Spurs owner Peter Holt wanted one for the thumb. Timmy, Tony, Manu and Pop needed one for redemption. They got it. Did they ever.
The total mastery of the two-time defending champion Miami Heat not only completed a narrative set in motion last June, the five-game whitewash set the Spurs and their principals apart in a way few will ever know.
Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have teamed together for all five titles, forming an unparalleled union that extends beyond player and coach. They’re partners, collaborators, lifelong friends. They epitomize what it means to be Spurs.
Duncan is the first NBA player to start for a championship team in three different decades, and his 15-year span between a first and last title has never been accomplished before with the same franchise. He was the youngest player on the 1999 champs and the oldest on the 2014 version.
"It’s amazing to think about having done this five times," Duncan said. "The kind of company I’m in, the people who have had such amazing careers and having had the ability to have one, and for the stretch, and the span between them, to still be in a situation where we can win or I can win another championship is just an amazing blessing, and it’s not taken lightly."
While Popovich’s five titles leaves him third on the all-time list, the case can be made that the former Division III coach is best to ever roam NBA sidelines. The beauty is he doesn’t care about those sorts of things. Accolades wash over Pop.
He prefers to stay in the background, as much as a five-time championship coach can. It was fitting that on the championship stage Popovich never stepped to the forefront. Holt, Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard took their turns addressing a crowd that didn’t want to leave AT&T Center. Pop remained in the back, letting the moment soak in.
When he finally spoke at the postgame press conference, Pop was asked to pick out one aspect of this team’s journey that will stay with him. He paused.
"I just take it as a whole," Popovich finally answered. "Last year’s loss was devastating. I’ve said many times, a day didn’t go by where I didn’t think about Game 6. So I think just in general, for the group to have the fortitude that they showed to get back to this spot, I think speaks volumes about how they’re constituted and what kind of fiber they have."
Popovich set the tone on the first day of training camp back in October by replaying last year’s Game 6. They watched the title slip away together. They decided then not to let it happen again.
"We reacted the right way," Duncan said. "We got great leadership from the top in Pop who came back absolutely fired up and ready to go, and to push us this far and this hard and to come out with the championship is amazing."
Seven years between titles only added to the taste, a fine wine aging in Pop’s cellar. The Spurs were supposed to be washed up more times than we care to admit. They had been bounced in the first round twice since the 2007 championship. They coughed up a 2-0 lead to Oklahoma City in the 2012 Western Conference finals. And there was last year.
"It’s been a long time, but it makes it even sweeter," Parker said. "That’s why I say it’s the sweetest one because it’s just unbelievable to win seven years ago and to be so close last year, it was very cruel, but that’s the beauty of sport. Sometimes it’s tough. And sometimes it can be beautiful like today, because it shows a lot of character of the team to take a loss and to come back the following year and to win the whole thing."
The Dallas Mavericks became America’s Team during their unlikely 2011 title run, delaying the start of an inevitable Heat Dynasty. The Mavericks beat a Heat team that everyone loved to hate. LeBron James proudly wore the black hat then, and when the villains were shot down, we rejoiced.
The Heat were no longer antiheroes in 2014. Two titles earned Miami respect, and the Spurs gave it. What the Spurs are, as they proved on the stage with all those national flags, is the World’s Team. Popovich refuses to use the phrase "World Champions," further emphasizing his reverence for global game that the Spurs represent more than any other professional franchise.
In any sport.
The 2014 NBA champions are the best of what basketball has to offer. We’ve seen it before in the Olympics, when Manu and his Argentinian buddies proved how to overcome what had been unbeatable American pro talent with a 2004 gold medal.
The Spurs are the embodiment of teamwork, where ball movement, unselfishness and trust trumped the star system. The phrase "good to great" is now part of the basketball lexicon when it comes to open shots.
"It was really fun to play like this," Ginobili said. "It was really fun to watch when I was on the bench. I think we played a really high level. We shared the ball maybe as never before. Seeing how involved and how important everybody that was part of that team felt made it even more special."
Everyone played a role. As much as Timmy, Manu and Tony provide the blueprint for what it means to wear Silver & Black, they allow their teammates to rise with them. Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter aren’t championship cogs on another squad but San Antonio.
Leonard has becoming a bridge to the future … without having a play called his way. Popovich, ever the Air Force cadet, ordered Leonard not to defer to his older and more accomplished teammates.
"The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game," Pop said. "You are the man. You’re part of the engine that makes us go. And it starts with his defense and his rebounding, and he’s starting to feel his oats offensively, obviously, because I have not called a play for him the whole playoff. I do not call his number."
Such is the beauty of the Spurs. And now they reign supreme once again. It’s almost as if they never left. Having been in this position for so long, the Spurs took back what was theirs.
"Last year was a tough one for all of us," Ginobili said. "We felt like we had the trophy, that we were touching it, and it slipped away. It was a tough summer. We all felt guilty. We all felt that we let teammates down, but we work hard. We thought every game in the regular season trying to get better to have the same opportunity again.