CHICAGO – The great American sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a poem, “Alumnus Football,” that ended like this:
“When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the Game.”
I thought of those lines when considering the San Antonio Spurs and their five-game demolition of the Miami Heat for the 2014 NBA title.
It wasn’t the greatest Miami team with LeBron James, weary from playing in a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, with Dwyane Wade’s balky knees betraying him and Shane Battier and Ray Allen in decline, the shooters who open the court for James’ magic. Which is not to take anything away from the Spurs, though that has been something of their history as a champion.
They defeated the fluke Knicks in the 1999 Finals, a 50-game lockout season in which the Knicks were the No. 8 seed and didn’t even have Patrick Ewing, who was injured. Their other titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007 were against equally unaccomplished teams, the Jason Kidd Nets who didn’t win 50 games, the starless Detroit Pistons and LeBron’s Cavs team that forced him to leave Cleveland because he felt he had no chance to ultimately succeed.
Though you cannot choose your opponents; you can only defeat them.
In 2009 and 2011, the Spurs would not even make it out of the first round of the playoffs. In 2010, they were swept in the conference semifinals and they never won back to back.
So they won’t be confused with or compared to the great teams in NBA history: The ’60s Celtics, the ’80s Celtics and Lakers, the ’90s Bulls.
They won’t be mentioned for talent with Wilt’s 1967 Philadelphia 76ers or Dr. J’s and Moses Malone’s 1983 76ers.
Perhaps not Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers. Even the Bad Boy Pistons of the late 1980s won back to back and were in three consecutive Finals.
But the Spurs will endure and remain special, in part for their remarkable longevity of winning titles with Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich in three different decades and over an amazing 15-year stretch with five championships. The Spurs, really, will rest in their own category of excellence because there is no one to compare them with.
I remember something I heard from a coach once. He had scolded his players, “This, the NBA, is the highest level of basketball in the world. You have to play like it.”
That’s what the Spurs did perhaps as well or better than any other team ever. They played as pure and representative a game of basketball as you can.
They were fundamentally sound, making the right play, the right pass. They moved the ball and were team oriented.
They were unselfish, employing all the things that coaches preach, that the textbooks require, that the game represents.
It’s a team game played by the most skilled athletes in the world. So there’s a tendency for players who get to that level of achievement to continue to show how they play, for that is what enabled them to become great professionals.
It’s a most unusual and delicate alchemy to take the most special individual athletic talent in the world and mesh it into a finely tuned unit.
Not to say that it hasn’t been done before because you cannot win with individual, selfish play. The Bill Russell Boston Celtics exemplified the best in team play with Russell’s rebounding and outlet passing and fast breaking.
Magic Johnson’s 1980s Lakers used his deft passing and running to win their titles.
The Celtics of that era did so as well with Larry Bird’s passing and shooting.
Phil Jackson’s triangle offense with the 1990′s Bulls gave many winning opportunities to others besides Michael Jordan.
Isiah Thomas sacrificed his scoring ability for team success with a champion without a 20-point scorer.
There has to be those elements for any ultimate success.
But the Spurs added to that with a deep roster and players from the stars on down who gave up for the greater good. You could take videos of those playoff games and bring them to clinics and schools to show how basketball should be played without any other explanation.
That could be the greatest legacy for this Spurs team. They did it the right way; you could be proud of not only what they did but how they did it.
Yes, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were toward the end of their careers compared with the beginnings.
Parker was now considered the best and only All-Star. But when LeBron James, Miami’s best defender, was assigned to Parker, Parker simply gave up the ball and Kawhi Leonard was the Finals MVP after Parker had been the last time the Spurs won.
And it was done in such a seamless way that observers thought Parker was playing poorly. No, he was just playing the best way to succeed and without any complaint.
It’s a credit to the Spurs organization, for here was a team that won at least 50 games, including in a 66-game lockout season in 2010-11, for 15 consecutive seasons. It’s a credit to Popovich, as well, as he’s widely regarded as the game’s best coach with Phil Jackson now the New York Knicks’ president.
But Popovich will go down in league history even as it’s all with Duncan as among the truly elite, and for his fundamental demands as well. He expects accountability from everyone, especially his stars and is flexible for having adapted from the Duncan/David Robinson post game to this era’s higher scoring, open-court play without any missteps.
The Spurs have long been reviled around the NBA for being a so-called boring team, one the TV networks rarely feature, one that the joke always is the league roots for to lose in the playoffs because their presence depresses TV ratings.
But they finally have received their due. And they have done so the best way of all by becoming a model for what professional basketball and the NBA should look like.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”