Long-ago trip opened Popovich's eyes to bevy of talent abroad
POSTED: Oct 29, 2014 10:50 AM ET
Tiago Splitter (Brazil), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Boris Diaw (France) and Patty Mills (Australia) of the Spurs.
SAN ANTONIO — Frenchman Tony Parker brings the ball up court, hands off to Manu Ginobili of Argentina, then curls down the right side of the offense and along the baseline. Ginobili slides the ball to Tim Duncan, one-time would-be Olympic swimmer from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Duncan takes the ball and wraps a pass around a defender into the hands of Brazilian Tiago Splitter, who shuffles the ball to born-in-the-USA Kawhi Leonard spotted up behind the 3-point line. Leonard, wide open, lets it rip.
The NBA's master plan to take basketball around the globe, a plan now personified by the NBA champions San Antonio Spurs, probably never would have happened if a young Gregg Popovich and his teammates had not gotten their clocks cleaned one night in Vilnius, Lithuania. Popovich, the longtime coach of the Spurs, was a Soviet Studies major at the Air Force Academy in the spring prior to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the captain of a touring U.S. Armed Forces team that had won an AAU championship.
"We had all had some measure of success, all were pretty good and kind of figured we were the ones who could show the rest of the world how to play this American game of basketball," said Popovich. "But we figured wrong.
"We didn't get beat; we got shown up. We didn't just lose the game; we got served a reminder about passing, moving the ball, sharing responsibility and playing the right way.
"Personally, I had my eyes opened to the fact that there were great basketball players all over the world, even if nobody back at home knew it."
Of course, they do now.
A look at the international, multicultural flavor of the San Antonio Spurs.
Popovich's Spurs won the 2014 NBA championship with a roster made of more international flavors than a bouillabaisse -- nine players representing seven different lands outside the 50 United States.
More than three decades since the first players with unfamiliar names and backgrounds began dipping their toes into the NBA waters, the Spurs tsunami overwhelmed the two-time defending champ Miami Heat 4-1 in The Finals with a performance that was unforgettable and a style that transcended language barriers.
Utilizing the most diverse roster in the league with players from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Spurs were the joyous end product of the NBA's competitive and marketing reach that has enabled basketball to become the second-most popular sport (behind soccer) in the world.
Mini-Movie: 2014 Finals Game 5
The Spurs close out The Finals with another dominant victory.
By beating the Heat (with their marquee lineup of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) with a five-part harmony in their offense, the Spurs gained admiration and applause -- and now so many attempts to imitate.
"Success is something that people want to experience and then duplicate," said celebrated European head coach Ettore Messina, who has joined the Spurs staff as an assistant this season. "After what happened, there will be more and more followers. You know, like on Facebook -- many people hitting that button: 'I like. I like. I like.' "
It is the fifth championship in franchise history for the Spurs, yet it somehow stands alone and above the rest.
"It wasn't even close," Popovich said. "I was just amazed. You don't realize or see it when you're in it. We're just trying to win a game. Then afterward, I would get phone calls, emails, people in the NBA, college, high school, just stopping you on the street and saying something. So much that I had to go back and watch those last three games over on video. I think we did pretty well."
What the Spurs did was fulfill a vision that began more than 42 years ago on that tour of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a vision that has driven Popovich throughout his career, especially during his 18 seasons as the Spurs' coach.
"I'll admit, I was dumbstruck back at that time about the level of basketball talent that I saw over there in Europe," Popovich said. "Everyplace we went, there were more and more guys that could really play -- Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Moscow, Germany. So one of the first things I thought of when I came here [as an assistant coach under Larry Brown in 1988] is that 'You know, there's lots of players over there. We've got to go get them.'
"But nobody in the NBA really would listen back then. The only guys that would go were [Mike] Fratello, trying to bring [Alexander] Volkov to Atlanta, and Nellie [Don Nelson] was trying to bring Sarunas Marciulionis to Golden State.
"So I went in '88 over to Cologne, Germany for the EuroLeague Championships. I went into the lunch room and the only person I recognized was Nellie. That's when I knew I was onto something. That's when Yugoslavia was Yugoslavia, hadn't split yet. I'm looking at this team and there's Vlade Divac at center and there's Dino Radja at the four They had [Zarko] Paspaj at the 3 and Toni Kukoc coming off the bench at 18 years old. I'm thinking 'Holy cow!' Then you look at the Soviet team with [Arvydas] Sabonis and Marciulionis and those guys. And you go: 'What is the NBA thinking? There's players everywhere.' "
It's not realistic if we're picking 20th or 25th or 29th, to think that we're going to find something in an American kid that 20 or more other teams might have missed. We figured we had to go other places and find our type of player.
– Spurs general manager R.C. Buford
Popovich eventually signed the Yugoslavian Paspalj in 1989, but he only lasted one season in the NBA.
"That was the same year we drafted Sean Elliott in the first round and he got all the minutes at the three," Popovich said. "Zarko got frustrated and went home. I still believe he could have been a helluva player here. He could do everything."
That first sip from the international cup eventually led to France and Parker and Argentina and Ginobili, Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto and onto places such as Slovenia and Australia and New Zealand.
One of Popovich's favorite philosophical nuggets, by 19th-century Danish-American social reformer Jacob Riis, is about "pounding the rock." Popovich has the quote re-printed, framed and hung in a different languages inside the locker room each time the Spurs add a player from a new country.
"This is all Pop's vision," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. "He decided there wasn't a place in the world, a street we wouldn't walk down, a rock we wouldn't turn over to find a player.
"For one, it was his personal passion and his interest. But it was also very practical for us once we had drafted an elite player like Tim Duncan. With Tim, you're gonna win a lot of games every year and that means you're drafting at the bottom of the first round. You're not really going to get game-changers there. It's not realistic if we're picking 20th or 25th or 29th, to think that we're going to find something in an American kid that 20 or more other teams might have missed. We figured we had to go other places and find our type of player."
That is, a player who is willing to surrender a part of himself for the good of the team, to fit in to benefit the overall goal, even if that means forgoing individual accolades. Popovich quite often points out the biggest impediment to some of his players getting special recognition by the public and media is the very way he coaches and sublimates them. Last season the Spurs were the first team in NBA history without a single player to average at least 30 minutes per game.
They did it the right way in Europe and they did it longer and harder. They spent all that time on shooting and passing and dribbling and fundamentals and playing together. They spent a whole lot more time on the court working together, their kids, than our kids did.
– Spurs coach Greg Popovich
"As Europeans, we love the way the Spurs play, and all the teams in this league that move the ball more," said Messina. "For example, rather than using pick and rolls, they're using more DHOs [direct hand offs]. They use weak side action with cut, screen, whatever. We like that most. Not only because we like, but we need to do that.
"The majority of the American players at each position are either taller, faster or more powerful, or maybe all three of them. These [international] kids are usually good teammates, because they have to be. They have lived all their life long in a sense of team environment.
"The second thing is that most of them are probably not the best athlete, with a few exceptions. But they show that having good skills, and good from the mental aspect, they can become sometimes great basketball players. It's not always jumping and running. It's good footwork, ability to handle the ball, solid shooting ability, solid passing ability, vision of the game."
The secret to the Spurs' success is not simply to assemble a United Nations of hoops by collecting exotic passports. While San Antonio had by far the most minutes played by international players in the 2013-14 season (72 percent), it can be noted that the bottom-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves were second (43.7 percent). And while the Spurs did have their highest assist/field goal rate (68 percent) with five international players on the floor, the Wolves percentage actually went up (59.1 percent to 59.7) slightly when internationals on the floor dropped from three to one player.
"It's just the philosophy of Popovich," said Spurs versatile big man Boris Diaw of France. "He's kind of a European-type of coach. It's just the way we play. Everybody touches the ball. There's a lot of ball movement. It's just something that fits me.
"He's got a model and when players come to his team, he fits them to play the way he wants. But at the same time, they don't go out and pick up players that don't fit in our model. So he doesn't have to change you much to be able to fit into the team. They take somebody that's already pretty close to that model and you just fit the model, change a little bit ... It's not really about where you were born or where you learned how to play basketball."
That's not to say there weren't challenges making a transition to the NBA.
"Before I got here, I thought I could play here," Ginobili said. "Even in Europe. I was the MVP of the Italian League, so I thought the next step from there was here. 'I think I can do it. I'll make it.'
"Then once you get here, you start out with doubts. You try to fit, to understand the game, the coach, the opponents, the refs, the rules, everything. There is a little hesitation there.
"Against opponents, I've been even disrespected a little. Not because I was white or because of where I come from, but just because 'Here is this skinny kid who nobody knows where he played before.' I never played college or anyplace they'd ever heard of. Just because I was not American.
"What I think people found out is that we are basketball players and on this team that is all that matters. International players often have to have either a very distinct skill, be either great passers, shooters, have size. Of course, in general, we're not gonna run as fast or jump as high. That's the Americans doing what they have. So with the tools you've been given, you've got to find a way. Here, we just play the way Pop wants, the way we like, the way that gets the most out of us."
Parker says he doesn't think twice about the Spurs representing a jump-shooting, slam-dunking United Nations.
"I think it just makes it the NBA the best league in the world because you have players from everywhere. Everybody plays different ways. I think the Spurs are just a unique situation because we have a lot of international guys and Pop loves international. That just makes it a little bit different and very special within our team, inside our locker room.
"It's not a European thing vs. Americans. For me, I don't want to compare Europe and USA and who's better and stuff like that. I think there's just great basketball everywhere. Miami played great basketball, too. They won two championships and we won last year. So I don't know if you can say one style is better than the other one.
"I never felt like I had to prove myself to anyone that I had the ability to play in the NBA as an outsider. But I did have to prove that I could play for Pop and that I could play the way the Spurs want to play.
"Guys can come in here to San Antonio from anyplace in the world and you either fit in or you don't. What you find is that most of the guys fit in and that's because Pop and R.C. know after all these years what they're looking for, what they want."
As Europeans, we love the way the Spurs play, and all the teams in this league that move the ball more.
– Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina
The question gets asked, out of naiveté or ignorance: Could a roster consisting only of Americans play like the Spurs?
The Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and '60s certainly did. The New York Knicks championship teams of 1970 and '73 are still celebrated and romanticized for their ball movement. Perhaps the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Celtics of the 1980s were the most recent example.
"We stopped playing the right way," Popovich said. "We stopped playing the way we learned the game and did it the ESPN [highlights] way, so to speak, and everybody got enthused about that. They did it the right way in Europe and they did it longer and harder.
"They spent all that time on shooting and passing and dribbling and fundamentals and playing together. They spent a whole lot more time on the court working together, their kids, than our kids did. Now we've realized the error of our way and we're getting back to it.
"Could I do it with 15 Americans? Oh yeah, but I'd have to find the Grant Hills and Shane Battiers of the world. Kawhi Leonard. Yeah, they're here, too. You just have to find them and put them together. It's not like every foreign player is fundamentally sound. Boris Diaw knows how to play. So does Grant Hill. Shane Battier. Kawhi Leonard knows. But these guys, they're not growing on trees.
"I'm not against American players. If a foreign kid couldn't play, I wouldn't want him either. Look at Kawhi. We needed a 3 man bad. We were too small. Playing Manu there was debilitating. We were gonna beat him up, run him into the ground.
"We just needed a player like Kawhi. Like I've said many times, I was scared to death when we did it, made that trade [with Indiana for George Hill] to get him. R.C. and I looked at each other right down to the final seconds when the time clock was on us on draft night: 'Are we gonna do this? Geez, oh whiz! OK, lets rolls the bones.'
"Now Kawhi's over there with his [NBA Finals MVP] trophy and it looks like we were so sure of what we were doing all along. Yeah, sure."
A quarter century after Popovich made that first scouting trip to Cologne, Germany, the NBA opened last season with 92 players from 39 countries, more than 20 percent of the league. This season, the league had a record 101 players from 37 countries on the the opening day rosters.
While the global growth of basketball continues, so does assimilation into the game's premier league.
"The rub is that the international player might be able to play, but he's also got to be able to at least 'hang,' " said Popovich. "He's got to be able to hang athletically within the game. He can know the game as much as he wants. But if he's too damn slow and doesn't have speed or strength or athleticism, well, you've got have a certain amount of that stuff to be able to play with all our guys.
"Let's not go there. You can't just pick a Euro because he's a Euro. That's not gonna work. You gotta be careful not to paint with too big a brush on the generalization."
Yet it is Popovich who likes to splash colorful and creative ideas clear off the canvas. Over the summer he made Becky Hammon the first-ever full-time female assistant coach on an American men's professional team. After a year on the bench, New Zealand native Sean Marks returns to the front office as assistant general manager. Australian Phil Coles has been hired as director of medical services, Canadian Marilyn Adams is now director of rehabilitation and Xavi Schelling of Spain is an applied sports scientist. The Spurs see the whole world as their talent pool for every piece of the organization.
"The other part is it's interesting," Popovich said. "I think it makes the game more fun. We have 82 games and then playoffs. On the bus and in the locker room, at the arena and in the practice gym, having all those cultures together, if you have character people and they enjoy each other, it just widens the horizons. There's more humor. There's more interesting talk. There's more opportunities of camaraderie. All of that can happen if you have a more diverse team."