had a better winning percentage than the Spurs. Now, Duncan is the foundation of yet another Spurs team that could win it all. So why haven’t the masses fallen for him?
In this week’s issue, senior writer Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard)breaks down the 21 reasons why Duncan, compared with his peers, remains practically anonymous. Ballard, who was able to spend some time with the reserved center, uncovers more than we have ever seen of Duncan, leaving readers with a better understanding of the man behind four NBA Championships. Chris spoke to us about this week’s feature.
Inside Sports Illustrated: Tim Duncan is notoriously a private person who is not usually generous with his free time with media. How did you convince him to participate in the interview, especially on a non-game day? What was the process behind it?
Chris Ballard: It wasn’t easy. As an organization, the Spurs are actively media-averse, and Duncan rarely if ever does sit-down interviews. In this case I contacted Spurs media relations head Tom James midway through the season and pitched the idea: an in-depth look at Tim asking why fans have never really fallen for him. I’ve known Tom for a dozen years and written about the Spurs before – including traveling to Argentina for a feature on Manu Ginobili – so there’s a level of comfort there. Still, both he and Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer had to vouch for me (Mike and I played on the same basketball team at Pomona College).
Once Tim agreed, the challenge was to try to get him to open up. James and Budenholzer told me to go with humor – that Tim’s a very funny guy with a dry wit, and that he shuts down if interviewers are too serious. So I made a list of questions that I could deploy if the interview got too quiet. For example: “Danny Ferry: one of the dirtiest players you ever played with or the dirtiest?” It was February at the time, in the midst of Knick-mania, so I also started by thanking him for taking the time to talk to me, and then said, “But what I really want to know is what you think of Jeremy Lin.” Like all other players at the time, he thought the hype was over the top, so he appreciated that.
Inside Sports Illustrated: When did you have the idea to write a feature on Duncan, and what is the one thing that you learned about him that fascinated you the most?
Chris Ballard: I got the idea in January. It felt like this might be his last, best shot at a fifth ring, and that he’d gotten to a point in his career where we were taking him for granted. The most fascinating thing I learned was how he and Pop bonded immediately – the two of them laying on the beach and swimming and hanging out for three days in 1997 – and how Pop called Tim his “soul mate.” That really struck me.
Inside Sports Illustrated: In the feature, you uncover an extremely close relationship between Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich. In you years covering sports, have you ever witnessed a comparable relationship between player and coach?
Chris Ballard: Not personally. I imagine I’ve read about some – D’Antoni and Nash were quite close, for example. But nothing close to this. I’m not sure we’ll see anything like it again, at least in the NBA. There are too many reasons for coaches and players to be at odds.
Inside Sports Illustrated: The story details that many of his teammates regard Duncan as a personable and even funny guy. Did you experience that when you spoke with him? And why do you think he does not show that side of himself publicly?
Chris Ballard: Yes. I only spent limited time with him – the interview and a handful of games, before and after in the locker room – but he’s got a dry sense of humor that I found appealing. We ended up joking about a few things – Malik Rose’s defense, Ferry (obviously) and his dislike for the media. He’s an easy guy to get along with. As for why he doesn’t show it, there’s a quote from Steve Kerr that we ended up cutting for space, so it’s not in the story, but I think it sums it up best. “If he let anybody in to who he really is he’d be unbelievably popular,” Kerr said. “He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. But he doesn’t need it. He doesn’t want the attention and doesn’t need more money.”
Inside Sports Illustrated: In your opinion, can the Spurs win another NBA title this year? If they do win, where does Duncan rank among all-time great NBA centers?
Chris Ballard: Definitely. Especially if Bosh remains out, I think it comes down to the Spurs and the Thunder, though I wonder how well the Spurs’ role players will perform as the games get bigger. As for where he ranks, it’s got to be top five. There’s Russell and Wilt and Kareem and then you can make an argument for a number of guys after that, and Tim’s right up there. If he plays three more years – and he told me he thinks he’ll play two or three – it will be hard to ignore his qualifications.
Chris Ballard has not only been busy writing features for Sports Illustrated, he has written a new book, One Shot at Forever, telling the story of the 1971 Macon High Ironmen varsity baseball team. The Ironmen represented the smallest school in Illinois history to play in the state finals before they lost to powerhouse Lane Tech. Many members of the team are excited about the book release, but a few still haven’t gotten over the loss.
For many athletes, high school is the only time they have an opportunity to achieve greatness, but often players remember the losses more than the wins. Ballard writes, “I’m 38 and I still dream about basketball games that I lost in high school (though never, strangely enough, about the ones I won). Likewise, when I get together with certain friends over beers, I know the conversation will eventually lead us back to some field or gym on some fateful afternoon.”
You can purchase a copy of the book here
An Exclusive Look at Tim Duncan, the Most Successful Star of His Generation
Eric Hosmer Is Front and Center in the World of Baseball’s New Economics
The Irritable John Tortorella Has Led the Rangers to Their First Conference Finals in 15 Years
The Success or Failure of the London Olympics Falls on One Man
(NEW YORK – May 16, 2012) – Jabari Parker, a junior at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, is the best high school basketball player since LeBron James, but there’s something more important to him than hoops stardom: his faith. Parker—who was the 2011 USA Basketball athlete of the year and is being recruited by all the top college programs including Kentucky, Kansas and Duke—is a devout Mormon. After his freshman year in college, when top players will head to the NBA draft, Jabari will have to decide whether he will declare for the draft or—like thousands of other Mormon men who turn 19—embark on a two-year mission to spread the faith in the U.S. or a foreign country.
Parker appears on the cover of the May 21, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands now. Parker is the first high school athlete on the cover since Bryce Harper appeared on the June 8, 2009 cover.
Jabari wakes up each morning at five and says a prayer, and three days a week, he is at Bible study by 5:30. Parker also accompanies a Bishop of his church on visits to the sick, the poor and the elderly—an assignment designed to teach young men the importance of service and self-sacrifice. Parker tells contributing writer Jeff Benedict, “I realize why I’m in the position I’m in right now. It’s not because of me. It’s because of God.”
He knows his decision will be difficult. His brother Christian, who has already served a mission, has told Jabari that it was the best thing he’s ever done. Jabari says, “When he came home from his mission, we talked a lot about it. I want to go. But I have doubts. The NBA is the biggest dream of basketball players, and I’m not different.”
On the Tablet: Podcast with Richard Deitsch and Jeff Benedict and a video montage of Jabari Parker.
21 SHADES OF GRAY – CHRIS BALLARD (@SI_ChrisBallard)
Tim Duncan is the most successful player of his generation, maybe even its best. In the 15 years since Duncan was drafted, no other team in the four major pro sports has had a better winning percentage than the Spurs. Now Duncan is the foundation of yet another Spurs team that could win it all. So why haven’t the masses fallen for him? Senior writer Chris Ballard breaks down the 21 reasons why Duncan, compared with his peers, remains practically anonymous (page 36).
Duncan said, “Winning should be the only thing that matters. I can’t manipulate how people see me. I could be more accessible and be the darling of everybody. I could open up my life and get more endorsements and be out there and be a fan favorite. But why would that help?”
WHEN WILL ERIC HOSMER GET HIS? – ALBERT CHEN
George Brett is the greatest baseball player to play for the Kansas City and he thinks the world of the Royals young first baseman Eric Hosmer. Brett said, “These kids in our farm system, most of them weren’t born when I was playing…. But if they make a big splash, then suddenly they are getting compared to me. Hos is getting the comparisons now, but let me tell you, he’s the real deal. And hopefully he’ll be in Kansas City for the next 20 years.”
If the Royals are going to keep Hosmer in their organization, they will have to persuade him to sign a contract extension. Many teams have begun to sign their young talent to long-term deals before they hit the free-agent market. It’s a strategy that has worked for a number of mid-market teams including Tampa and Cincinnati (page 44).
Hosmer’s agent, Scott Boras, doesn’t love this new world. He said, “Evaluating and understanding the value of that kind of player and talent, that’s a process that takes years. Whether it’s a Madison Bumgarner or a Matt Moore or any of those other deals, I find those contracts to be unconscionable.”
A POSTSEASON ON THE BRINK – MICHAEL FARBER
The postgame press conferences for New York Rangers coach John Tortorella are so quick that they have become one of the most popular topics of conversation during the 2012 NHL playoffs. Hockey networks in the U.S. and Canada have super imposed a stopwatch on the screen to see how long they will last. This shouldn’t diminish the fact that Tortorella has led his team to its first conference finals in 15 years. He has molded them to fit his image; the Rangers are relentless, driven and confrontational (page 52).
On the Tablet: A look at John Tortorella’s best press conference moments.
LONDON’S MAIN MAN – ALEXANDER WOLFF
Sebastian Coe won gold medals in the 1,500 meters at the 1980 and ’84 Olympics, but his biggest challenge is about to take place. As the driving force behind the London Games, Coe has assured everyone that this summer’s Games will be a complete hit. Coe became chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) in early 2004, just 18 months before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made its decision on a host city for 2012. Coe’s efforts in that short time are what led to London’s receiving the bid and many believe he is the perfect fit for this tough task (page 56).
Jonathan Edwards, who heads LOCOG athletes’ committee, said, “He believes that if you have the right attitude, you’ll succeed. If the Games go well, it’s Seb. It the Games don’t go well, it’s Seb. No on will point the finger at the prime minister or Boris Johnson [London Mayor]. Seb himself wouldn’t say he set the world on fire as a politician, but as a sports politician he’s been a real leader.”
On the Tablet: A photo of the 1979 Sports Illustrated cover that featured Sebastian Coe.
NBA PLAYERS POLL
Which athlete from another sport could play in the NBA today?
Calvin Johnson, Lions WR 16%
Jimmy Graham, Saints TE 10%
Terrell Owens, Free-Agent WR 7%
Antonio Gates, Chargers TE 7%
Cam Newtwon, Panthers QB 6%
[Based on 146 NBA players who responded to SI’s survey]
FAST FACTS: Graham, Gates and Tony Gonzalez (who was sixth, with 5%) played D-I basketball. Graham averaged 4.2 points at Miami, Gates 16.5 at Eastern Michigan and Kent State (where he was an honorable mention All-America in 2003), and Gonzalez 6.4 at Cal. . . . Of the 39 athletes named, 29 play pro football—19 as receivers or tight ends. . . . Usain Bolt (3%) received the most votes for a nonfootball player. . . . In a similar poll on Facebook, 56% of SI readers named Johnson.
SCORECARD: VOICES FROM HEAVEN – STEVE RUSHIN (@SteveRushin)
When Red Sox public-address announcer Carl Beane died last week, at 59, the team honored him not with a moment of silence but with three hours of it. For one game there were no introductions. Every hitter strode to home plate, bat in hand, in silent eloquence (page 15).
The baseball P.A. announcer is a voice from the heavens, but we seldom know the names and almost never know the faces of these disembodied voices. These voices eventually became a piece of a team’s persona. Bob Sheppard’s run at Yankee Stadium echoed almost the entire history of the profession. At Wrigley Field, Pat Piper was as familiar as the ivy. In Philadelphia, Dan Baker has manned the microphone for 40 years. Carl Beane’s passing reminds us of the soothing sounds of subtlety.
POINT AFTER: THIS ACT IS A FLOP– PHIL TAYLOR (@SI_PhilTaylor)
The NBA is at the height of the playoffs, but senior writer Phil Taylor says that flopping during games could undermine the terrific athleticism. He would like players to stop taking dives and he isn’t alone. ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy said during the Heat-Knicks series, “It just ruins the game. I can’t believe with all the brilliance we have in the NBA office that we can’t find a way to eliminate this part of the game.” (page 68).
INSIDE THE WEEK IN SPORTS
- NBA (page 28): The Case for the Truth – Paul Pierce’s name rarely comes up when talking about the best players in the game, but no opposing coach wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. Jack McCallum
- MLB (page 33): Texas-sized Dilemma – Josh Hamilton is set to hit free agency this off-season. What will determine how much he is worth, his immense talent or his age and cautionary past? (@Joe_Sheehan)
- Soccer (page 34): Homes Sweet Homes – Major League Soccer continues to mature as more teams begin to play in venues designed with soccer as a top priority. (@GrantWahl)
THIS WEEK’S FACES IN THE CROWD (page 24)
- Kayden Porter (Spanish Fork, Utah/Spanish Fork High) – Baseball
- Shayla Sanders (Pompano Beach, Fla./Boyd Anderson High) – Track and Field
- David Heron (Mission Viejo, Calif./Mission Viejo High) – Swimming
- Gabrielle Jennings (Slidell, La./First Baptist Christian School) – Track and Field
- Michael Pelletier (Burnt Hills, N.Y./Springfield College) – Volleyball
- Stephanie Ricketts (San Jose/Hawaii) – Softball