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Fran Blinebury

The Spurs will get very comfortable in their road jerseys over the next 18 days.
The Spurs will get very comfortable in their road jerseys over the next 8,230 miles and 18 days.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Spurs have learned to make most of Rodeo Trip tradition

Posted Feb 3 2011 10:10AM

In the vernacular of the event, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and pardners couldn't hang on long enough to hear the bell and got tossed their first time out of the chute in Portland.

So now the challenge is to climb back into the saddle against the Lakers in L.A.

It's the Spurs Rodeo Trip, an annual exercise that tests defensive abilities and packing skills, boxing out on the boards and sacking out on airplanes, late game execution in the fourth quarter and late night arrivals in hotel lobby. It's about jump shots and jetlag, running the floor and running for the plane, catching passes wherever they're thrown and catching Zs whenever you can.

It is long and tiring, yet frantic and often inspiring. It is an 8,230-mile odyssey that will take the Spurs to eight states, nine cities, two countries and three time zones over the course of 18 days, eventually delivering them back to San Antonio with more answers than questions. After all, it is the road where NBA championship mettle is often forged in an us-against-the-world atmosphere.

Many NBA teams are forced out of their multi-purpose home arenas at roughly the same time every year. The Bulls' annual Circus Trip had them on the road from Nov. 15-28 while the lions and tigers and clowns took over the United Center. After facing the Spurs on Thursday, the Lakers will depart on a seven-game, 13-day trip and on Friday night the Clippers begin a run of 11 straight on the road. Both L.A. teams have to clear out as the Staples Center hosts the Grammys and NBA All-Star Weekend this month.

The Spurs' journey is a tradition born of necessity when they moved from the Alamodome to the AT&T Center for the 2002-03 season. The team is forced to vacate its home each year for a large portion of February for the bull-riding, calf-roping activities of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

But it is a tradition that the Spurs have made the very most of, churning out a 44-20 (.688) record over the past eight seasons. That's better than their mark of 156-111 (.576) in the rest of their road games.

In the first year of the Rodeo Trip (2003), the Spurs lost on their first stop at Minnesota, then ran off eight wins in a row and four months later claimed their second NBA championship. Two years later (2005), the Spurs blitzed through the Rodeo Trip with a 5-2 record and went on to win championship No. 3.

Thus a legend, and perhaps a myth, began to grow -- that they need the trip. That it somehow makes them stronger.

There are more guesses about reasons for the Spurs' success than seeds inside a jalapeno pepper. It's often been speculated that they use the trip as one of those Outward Bound adventures that is supposed to change your life.

Ginobili shakes his head. Duncan shrugs.

The truth is, they don't really know.

"That's a great question," Parker told the San Antonio Express-News. "Since I've been here, we've always played well on the road. Every year, we use that road trip to jell and as a team to pick it up and make a run."

While the color and fun and excitement of the rodeo are taking place in San Antonio, the Rodeo Trip itself is more grind than carnival. Rather than picture them as wild bull riders clinging for dear life atop a ton of snorting anger, the more accurate image of the Spurs is as Lonesome Dove heroes Capt. F.W. Call and Gus McCrae on a long, arduous trail ride, covering one day at a time.

2003: 8-1
2004: 6-1
2005: 5-2
2006: 6-2
2007: 4-4
2008: 6-3
2009: 5-3
2010: 4-4
Total: 44-20

Coach Gregg Popovich doesn't want to hear the psycho-babble and romanticism about the Rodeo Trip being a bonding experience for his team. To Pop, like everything else in the game, it's all about making a commitment to play defense, simply doing your job one day after the next until you reach your destination. Maybe that's why, instead of letting the daunting time on the road get them down, the Spurs have thrived.

Through the first four years of the Rodeo Trip, the Spurs soared at an otherworldly 25-6 pace (.806). Over the last four years, they have come back to Earth with a 19-14 record (.576). Still they have never lost more than two games in a row on the trip. Last season they were 4-4, which equaled the worst mark ever on the trip.

This time around the Spurs left on the trip packing a 40-7 record, the best in franchise history. All season long, the San Antonio players and coaches have deflected talk about their record and their credentials as an "elite team."

Now after getting throttled by LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers to open the trip, the Spurs face a Lakers team with problems of its own, but still No. 2 in the Western Conference playoff race. And perhaps the most difficult test of the entire trip will be the last stop in Chicago on Feb. 17. In between, the Spurs will play three sets of back-to-backs, one stretch of five games in seven nights and constantly reset their watches

"This year it's different because we had a fast start," Parker said. "I think this year the trip is about focusing on defense and making sure we don't get satisfied."

Getting complacent is not likely for these Spurs. After all, this ain't their first rodeo.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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