Gregg Popovich's Paper Cup

Everything matters - Travis Hale

Precision. Teamwork. Excellence. These are traits that permeate the Spurs organization, personified by the team's treatment of a paper cup.

If you were to ask those inside the organization they'd probably laugh.

Sure it's an important part of the evening, but it's nothing special. It's just another piece of the machine, part of the myriad operations that churns out success nightly.

I've watched from a few feet away on a couple of occasions and can see that like so many components of this team and organization, there is an unappreciated precision in carrying out such a simple task.

There are a group of men assigned to it, rotating throughout the game. Sure these men have other duties to perform, but taking care of it is just as important as anything they will do during the night.

There is nothing fancy about it. It's an unassuming paper Gatorade cup. Actually it's two cups stacked together, doubled for stability and to prevent sweating. No bells and whistles. No rock and roll.

This cup will never be famous like those cups that the players prank each other with. It will never be featured on SportsCenter after Pop uses it to spill Diet Coke on the court to get a free timeout. And unlike other inanimate objects, it'll never have its own Twitter account or televised interview.

There are twelve Twitter accounts purporting to be LeBron James' mask. You'll never find Pop's water cup or the men that attend to it on Twitter, seeking attention. The cup and the men assigned to it just quietly do their jobs.

* * *

During the fourth quarter of last Sunday night's game against the Mavericks, the cup, and the events surrounding it, compelled me to document their teamwork.

The Spurs called time-out with the lead. The cup was filled to halfway and placed gently atop a folded Gatorade towel on the edge of the scorer's table as the players leave the court. The assistant coaches joined Pop on the court a few feet away to diagram a few plays. Per usual, Boris Diaw approached and prepared to sit on the edge of the scorer's table. The cup was pulled to safety as Boris effortlessly plopped down. The feeling of relief from the cup men was palpable.

Soon after, Boris stood and joined the huddle. The cup was placed back on the edge, in its rightful spot. But suddenly Boris returns to lounge.

Pull the cup! Quickly, pull the cup!

Again, pulled to safety just in time. No need for Boris to concern himself with its safety. He's got a job to do, as do the cup men. Boris sits where he pleases and pirouettes on the court while the cup men take care of the cup. Everyone knows their role.

As the buzzer sounds and the players return to the court, the chaotic symphony crescendos. Pop's timeout chair is handed to Coach Engelland, who leans it up against the scorer's table behind the bench. The NBA is a glorious wonderland but the space available during a game is minimal. Ridiculous even. Giant men cramped together, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee. But it's even more crowded for the support staff that sit behind the team. A young trainer attempted to return to his seat with a tray full of water bottles. He's a man with a slight build, which is of some importance. The distance between the last chair on the bench and the scorer's table is a few inches at best and a larger man wouldn't fit.

His challenge is to navigate the opening while not disturbing Pop's cup, which is sitting precariously on the edge of the scorer's table atop a towel, leaving it completely vulnerable and unbalanced.

He's done this a thousand times but I imagine the butterflies never go away. It's almost as if the cup is placed in that exact spot as some sort of test. The cup men are disciplined and possess a meticulous attention to detail, but the cup men also push the envelope. The cup men live on the edge.

On this night, and during this particular time-out, the slight young trainer experienced the scare of his life.

He nudged the cup with his tray of bottles, almost tipping it over. Fortunately the nudge was harmless and the cup didn't spill. Everyone assigned, and even those that weren't, took notice. That was too close, even for the brave cup men.

The young trainer looked me dead in the eye seconds after the cup stabilized and it was at that moment I knew I could write about genuine fear being washed away by joyous relief in this world of precision. He would survive another night. Excellence is fleeting and vulnerable to mistakes, but this night would not end in failure.

As play resumed, Pop walked past the cup a few feet down the sideline. He barked a few orders to Tony Parker and made a gesture with his hand similar to a parent making shadow puppets for his kids. The defense was set.

Pop returned to the edge of the scorer's table and looked absently at his cup. In the midst of wondering whether he had the right personnel and defense, he took a quick drink, swishing the cool water in his mouth several times. The game resumed as he set the cup on the towel.

And in one fluid motion it was refilled as Coach Pop turned his full attention toward the play on the court.

Like clockwork.

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