NBA 75: Tim Duncan leads Spurs to first title as '99 Finals MVP

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Tim Duncan at the 1999 NBA Finals (Getty Images)

The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today's honoree is Tim Duncan, the Spurs icon who would be a three-time NBA Finals MVP among a long list of other honors. This story, from the July 5, 1999, issue of The Sporting News, covered San Antonio’s first NBA title (and the first time Duncan was Finals MVP).

Champagne sprayed into the air and dripped from the ceiling of their locker room at Madison Square Garden, and except for Mario Elie complaining that it wasn't his brand of choice, the Spurs were acting like a dozen guys who had just bounce-passed their way to nirvana. The bubbly was streaming, creating a real mess, but nobody cared. With a 15-2 record in the postseason and a just-completed ouster of the Knicks in five games of the NBA Finals, the Spurs had done plenty of mopping up. Tomorrow morning, it would be the janitor's turn.

Meet your new NBA champions, the antithesis of all that is wrong with today's pro hoopsters. The Spurs don't talk trash, swagger, stick a finger in front of anybody's nose, leave their jerseys untucked, pierce their bodies, do sneaker commercials filled with bad grammar and bad attitudes or curse at reporters. They genuinely seem to love their fans and city, as un-hip as that may be.

Motormouth point guard Avery Johnson could make you bust out laughing during a funeral mass. The role players are living, dribbling proof that no one should listen to the jerks in life who tell them they'll never make it. San Antonio's emotional leader, David Robinson, is religious and reserved. And the team's best player, Tim Duncan, is so laid back, you'd think his job was mixing pina coladas for the tourists in his native St. Croix, not mixing it up with Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett under the boards.

Controversy?

"We argued over what sweat tops we would wear at the beginning of the year," guard Steve Kerr says. "That was the big one.”

"We're just a different team, not an in-your-face team," Johnson says. "Tim is providing kids with a lot of good examples. He's not about slam dunks, he's about pivot moves and jump hooks. Tim is not into shoe contracts. He's not the kind of guy who talks to his agent about endorsements on the bus.”

The question is: Should we plan on getting used to seeing these guys? Sure, NBC will undoubtedly give us a heavy dose of Duncan and "The Admiral" on its national telecasts next season. That’s a move the network probably is wishing it made this past season, when it turned practically every Sunday afternoon into The Shaq and Kobe Show or another installment of The Houston Rockets Chronicles.

But will the Spurs become a regular fixture on America’s TV screens and the Eastern Conference champions’ radar screens for a good many Junes? Are more clean sweeps and messy locker-room celebrations ahead? Could that 17-game march to the NBA championship turn out to be the beginning of — don’t say it too loudly — a dynasty?

"The Spurs definitely have a chance to be a dynasty if they take the approach the Bulls did, which was to surround the stars with young legs," Fox Sports analyst Marques Johnson says. "You've got a core there with Duncan, Robinson, Avery and Sean Elliott, but they've got to keep looking for the other pieces. Jerome Kersey, Steve Kerr and Elie are there now, but in a year or so, you've got to replace them and bring in fresher legs.”

Says Hall of Famer and NBC analyst Bill Walton: "With Duncan and Robinson, you have an incredible foundation for the future. The way David has settled into his new rhythm, playing the way Bill Russell did, will prolong his career. The pounding of going to the hoop and getting hammered time and time again now falls on Duncan, but his younger body can take that. San Antonio's guys have a lot of pride and self-respect, and many of the players had been turned back at every point in their careers. The perimeter guys are guys nobody wanted, so I think they'll stay humble and hungry.”

(Getty Images)

During the NBA Finals, coach Gregg Popovich and at least four Spurs described the team's style as "grind it out." Says Robinson: "You're not going to blow teams out that way, but you're going to wear them out. Teams know that for 48 minutes, we're not going anywhere.”

It's not a pretty style, but it's effective. With their half-court offense and war-of-attrition mentality, the Spurs didn't look invincible, but they went 46-7 in their final 53 games and led the league in point differential, defensive rebounds and blocked shots per contest. And San Antonio held its rivals to a 40.2 field-goal percentage, the lowest since the NBA started keeping track of the stat in 1970-71. The Spurs ranked only 13th in offense, but with Robinson getting more put-back opportunities in his supporting role in the offense, and Duncan having gained even more confidence from delivering repeatedly at crunch time in the playoffs, the "Twin Towers" should be a nightmare to defend next season. Knicks forward Marcus Camby has the best idea if only that darned rulebook wouldn't get in the way.

"How do you defend them?" Camby says. "Play a 2-3 zone.”

What makes the Spurs particularly tough is they're the NBA's best road team. They went 4-1 in Portland and New York in the playoffs, tuning out and deflating two of the most vocal crowds in the league. (Here's irony for you: Knicks fans, wearing "I Still Believe" T-shirts, were heading for the Garden exits before Game 4 had concluded.)

"It's a very mature group who plays like their backs are against the wall, especially on the road," Popovich says. "They just understand that they've got to be more perfect on the road. They believe it, and they play that way.”

***

So, if the Larry O'Brien trophy is going to end up in San Antonio again next year, should the NBA simply send it now to save on shipping costs? Not so fast. Sure, the Spurs probably will be favored to repeat, but they are hardly a sure thing, especially if we're talking about a dynasty. As a matter of fact, we're not sure they'll even be the San Antonio Spurs in a few years, let alone the NBA's next truly great team.

Following a plot line that has become all too familiar in pro sports, Spurs owner Peter Holt has been clamoring for a new arena in San Antonio specifically, someplace more intimate and skybox-laden than the cavernous Alamodome, but bigger and more modern than the HemisFair Arena the Spurs abandoned in 1993. Never mind that the Alamodome, for all its aesthetic drawbacks, hosted the second- and third-largest NBA Finals crowds in history and had as much atmosphere as any venue in the league. Holt may bolt if San Antonio taxpayers don't come through with a new building.

Although Duncan is expected to re-sign with the Spurs when his contract runs out next season, he conceded that the franchise's future in San Antonio would play a role in his decision. After the 78-77 series-clinching win over the Knicks, he said, "I would love to be (in San Antonio) for the rest of my career, but however it works out, it works out. Hopefully, we'll get it done. We've given them a good reason to keep the team there.”

Robinson still has two years remaining on his contract, but he'll be 34 in August and the degenerative disks in his back aren't going to get better. With a reduced offensive load, mere freelancing on defense and fewer minutes, his effectiveness can be extended. But he is forever performing on a medical tightrope. Then there is the matter of the other veterans. Elie is 35 and Johnson 34. Can they repeat the kind of seasons they had in '99 and effectively employ the Spurs' brand of demanding defense throughout an 82-game schedule? Will sharpshooting Elliott again flourish in the postseason, or will the problem of injuries and a shaky relationship with Popovich resurface?

***

The Spurs enter next season with some major questions, but plenty of promise, too. The same can be said for their Finals opponent. When the Knicks' record was 21-21 and Madison Square Garden President Dave Checketts was courting Phil Jackson to replace coach Jeff Van Gundy, the franchise looked in total disarray. But the Knicks won six of their final eight games, made the playoffs and embarked on a remarkable run — albeit with a lot of bounces going their way, literally and figuratively.

When the 76ers beat the Pistons on the final day of the regular season to shake up the playoff seedings, New York found itself paired with Pat Riley's Heat, a team with which it matches up particularly well. Allan Houston's 14-foot jumper with 0.8 seconds left in the deciding fifth game got a friendly bounce on the rim and gave the Knicks the series win. Then they met an offensively inept Hawks team in the second round and swept.

When banged-up center Patrick Ewing went down for the season with an Achilles tendon injury against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, the Knicks suddenly had a chance to turn Houston and Latrell Sprewell free in the lane, and aging Indiana couldn't cope with their speed.

Despite losing to the Spurs in five, New York played hard and provided San Antonio with plenty of Maalox moments. By the series end, a team that was about to be dismantled was being lauded. Van Gundy appears a lock to come back, maybe even with the added title of general manager.

"You can't discount what these playoffs will do for the Knicks' confidence," Marques Johnson says. "Right now, they feel sky high.”

To avoid falling out of the clouds without a parachute, however, the team is going to have to convince the stubborn Ewing that he no longer can be the first option on offense. If Ewing greets that suggestion with the same disdain he has shown in the past, it's going to be a long, ugly, moody winter in Gotham.

"I like this Knicks team if you can convince Patrick to play defense and rebound and take the shots only when they're there," Marques Johnson says. "I played with Bob Lanier at the end of his career, and that's exactly the role Ewing should have. Bob could give you 20 points when you needed them, but we had me, Sidney Moncrief and Junior Bridgeman to carry the offense, kind of like Sprewell and Houston. Bob's job was to be an intimidator. If Ewing does that his career will last another three or four years.

"The Knicks are a good point guard away from being a great team. Even without a point guard, Sprewell and Houston have playmaking ability, and the longer they play together, the more comfortable they'll be.’

(Getty Images)

That's assuming they do play together. Although he emphasized his desire to return to New York, Sprewell, unhappy with his sixth-man role during the regular season, reportedly told his teammates weeks ago that he wanted to be traded. Camby also is no fan of Van Gundy's. Though the Knicks are unlikely to deal Sprewell, Camby or Houston, they're the only attractive trade bait in the attempts to land a floor leader. Everyone else from Larry Johnson to Charlie Ward makes too much money or is too inconsistent to be marketable, or both.

"Expect everyone to stay," Walton says. "Houston has matured, Sprewell has found his game and Camby has improved. It's an up-and-coming team that has made great strides. It points to a strong Knicks team next year.”

About a half-hour after Game 5, Van Gundy was asked about the carryover effect of these playoffs and what could be expected of the Knicks next season.

"You know what," a weary Van Gundy said, "we just ended this year. I haven't thought a whole lot about next year yet.”

No sweat, Coach. After the miraculous resurrection job he did, and the grind of New York's 20 playoff games, Van Gundy could be forgiven for requiring some time to catch his breath. While he was answering questions in an exposition area a few hundred feet off the Garden floor, the Spurs were maneuvering through the crush in their locker room, video cameras in hand, trying to preserve the moment when a former ABA franchise could finally celebrate winning the NBA's top prize. In a way, this one was for "Ice Man" George Gervin, Larry Kenon, Louie Dampier, the "Baseline Bums" at HemisFair Arena and anyone who ever dribbled a red, white and blue ball.

As Avery Johnson smiled and laughed through his champagne shampoo, one couldn't help but recall a few days earlier, when he described his feeling after the Spurs lost the '95 Western Conference championship to the Rockets in six games.

"I remember crying in the locker room in Houston, and (the Rockets) announcing, 'Tickets go on sale for the NBA Finals tomorrow,'" he said.

In the hours before Game 5, guard Jaren Jackson was talking about his first memories of the Finals. He said he got hooked on the pro game as an 8-year-old in 1976, "watching on my little TV with the antennas on it" as the Celtics beat the Suns in triple-overtime in Game 5. Well, somewhere out there is an 8-year-old who just got his first taste of the NBA Finals while watching Jackson and the Spurs win a world championship. If so, the kid got to see Duncan's touch off the glass and Robinson's touch of class. He saw the competitive zest Avery Johnson brought to the floor each night and the never-die spirit of a bunch of guys who tasted rejection but didn't quit. He saw a team that never demeaned its opponent, won with teamwork and character and had genuine fun doing it.

If this was the kid's first glimpse at what pro basketball can still manage to be, he — like the Spurs' dynasty — is off to a good start.

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