Posted Mar 23 2010 9:51AM
The most anxious moment in the professional life of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich didn't happen in a fourth-quarter timeout, or when Derek Fisher launched that prayer at the buzzer in Game 5 of the 2004 playoffs. Nothing like that.
Instead, the phone rang one day in the summer of 2000. On the line was his All-Star forward, a young Tim Duncan, just back from getting coddled and champagned by the Orlando Magic as a free agent. He had reached a decision on his future. He had to talk.
It was the Moment of Truth, or the Turning Point of the Franchise, or whatever reach-for-the-antacid title you want to attach to it. Duncan got straight to the point, which felt like a dagger in Pop's gut.
"Well coach, you know, there's no beach in San Antonio," Duncan began, trying to break the news gently.
You know when a woman gets a breakup call from George Clooney? This felt like one. Until Popovich realized he was being punked.
"There's no beach in Orlando, either," Popovich growled. "There's a cultural desert there. What do you want to go there for?"
Duncan laughed and gave the coach the good news: He was re-signing with San Antonio. The other day, Popovich smiled at the memory of getting pump-faked by his center, and said: "He got me. He got me good."
Ten years later, there are coaches and general managers in Cleveland, Miami, Toronto, Atlanta and other places who would love for their star to pull a stunt like that this summer. With LeBron James and a handful of A-list free agents ready to get their rings kissed on the open market, it's worth taking a reflective look at the franchise player who almost got away.
"I came close to leaving," said Duncan.
In retrospect, to an outsider, Duncan had better reasons to sign with Orlando than stay with the Spurs. The Magic had cleared enough cap space to sign two free agents that summer and they put a full-court press on Duncan and Grant Hill (who was hyped as the next Michael Jordan at the time). Those players happened to share the same agent, too. And while Duncan won a 1999 championship in San Antonio, the Spurs were slipping. David Robinson and Sean Elliott were on their last legs and it was years before Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili would arrive. Meanwhile, the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe were revving up, threatening to dominate the West and make life miserable for Duncan for years.
Nobody could blame Duncan for leaving and starting fresh with a compatible co-star.
"It was a nerve-wrecking time," Popovich admitted. "It was hell. You get close to a player and you don't want to see him leave. I never let myself believe he was going to stay. I was just getting myself prepared, for sanity reasons. It's no fun.
"It also seems like it takes forever to resolve. That's the worst part of it. We made our pitch to him and let him be, let him make up his own mind."
The Magic came hard. They flew Duncan in on a private jet. They super-imposed Hill and Duncan into Magic uniforms and slapped them on billboards around the city with the title "Imagine." The Epcot ball at Disney World was scribbled with "Grant Us Tim" in lights. And this: Then-Orlando resident Tiger Woods helped with the house-hunting. Just think, Duncan could've lived right down the street, near the fire hydrant and tree made famous last Thanksgiving.
Hill was sold and pledged on the spot. Duncan flew home and gave it some thought.
His take-it-slow approach wasn't so surprising, given his laid-back personality. The money was roughly equal, so Duncan had to follow his gut. He liked the small-town charm of San Antonio, and respected Popovich. The Spurs also had one more trick in the bag; Robinson cut short a Hawaiian vacation to make a personal plea.
"There were several reasons for staying," Duncan said. "It really came down to being comfortable."
Therefore, he figured: Why leave happiness? It's precisely why folks in Cleveland should feel rather secure about LeBron, and Miami about Dwyane Wade (but maybe not Toronto about Chris Bosh). The home team always holds the edge, because moving can be a pain.
The Spurs should know. A few years after the Duncan decision, the tables turned. This time it was the Spurs who chased Jason Kidd, fresh off leading the Nets to back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals.
Kidd was flown in and heard a big recruiting pitch from Duncan, then returned to New Jersey and decided to stay, mainly because his wife wanted to pursue a local TV career. A few years after that, Kidd got divorced. As they say, timing is everything.
It wasn't a total setback for San Antonio, because without Kidd around, Parker developed into an All-Star and was a Finals MVP, helping San Antonio to two more championships.
Therefore, in a decade in which they collected three championships, the Spurs benefitted by both winning and losing in free agency.
That's just something to think about this summer.
"I think this whole free agent thing is much ado about nothing," said Popovich. "Most guys are going to stay. It usually ends up that way."
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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