The San Antonio Spurs “Program”
A couple of seasons ago (that’s how long this post has been sitting in my Drafts folder, egads), Bethlehem Shoals penned for AOL Fanhouse (RIP) this nice ode to the fast start the San Antonio Spurs went on that year.
The Spurs, if you remember, went from a methodical team that made its name on defense to a offense resembling a high-powered sports car. Suddenly the Spurs were fun to watch. It was a dramatic change from what we were used to and some are still slow to wrap their heads around what happened. With that philosophical change, Shoals produced three paragraphs that hit to the heart of the silver &T black.
At the same time, that the Spurs have found so much success early speaks, first and foremost, to that increasingly vague “Spurs culture.” It’s not necessarily about personnel, or style of play. It’s not even really about Gregg Popovich, or unheralded general manager R.C. Buford (so far, highly-touted rookie Tiago Splitter has disappointed). The Spurs, like the Celtics before them, have an ethos that allows for both continuity and a level of sustained excellence that just doesn’t happen these days. It’s not a function of player loyalty, coaching or front office brilliance, or market size. This reading of what makes a franchise durable is completely backward. The Spurs have all these things because that’s the organization they decided to be.
Some of it is dumb luck (Duncan), and there’s a first time for everything. But anyone looking to either learn from the Spurs, or use them as ammunition against some other player or team, needs to understand that pro sports teams are institutions. They take on a life of their own, and at the same time, cannot take shape in the first place without some sense of purpose. The right question about the Spurs, whether it’s this season or any other, isn’t “how do they keep it up,” or even “how did they get here in the first place?” There’s a “why” behind all of this, and that’s the real Big Fundamental.
Duncan helped take the Spurs to new heights, and yet even he isn’t essential. Nor should Spurs fans be measuring out how many years Manu has left. It might sound mystical, more suited to college ball than the pros, but at this point, the Spurs are the Spurs. This has been true for years; this season just happens to bring an especially dramatic reminder of it.
Shoals’ post reminds me of something that always catches my attention when Gregg Popovich speaks to the media. Coach Pop always refers to the Spurs as a “program.” Not a team or franchise or organization. It’s “program.” The program. This program. Our program. It always strikes me as an interesting word choice.
It makes me think — like Shoals — that this program now exists outside of those that currently run and execute it.
It wouldn’t be possible without Coach Pop and Tim Duncan and others’ previous work for this program to be successful. Popovich with his coaching style and beliefs, and Duncan with his greatness and ability to be coached. But now that they’ve reached this point, this continued success, the program can now just exist.
J.A. Adande touched on it during last year’s playoffs, when the Spurs were rolling and people outside of (210) were just starting to appreciate some of the things that were happening in South Texas.
“When there’s a clarity of what works here and doesn’t work, hopefully it gives us the clarity to know when we’re looking for people,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. “Maybe it helps us reduce our pool.”
It’s not just a culture. The term the Spurs keep using is program, as in a college program.
Example: “Pop has brought the vision to our program,” Buford said. “Everyone who has come through our program understands the things that are important: character and selfless people who want to be part of a team. Want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
This program has taken on a life of its own. And despite the changes that are coming in the next few years, the program will still be in place. As long as one sweeping change is not made — replacing the ownership, management and coaching staffs — people will be brought in who can work with the program. Kawhi Leonard was a continued step in that direction
The San Antonio Spurs have built a system that runs with little maintenance and the occasional tune-up. An overhaul may be needed soon, but the mechanics handling it seem well qualified.