Made not in America
Is avoiding American players the secret to the Spurs' success?
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine
Darren CarrollWhen Coach Popovich talks, the Spurs actually listen.
29°25'36.39" N, 98°26'14.34" AT&T Center, San Antonio, 2013
"Stone cold" is a distinctly American term. So you could forgive Tiago Splitter's question. The San Antonio Spurs are in a scouting meeting, moments before tip-off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Assistant coach Brett Brown is explaining a defensive alignment -- a "red," where two Spurs defenders switch off a pick. To emphasize his point, Brown declares it a stone-cold certainty the Spurs will face that situation in tonight's game.
Nine of the Spurs' 15 players this year were raised and trained outside of the United States -- an NBA record. Cultural and linguistic confusion happens often on this team. Enter Splitter, a 6'11", 28-year-old center from Brazil by way of Spain, who this season was the latest to consummate the transition from overseas superstar to selfless Spur. Splitter raises his hand, narrows his brow sharp as a rooftop and says, "What is stone cold?"
The team laughs. Head coach Gregg Popovich laughs. Splitter laughs too -- but he still needs an answer. So Brown explains what he meant. Then Splitter turns to Patty Mills, a guard from Australia, and whispers, "Stone cold isn't in Rosetta Stone."
50°56'15.11" N, 6°57'37.00" E
Cologne, West Germany, 1988
As coaches go, Popovich is a pretty worldly guy. He majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy. He speaks Russian and Serbian. He played on military basketball teams during his stint in the armed forces, traveling Eastern Europe in the '70s. Even then, he knew that the foreign guys were a mostly untapped wealth of talent. So in the late '80s, as an assistant coach with the Spurs, Pop traveled to see the European championships in Cologne. The only other NBA coach there was Don Nelson. Pop knew the stigmas against foreign players: They wouldn't play defense, they wouldn't socialize, they wouldn't learn English, they weren't strong dribblers, they couldn't handle a reduced role, they were soft. "I thought that was really ignorant," Pop says now. "I couldn't believe that it was a pool that wasn't being used."
Decades later, with Pop's mentality and some luck, the core of the Spurs -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, international players all -- have helped produce the most consistent winner in the four major sports over the past 15 years, victorious 70.3 percent of the time during that stretch. They've reached the NBA Finals five times and, as of June 10, were three wins away from a fifth championship. And through it all, as Pop's international strategy has become the strategy in the NBA -- seven GMs and five head coaches this past season grew from the Spurs' tree -- it's always been framed in Moneyball terms: Go somewhere other teams aren't, find talent nobody else finds. But to spend time inside the Spurs organization today is to uncover another interpretation of the Spurs dynasty: that as America's youth basketball pipeline has produced a type of player that Pop has no interest in coaching, he has found an advantage not only in targeting international players but in avoiding domestic ones...
The Spurs won because of Tim Duncan, a guy I could never break. I could talk trash to Patrick Ewing, get in David Robinson’s face, get a rise out of Alonzo Mourning, but when I went at Tim he’d look at me like he was bored and then say, “Hey, Shaq, watch this shot right here off the glass.” Shaquille O'Neal on Tim duncan.
I don't like the title of the article. I doubt that the Spurs avoid any player based on where he was born. Their system is in many ways conducive to the foreign players and they often get more bang for the buck with them.
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