After Game 3 of the Finals, Gregg Popovich was asked what he said to motivate and inspire Kawhi Leonard to a career night after a lackluster first couple of games against the Miami Heat, Pop replied, "That's family business."
But what does that mean, exactly?
The theme of "family" is omnipresent within the Spurs organization. For a while now, their ticket drives and fan promotions have been centered around a "Spurs Family" motif, with a clever logo where the marketing department cleverly highlighted the "UR" in "Spurs" so it reads in bold "U R Family." While I certainly don't promote sloppy typography, the point is unmistakable.
What's also unmistakable is that, within the Spurs family, Popovich is clearly the patriarch who rules the household with a gentle hand and an iron fist in equal measure.
Pop is well known and respected for his basketball and tactical acumen, but one of the qualities that has contributed mightily to his success is his uncommon touch with players. In interview after interview players past and present have explained that most conversations off the floor with Pop involve anything but basketball. He asks about their families. He talks to them about world events and the interests the guys have away from the game. Pop makes a point of chastising the media repeatedly when they try to make too much of regular season results, often telling them that the game is just a job and there are many more important things going on in everyone's lives.
Though he has a reputation as being a surly curmudgeon with the press -- sarcastic, curt, even a bully at times -- Pop is a different man behind the scenes and away from the cameras. The Spurs are so well drilled in their execution, and their focus in games is so unyielding that people naturally assume that Popovich is some hard-charging taskmaster. Yet the Spurs are more family-friendly than almost any organization in the NBA, with wives and significant others allowed on some road trips. During the past two postseasons Tim Duncan's two children were frequently seen in the locker room tunnel during games and it's telling that even during the Finals that Pop trusted Duncan to cool off during halftime by sharing moments with his kids.
It's well-known by now that Pop quickly arranged for a team dinner at a famous Italian restaurant in Miami after last season's Game 6 debacle, where he went from man to man to offer some words of consolation and even inspiration in the hopes of getting their minds and bodies ready for Game 7. But how much has been said about how the players' families were also gathered at that last supper? In the team's darkest moment, the importance of family was stressed all the more.
In a story for ESPN The Magazine, Ric Bucher infiltrated the Spurs bunker for a week back in 2005, to expose some myths about the team. Buried in the article is this nugget from Brent Barry:
During each practice, a coach puts an arm around or pats the back of every man on the roster. In film sessions, half the time is spent on breaking down well-run plays and doling out praise. "In most places, you just try to survive a film session, because it's all about how bad you are," Barry says. "I've never seen a coach who has the pulse of a team the way Pop does."
Of course, the tricky part about their communal philosophy is just how much the Spurs give of themselves in a very public profession. Ever since Pop took over the reins, they've been ultra secretive and very careful about whom they talk to and what they share. Again, the players follow the coach's lead. Pop has turned down every long-form feature request about him during his tenure and has repeatedly refused to write any books about his life, career, or personal leadership philosophies, like so many championship-winning coaches do. He doesn't do paid speaking tours, a la Pat Riley, and doesn't promote anything unless it's for a community charity. When he does give his time or money for a cause, it's never publicized unless someone hears about it through other means.
And so it goes for the players. Contract information is never discussed and even when those numbers are inevitably dug up through other sources, the Spurs will not confirm or deny them. The team goes out of its way to keep minor injuries out of the papers, with the players being instructed to give only the broadest of details. Most importantly, the team takes great pains to keep players' off-the-floor business just that. If someone is going through a divorce or has some other family situation, the team will not discuss it, to a man. Players' private lives are guarded and highly respected, which is a tricky task considering that the Spurs are the only game in town when it comes to major professional sports. They don't have a baseball or NFL or even a major college team to divert fan attention away from them. Instead, they're the sole focus of the locals 365 days a year. Having a roster filled with international players draws even more attention and scrutiny. The Spurs aren't just San Antonio's team but also Argentina's, France's, Brazil's, Australia's and so on -- and those countries send media too.
How secretive are the Spurs? Well, just about every team closes off practice from the media, but the Spurs don't even make the address of their facility public. I mean, it's not that hard to figure it out, but they still don't list it for the record.
Pop's "family business" credo now faces its stiffest test, after the team invoked a contract clause to keep Manu Ginobili, still nursing a stress fracture in his right fibula, from participating in the upcoming FIBA World Cup. Ginobili has spoken often about that tournament representing his swan song with his beloved "Golden Generation" teammates on Argentina's team and it has to be devastating for him not to be allowed to play. Just the fact that details of their star sixth man's injury came out in the first place and General Manager R.C. Buford shared with reporters the possibility that the team had the power to contractually deny Ginobili the right to play in the tournament seemed to counteract how they do usually do business. On some level there have to be feelings of bitterness, anger and resentment. I'd certainly feel that way if I was Ginobili.
You don't mind me playing with a broken leg during the playoffs but you have a problem with me doing it for my country?
International duty has always been a touchy subject with these United Nations Spurs. With Leonard, it's easy, as most things have been. He's such an ideal Spur on every front that the easy joke is he was developed in a lab by Pop, has turned down the chance to play international ball the past two summers because he wanted to rest his body for the upcoming season. It's no wonder that he and Pop have come to trust and respect one another so completely.
Virtually from the beginning, the coach, who usually tosses plaudits like they're manhole covers, has made it clear that he envisions Leonard as being the future face of the franchise, and he said these things when hardly anybody saw Leonard in those terms. On a team with three future Hall-of-Famers who all want the ball and feel the responsibility to get things done, it can be daunting for a young player to not defer, and Pop has constantly been on Leonard to reject that instinct, to be more selfish, to attack as though he's the best player on the team. What 22-year-old pro wouldn't love that? To be told that you're even better than you think you are? By the coach.
But then there are more complicated cases, such as Ginobili's. The Spurs' reticence to let him play seems almost hypocritical, considering that Ginobili first came on their scouting radar while playing for Argentina. As ferocious and dogged a competitor as he's been for San Antonio, international tournaments turn him into a frothing beast. At the same time, there certainly is precedent for the Spurs' cold pragmatism. When Ginobili played in the 2008 Olympics on a ravaged ankle against the team's wishes, Popovich was the first one to greet him at the airport when he returned in a cast -- pulling him away from the press and ushering him into a waiting car.
Last season, Pop had to re-swivel the rotation to give Tony Parker forced time off for an extended stretch during the season when it was clear that the previous summer's Eurobasket tournament had taken a toll on him. Guys like Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills have suffered injuries during tournaments while the Spurs front office gritted their teeth.
The challenge this fall for Pop will be having to massage Ginobili's sore leg but rather his wounded ego and broken heart. He'll have to mend fences in some form and fashion and convince his aging star that the decision was objective and practical, even though Ginobili's not likely to see it that way. In his most recent column for the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Ginobili admitted he had been set to seek a FIBA mediator to try to go around the Spurs' contractual rights forbidding him from playing. That's how adamant he was about representing his country, regardless of what friction it'd cause with the Spurs.
Pop will have to convince Ginobili to put all that behind him and to look at the positives: his Spurs family is just as important as his Argentine band of brothers. That he, Duncan and Parker have shared just as many experiences together, the highs and the lows, through the past dozen years. The message could easily be something akin to "take it out on me, but you've got people who love, appreciate and count on you here too."
Yet you can rest assured that when it comes to specifics on the matter, Pop will shove it under the blanket of "family business," lest anyone think of Ginobili as some malcontent. Any private seething from the Argentine will be kept in-house, just as Leonard's vulnerabilities and moments of self-doubt were. Pop has the latitude to get away with things like that -- or even more obvious ones, like the scene during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals where he and Duncan visibly argued yet Pop afterward pretended to have no idea what reporters were talking about. Success and power have their privileges.
With the Spurs, the results of "family business" is a lot of basketball victories -- navigating whatever pitfalls are in the way. The business of the Spurs is family, and as this past season showed, business is booming.