Winning a championship has its perks. It's a fast track to increased notoriety and adoration, and in many cases, it leads to an inflated salary. But never before has this sequence of events been coupled with a rite of passage similar to what has been granted to the foreign legion of the 2014 Spurs.
Depending on the level of your offseason interest, you may have noticed that--for the first time in its history--the symbol of league supremacy, the Larry O'Brien Trophy, has ventured beyond the borders of the United States. As part of a process that is not unlike the pastime of the NHL's Stanley Cup homecomings, all international players on San Antonio's roster were offered--by the organization, it should be noted--the chance to embrace and share their success with friends, family, and fans at home.
The origins of the idea were briefly explained by Aron Baynes, as part of a press conference in Melbourne that kickstarted the Australian leg of the tour. As I highlighted in my follow up piece, Baynes said:
"The GM [R.C. Buford] came up to us while Patty and I were at a table and he came up and said, ‘Listen boys, we are working towards getting you to have the Trophy for four or five days, so you can take it to the respective homes and do whatever you want with it,'" the 27-year-old described.
Of course, being located in Melbourne, I had the great fortune of being able to cover parts of Mills' and Baynes' experience. Poetically, this return home flagged a span of roughly a decade since these two first begun playing together, and a chance to affirm Australia's standing on the global basketball ladder.
Given that the event itself had little to be measured against, it was tough to know what to expect from it, other than plenty of exposure to the players involved. Following the NBA from abroad is a curious and sometimes challenging exercise, something that I wrote about back in March, and with Australia left as one of the very few locations in the developed world that is yet to be graced with firsthand access to the league's on court product, it's not hard to understand how this tour came to ride a wave of publicity.
The growth of league pass as a medium and increased engagement via social media can shorten the distance between the displaced foreign fan and the thirty teams, but tangible access is a whole other idea. That, I would suggest, is why the opening press conference in Melbourne--scheduled for midweek at a casino--that had been branded as a "media only" interaction, caved to the groundswell of fan interest. On assignment for NBA Australia, I didn't have to stress about surpassing the red velvet rope, though I certainly held an extra appreciation for the plight of the fans who gave up their early hours to catch a glimpse of the occasion.
The media contingency for this particular aspect was modest, making it all the more inviting for those clad in silver and black.
Mills and Baynes christen the Larry O'Brien Trophy with a kookaburra and a koala. New nickname is "Lazza." pic.twitter.com/CIuGzANWW7— Angus Crawford (@arkcrawford) July 16, 2014
Australian basketball royalty. pic.twitter.com/L604qAyZbX— Angus Crawford (@arkcrawford) July 16, 2014
The official press conference was emceed by Australian basketball legend and former San Antonio Spur Andrew Gaze, and pre-empted the remainder of the tour, which included stops in six separate locations in a six day window. Apart from being exposed to their media obligations on a casual basis, I was informed by a member of the traveling party that Mills and Baynes were fulfilling nearly twelve hours of public appearances per day. In that sense, it was anything but a relaxing return to the comforts of home.
Though the prevailing narrative of last Wednesday's presser was the expansion of Australian basketball, and the participation and interest in the game domestically, the players' affinity for the Spurs organization was not to be swept away.
I had the pleasure of receiving a phone call from Patty on Sunday, setting up a short one-on-one interview to discuss his season, his decision to re-sign, his injury, and his involvement with the national team in the near future. You can read that piece in its entirety here, but nothing that he said struck me in quite the same way as when he tried to explain his impression of his situation in San Antonio, and his teammates:
He praised the unity of the playing roster, insisting, "We done it together, we've done stuff off the court together and we accomplished something on the court together. We're more than a team, I think, we're a family, and that's the reason for the way that we played."
News of the extent of his shoulder ailment threw a spanner into the works, significantly altering his timeline, but it was Mills' humility and self-awareness that led him to the eventual outcome.
"I think where I'm at in my career at the moment, I'm learning a lot, I'm still developing, and there's no better way to do that than being in San Antonio with such great people, teammates, coaching staff and, for me, Tony Parker, really taking me under his wing," he said.
It's cliché to even suggest it, but Mills' character is the biggest feather in his bow. Aside from crunching the numbers or weighing the capology behind his return to San Antonio, the Spurs fan community should be over the moon about keeping such a bubbly, down-to-earth figure within the "family." He is a delight to deal with, and the manner in which he spoke throughout the week served as a reminder that, for all of the love that he and his teammates share for the city, the Spurs are more than simply San Antonio's team.
I could sense his tempered frustration at being denied the opportunity to rejoin the national team for the FIBA World Cup, but I also noted his modesty, and unwavering commitment to his upcoming rehabilitation schedule.
The NBA's frenzied offseason calendar is typically a time of overhyped expectations and misguided enthusiasm, though for once, it was refreshing to be a part of such an emotional, celebratory time of reflection. The trophy tour has scripted a message worth remembering--amongst all the insanity of player movement and restructured rosters, there is still time to appreciate 'now' and acknowledge the historical significance of what has just been achieved.
The NBA has recently made a push to establish league-authorized, localized voices in foreign markets (i.e. NBA Australia), a theme that ran parallel to the Spurs' decision to conduct this trophy tour. For those fans located outside of North America, I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with the equivalent outlet in your region, as they offer a unique blend of regular and market-specific content that is approved by the league office.