Coach's Corner

The roster of colleges reads like a Hank Snow song book of hard times on the road. Bowling Green, American International, Southern, Longwood, Nicholls State, Drexel, Navy. Many of the players are journeyman pros -- Elie, Kerr, Kersey, Perdue -- guys who had the good fortune to be, more than once, in the right place at the right time. Still others, Rose and Jackson, obscure names unknown in the hinterland of this great continent, marginal players lucky to be in the league. Then there's the much-maligned, still anonymous point guard, long the hidden heart and soul of the team, Avery Johnson.

I think back to a rainy, cold night in March. I was driving back from the Alamodome where the Spurs had just beaten the Mavericks in a dull, lackluster affair. San Antonio's fantastic dash, culminating in a Herculean 46-7 record over the rest of the season, was still early on. It wasn't clear to all, yet, that something special was building. To stay awake, I tuned into the late post-game show on WOAI. Though the home team was clearly hot -- 14-2 for the month -- no one, not a single caller in the two hours, had anything good to say about the team and in particular the coach, Greg Popovich. Fans were threatening to boycott games, not vote for a new stadium, and go without enchiladas for a month unless Popovich was fired.

I considered, not for the first time, the missing splots of genetic code indigenous to Texans when it comes to an out-of-favor coach. And Popovich was an easy target for frustrated Spur fans. As obscure as Malik Rose, Popovich was as foreign to these parts (strikes one and two) as John Mackovic. He played basketball at the Air Force Academy (not a plus), majored in Soviet Studies (must be a pinko!), and even traveled in Europe, and was rumored to have read a book. There's so much to dislike about the man. The cheering on the overcrowded train of new Spurs devotees will silence -- until the first three-game losing streak, anyway -- all but the most rabid of Popovich haters. But they'll be back.

Until then, let's consider these underappreciated first World Champions of the post-Bull era. A 15-2 run through the league's post-season party is an impressive, extraordinary feat; it included sweeps of the two top teams in the Pacific Division: Los Angeles, who many experts thought would beat them, and division champ Portland. Okay, some say, they got lucky with the Elliott shot. And the Lakers were overrated. And they beat a sorry-ass #8 seed for the championship. Let's dispense with the #8 shit right away, though Spurs fans will hear about it forever. Only eight games separated #1 from #8 in the East. Had the season run its normal course, the Knicks surely would have moved past Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and maybe Atlanta. They were the best team out of the East -- period.

It's intriguing to imagine how this Spurs team would match up against the Bulls. About the only thing they have in common are the required two superstars. Aside from that, you couldn't find two more opposite styles. Two outstanding defensive teams, but as different as black and white. Chicago's defensive philosophy was to lay waste to the opposition on the perimeter, with Jordan and Pippen forcing turnovers. San Antonio doesn't force turnovers. They destroy after inviting you inside to meet Mr. Robinson and Duncan. The same is true on offense. The Chicago triangle was designed for midrange jump shots and cuts to the basket. The Spurs attack inside. And all the other guys -- on both teams -- just needed to chip in enough to keep the other team honest. An attractive match-up.

So can Spurs fans think about a Bullish dynasty? I doubt it, but another year of domination in the West is probable. The once formidable conference no longer seems so daunting. Utah's cooked. Finished. Kaput. Ditto the Sonics. Houston, tied to the aging ligaments and joints of Charles and Hakeem, has nowhere to go. That leaves young Portland, where coach Dunleavy convinced big-egostars to sacrifice stats for the team; that won't be repeated next year. The Age of the Jackson Lakers will reap, again, tons of media attention, but Rome, it's been said, wasn't built in a day. San Antonio, meanwhile, appears solid. The team gets along like Boy Scouts. Robinson can play a secondary role effectively for a few more years. The satellite pieces are in place. Success will breed success -- for one more year anyway.

But then I wonder about all those guys from the Hank Snow song book. Jaren Jackson, whose three-point shooting was so crucial this season, is a poor career long-range gunner. Was this year a fluke? Mario Elie, certainly the key missing piece to the Spur puzzle, will be 36 next year. Steve Kerr, an addition whose cool presence wasfelt more in the clubhouse than on the court, will be 34. Sean Elliott, whose lucky three against Portlandreally got the Spur train rolling, was healthy for the first time in many years. Was that an aberration?

But these are questions for another time. For now, with no more playoffs to watch, I again gaze into the deep, endless abyss of summer. I see only baseball. I feel very depressed. I guess I'll mow the lawn.

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