1-on-1 with the previous no. 21
A forgotten year in San Antonio Spurs history, the 1996-1997 season in many ways set the foundation for the culture of the Spurs. Before the multiple foreign All-Star imports stolen with late draft picks, or mining Europe for role players, or even before Tim Duncan–back when an inexperienced front office Gregg Popovich was acquiring the Vernon Maxwells, Charles Smiths, and Carl Herreras of the world–there was a MASH unit of players led by a future hall of famer wearing a familiar no. 21 jersey.
Dominique Wilkins signed with the San Antonio Spurs before the 1996-1997 season looking to get back in the NBA and perhaps win a title as an experienced backup small forward to Sean Elliott. Instead, Wilkins found himself playing a prominent role on a losing team decimated by injuries and poor depth, leading the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game and adding 6.4 rebounds.
In a stretch, Wilkins loosely represented the prototype for all future acquisitions for Popovich. In one move Popovich acquired a veteran role player with something to prove (the former human highlight film was trying to get back in the NBA at the end of his career), that role player was found overseas (Wilkins played in Greece the season before), and of course, small ball (Wilkins alternated between all three front court positions due to injuries).
Last week I was able to briefly catch up with Dominique Wilkins before the Spurs 108-92 victory over the Atlanta Hawks and get a few of his thoughts on the 1996-1997 season.
“When I signed, we had a good team. I think we had a legitimate chance of winning the west but too many people got hurt. David was hurt, Sean Elliott was hurt. We had so many guys injured that we couldn’t get any chemistry or continuity on the floor.
When your top guys go down, especially David Robinson, man…You know, with that team I had to play the four a lot, some five. Now, I’m a natural three, but we just had guys playing out of position. Especially me and Monty (Williams) going back and fourth between the three and four spots. It was tough.”
On Monty Williams as a head coach:
“We both played a lot of minutes that year and he was a guy that always studied, listened to whatever the coaches told him, and worked hard. So from that standpoint it kind of makes sense, but to see him as a head coach now, it just hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
On Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich:
“I was on the bus when he took over. He just walked on the bus, told everyone, ‘I’m taking over the team today, let’s go out and try and get a win.’ Just like that.
It wasn’t that much of a shock. [Former Spurs head coach Bob] Hill was a good coach as well, but they were just two different types of coaches. Pop is a very detailed, very precise guy. He wants things done a certain way. His way. And his way usually works as he’s shown over time–he has four championships.”
On the Spurs culture and success:
“San Antonio is a great place to live, and a great place to raise a family, so it’s not that surprising to me to see a lot of guys really come together and settle down here. It starts with great ownership, guys really cared about each other and I really enjoyed my time here.
Then there’s Pop. Pop is one hell of a coach, he was then and he is now, as we now well know. He’s done a great job gradually putting this team together, slowly adding pieces, and building that great chemistry over time. If you look at the team, there’s not a whole lot of movement. I mean, guys have come and gone, but they’ve managed to keep their core together through the years.”
On NBA 2k11 and the Jordan challenge:
“You know, that’s an amazing game. I haven’t really gotten a chance to play, but I’ve seen it a couple times and it’s amazing how life-like and realistic it is. It’s not easy holding me under 25 points.”