They may not have the glamour of the Lakers, or the tradition of the Celtics, but the San Antonio Spurs have been the NBA’s model franchise since drafting Tim Duncan twelve years ago. Having a selfless superstar — who just so happens to be the greatest power forward of all-time — certainly helps set the right tone. But every Spurs alumnus, from Doc Rivers to Danny Ferry, is quick to cite Gregg Popovich as the spiritual leader. Simply put, Popovich has established a culture of honesty, humility, and, of course, excellence. Which is why so many NBA teams have been eager to hand their keys to former members of Spurs management. Here’s how SI’s Ian Thomsen tells it:
When I mentioned during a recent conversation that his Spurs have given birth to a kind of mafia — an approach to NBA basketball that extends beyond San Antonio — Popovich sounded both proud and humbled.
“I guess that’s true, but I don’t know how,” he said. “We’ve just been fortunate with all of the guys who have come through here. It’s not just coaches or GMs or people like Pritchard, who used to be a scout here. It’s the film guys in Detroit and Cleveland, and one of our former [video] guys who just got the job at Bakersfield. We’ve had a hell of a group of people come through here, and they’ve ended up doing well.”
Popovich doesn’t dwell on his military background as an Air Force Academy graduate, but the lessons of that education are crucial to his organization. Look at the people who have moved elsewhere, and you’ll find no celebrity hires or anyone who is especially glamorous. All appear to be hard workers who put in long hours and focus on details.
My understanding of the Spurs is that they operate on a sink-or-swim dynamic, that Popovich and Buford don’t train newcomers in the hows and whys of the Spurs’ program. Instead, those who work there are expected to catch on quickly, and figure it out on their own. If you’re smart and you work hard, then you’re a keeper who will succeed in San Antonio and go on to prosper elsewhere. The benefit is easy to see: It empowers employees to think on their own, to learn their own lessons and to provide Popovich and Buford with new points of view. They demand opinions from their workers; they don’t surround themselves with a cabal of “yes” men.
If you’re a nobody who pays attention and works hard, you can eventually become a somebody in San Antonio.