After R.C. Buford appeared on The Vertical Podcast with Woj last week, there was a notable response to Buford's openness in the wake of Tim Duncan's retirement. As a leader of a notoriously secretive organisation, Buford is known to refuse to answer questions that might reveal too much, but he shared detail after detail that shed light onto the person Duncan was. A remarkably composed man, Buford broke down at the end of the interview and could be heard to sob as he talked about the promise that Tim's father had charged the Spurs with: being sure that Tim stayed Tim.
So many people reported being moved by the interview, that PtR member 7Peter took the time to create this transcript. Please thank him for this.
[Editor's note: R.C., thank you for the work you've done for the Spurs, and for being willing to be yourself in an interview. We appreciate the connection that you had with Tim, that we could only watch and try to appreciate from a distance. This isn't to bring any extra attention to you, but to appreciate the relationship that went far beyond that of executive and player. -jrw]
WoJ: The last 72 hours, R.C., what’s it been like for you and for the organization, processing Tim Duncan’s decision to retire?
RC: I think it’s been…obviously bittersweet. It’s given us an opportunity to reflect on almost two decades of success, and camaraderie, and relationships that we could never have dreamt of, when we first got together. And at the same time to recognize that he is not going to be the rock that he has been, there is a responsibility level for all of us, all the organization and all of the team, to jointly try to fill those shoes.
Woj: R.C., the relationship you had over such a long time, you feel like, when you look back, you all grew up together in the league, as an organization, that he was a kid when he came in, but together there was…
RC: He was a 20 year old. When he graduated from college he was 20. So…while a four year college student he came to the league young. We grew up together, but he was the only one that deserved to be in the league. The rest of us had no business. We were the beneficiaries of our time with Tim.
Woj: How do you say thank you to someone, is it especially difficult when he doesn’t want it? He doesn’t necessarily want thank you, he doesn’t want circumstance, material, goodbyes…does it challenge you more? Had you thought about these final weeks and months and days you’re with him?
RC: Thank you would never be enough. It is impossible to thank him for what he brought to our organization, what he brought to each of us individually, how much he meant to the careers of so many people, who were together with him: players, coaches, staff, and to the organization. So it is impossible to even attempt to say thank you. I think that the biggest thing that we could have done was to try to live up to the expectations and to the bar that he set for himself, as we supported his journey to have done everything we could have to as an organization as people, live up to the standard that he held them self-accountable.
Woj: The word "culture" has been thrown around a lot, and certainly become synonymous with your organization, and the winning, and how you gone about your business. In the end, or maybe in the beginning, was Tim the culture?
RC: I think the culture had roots from a long time before we were there. I think the Spurs were a proud ABA franchise, and had culture characteristics from their time together, from George Gervin and James Silas, so I don’t know the Spurs culture is only what it is today, but I think the success and the commitment from the fans has been with the Spurs a long time. And the way David accepted Tim into our organization, at a time, when David was a year or two removed from the MVP at the league, set a tone of welcome acceptance of share responsibility, and we were all a part of that. While Tim has been the culture driver for the last 19 years plus, our hope is that he continues to be a culture driver. As we go forward it will be in a different capacity, but there is valuable lesson to be learn from Tim, as we go forward. Our hope is that the culture drivers that we have in the future will take ownership, respect what was before them, and try to resemble it in a fashion that makes it work for the new culture drivers.
Woj: Everyday Tim came to work, whether it was practice, offseason, on a game day, what did he demand of those around him?
RC: He demanded of himself, in a way that challenged all of us to demand more of ourselves. He had a look that you knew when he expected more, but it was a look that was based on only what he expected of himself, and accepted from himself. There was very seldom a time when he wasn’t leading the purpose of the group, and… not very seldom, there was never a time he wasn’t leading the purpose of the group. He did it in such a way that empowered the rest of the group to join in and take share of responsibility. I hear stories of organizational problems with people being late. Tim…we didn’t have some ridiculous attention to time. It’s just the respect level amongst the group was such that people weren’t late. They came to work, they did the work, they enjoyed their time together, and the other culture drivers, Pop, and Manu and Tony, and they shared this with many people. The group in the early 2000s was different than the group in the later 2000s, was different that the group in 2010, and now is different than this group. So it wasn’t just a small group of people that share those values and build that responsibility camaraderie, but he was clearly the foundation of them.
Woj: The pressure or the responsibility that you and Pop and your whole staff have felt, as Tim went on his career you had different players around him, different complimentary pieces, at different stages of different championship teams. What was that like as you guys would sit and talk about…I think you felt…especially he got older, maybe needed more help than he did in his years when he was MVP. What were those conversations like that responsibility that you all felt, that as long as he was here playing, that you owed it to him, that he had a chance, that you are going to honor his talent, honor what he had done, what he can still do, and figure out a way that we still win with Tim Duncan here?
RC: But [you act] like that was some kind of burden, it really wasn’t. It was empowering. To think that you have somebody who wanted to engage in the process with you, who wanted to be a part of…a participant in how this team was built. The decisions that were made were often times not popular. There was a period of time when every one of Tim’s close friends on the team would get shipped out of town. You know, it was difficult for him.
Woj: Malik Rose.
RC: Malik Rose, Monty Williams, Cory Alexander, Antonio Daniels. I mean there was like a period when the kiss of death was to become Tim’s close friends (laughs). Yet, he wanted that responsibility, and he took it from not a selfish perspective, but the perspective that then allowed every decision to be made is: what’s in the best interest of the team? The way our team was built might have been different at the time. What we needed at a point in time when Tim, Tony, and Manu were young, and could carry the team, for lack of a better term, athletically, was different than what we needed from the team as they continued on to their career. So the pieces that were, the Dany Ferry’s, the Steve Kerr’s, the Terry Potter’s, that then turn in to Bowen, and Finley, Horry, and Brent Barry, were different then than the later team, when you really had to emphasize the development of George Hill’s, Kawhi Leonard’s, Cory Joseph’s, and Danny Green’s. So what you needed as an organization to be successful, change throughout the time, that Tim, and then Tim, Tony and Manu, were together, the type of people didn’t change.
Woj: How often or how many times or…how common was it, that you would go to battle over just disagree whether he thought: we can’t let this guy go! Or, he might have disagreed with someone you were going to bring in: I don’t think that is a good fit. How often did that happened? And how would you guys talk that out?
RC: Most of the time that conversation happened between Tim, Tony, Manu, and Pop. Often time it would be expanded to include me. But more often than not, those guys got together after we had done a lot of the homework there. They all took it as a shared responsibility.
Woj: Can you remember time there was maybe a move, either trade or free agent signing, or a player that you are gonna bring in, that, that group convinced you that this isn’t a good idea, and you walked away from it?
RC: I wouldn’t say specifics, but I would say if you probably over the course of time, either through players, or player signings or trades, I bet you execute less than 10% of deals that, or opportunities that actually are discussed. I would say that their input was a factor on as many of the deals we didn’t pursue as the deals we did.
Woj: How has Tim…How did Tim overtime influence you as in evaluate of talents? When you go out, when you scout, and you identify, what a Spurs gonna be. Is he always in the back of your mind, did he influence…there is no one like him, but did he make you look at things differently?
RC: I think it started with the people, not to evaluate of talents. I think the way how you evaluate the people, and the people who could handle the responsibility of playing alongside a player like Tim...a person like Tim, not a player like Tim. Tim could play with anybody. There was not a player that played in the league, when Tim was here, they wouldn’t have been better because they were playing next to Tim. But there weren’t as many people who could have handled the responsibility of playing with Tim. I think it empowers us to have a better definition of what works here.
Woj: When you think of him R.C., I was in your facility earlier, a pre-season, and it was a day with [before] training camp…I think it’s an image that you are very familiar with every day of him, on a shooting machine, on the gun, with his earphones on, shot after shot after shot. When you think of him, or your lasting images, is it as much in there may be a more soul in there sometimes, that all the big moments, the big games, the championships…I know you have to sort of come through your office and walk to the Gym, and you’d see him there. Is that as strong the images as the games and the moments?
RC: Yeah because that’s really where he was at. He was at his most peace. Now often times he was tormented, because he was such a perfectionist, and he took responsibility for his own play, at such a high level, that when he wasn’t living up to the standard that he set for himself, he really churned inside. But he just loves being in the gym. He was in there last week, just doing the same thing. At a point in time he probably already knew what his decision will be. It will not surprise me at all that he continues to spend time by himself in the gym.
Woj: Some of your staff once told me, probably may not a big thing for the people outside of the organization, the actual shooting machine, he always folds it up himself… not looking for the an intern or staff guy right? Folds it up and back into the closet.
RC: He won’t let other people do his work. I think it emphasizes his humility. But it’s also a great example for new people in the gym to see.
Woj: The problems that pop up in the locker room, in every NBA locker room, at any level: jealousy, frustration, I should be playing more, I should maybe get more…whatever it is. Did he often handle those so you, Pop, or the coaching staff didn’t have to, did he manage the locker room in a way from, from most of his career, that almost free Pop from having to deal with some of those things?
RC: I don’t know that Pop would ever abdicate that responsibility wholly to any one player or individual. They handle these issues together. The handle their own…Bud used to say Pop and Tim get divorced once a year, a week, when the two of them would be cranky…
Woj: How many of those have you had to get involved over 19 years?
RC: They always figured it out. What I can bring it up relationship would pale to what those two could bring to each other. It’s in both of their nature to not want other people to handle their business. But I would say that more often than not, it wasn’t the house-on-fire relationship that Tim dealt with but the times when guys were at their personal lows, when Tim arm around their shoulders, lifted them up at times when there weren’t feeling well.
Woj: The winning you did, R.C., with him, and the group that you had, how you guys shared it together…you never know how long it is gonna to go. No one ever imagine anybody playing until 40 years old. I always sense that there was also an appreciation that, what we have is special, what we have that we don’t take it for granted, cause we know nothing last forever. But there had to be a point, I would think, this week, you and Pop, said, "Boy, what a run!" I mean, what a run, how long we got to ride it with him.
RC: I think those time happened over the course of the entire time we were together. It wasn’t just now that this happened. As we look back on the course of time there were people who said that the Spurs have to break things up, starting back in 2009, 2010, 2011 when we lost in the first round to Memphis for sure.
Woj: I believe I was one of the people who wrote that.
RC: You know, it was always one of those things: okay, if not this, then what? None of us ever went into a room with any of the core group, and felt like there is anybody outside of our group that is going to come and change the way we care about, doing things together, and the way we care about, pursuing, the day-to-day pounding at the rock. So there never came to a time when "okay, we got to break this up", because it wasn’t going to get better than what we had inside that room. Maybe that inside that room wasn’t good enough, and we were gonna to continue to do what each others could do to try to make to change that, but not to change the people in that room.
Woj: People who worked there, played there, when Tim walked into the building, whatever time of the day or time of the year, something changed in your facility didn’t it, when he walked in, came through the doors.
RC: Yeah, well more often than not, he was the first one back from many seasons. It wasn’t to waste time. He was there with a purpose. The years that when he didn’t reach our goals, he would be there sooner. He wasn’t doing that because of anything more than he felt like he let the rest of us down. As he went through his career, as the knees didn’t feel as good, or plantar fasciitis one season, more often than not the only reason he didn’t play his best at the end of year wasn’t because he was playing poorly, but because his body was letting him down. To see him persevere through that, a year ago he was still all NBA. When he felt good this year, the good knee get tweaked in December, we never could get it calmed down. It was at that point in time, the body find him limited to a point he couldn’t play to what he would wanted to do. I think he fully expected to continue to play had the good knee not blown up.
Woj: Is that hard to watch this year?
RC: It was difficult to see him struggle, it wasn’t hard to watch. Because the things that he did aren’t often times obvious, were still the beautiful parts of the game. The way he mentored the younger players on our team, and helped, step back for LaMarcus and Kawhi to take more responsibility about the direction of our team. To mentor Boban from a kid who three years ago was almost out of basketball, to now being a very effective player and one who was rewarded with a great opportunity. It was difficult to watch, but it wasn’t hard to watch. Because he was so good at impacting people in so many different ways.
Woj: So many coaches or front office executives say that the hardest thing to coach or to manage is the aging super star. In that way he made it easy for you guys. Like, he welcomed Kawhi, he welcomed LaMarcus Aldridge, he knew that he needed them to win championships. Did he bridge that seamlessly, and just made that – it isn’t easy everywhere when that happened, we have seen it last few years, and probably since forever in the league?
RC: But he has done this not now, he did this a decade ago when it was clear that Manu and Tony were ready to take more responsibility. At a point in time when he was late 20s and early 30s, he sacrificed what probably kept him from being just a two time MVP, to for the best of the team, to allow those guys to grow and take more responsibility. The thing that often times separate him from many players is, as I listen to people say: my teammates, or my team are my supporting cast. I don’t think…I know I never heard Tim refer to anybody on his team as his supporting cast. He lifted everybody up, up to his level where it was our team, and he passed that on from the second he walked into the gym, and the respect he showed to David, as David went to his twilight years of his career.
Woj: David gave him a blueprint for how to grow older in the league, didn’t he?
RC: Yeah. And I don’t know if it is a blueprint. They have different personalities, but they played so well together, they had such an impact together. While David wasn’t doing it purposely, Tim is really really smart, and he watches and learns a lot in observation. So I know that there were lessons to be learned from David that Tim did this.
Woj: When you guys went through as an organization Tim’s free agency, I think the only real free agent process he had with Orlando. The way which that challenges as an organization, to you got to take stock in yourself of who we are, and we have to offer. I would imagine really crystalizes as you were, say, making your case to him…he knew what we had there, but you are also competing with something that is hypothetical out there. Orlando was offering something different. What do you remember about that time, and what did it do for you as an organization, about who you were, what you wanted to be? Does it have a galvanizing affect when you go through a process like that? With someone like Tim?
RC: Well we probably couldn’t have screwed up worse than we did. You know I think we spent years preparing for that time. We were approaching the end of an era: Avery Johnson was at an age when he was older; Sean Elliott, Mario Erie, the guys who were with Tim in that first championship were coming to an end of their career. Orlando at the time had draft picks, Disneyland, a very bright picture. I think we focused more on trying to convince him that Orlando wasn’t a place for him than we focused on who we were, and the meeting we shared with Tim was a disaster. I mean, I walked out of it, and we blew it. What saved us was Pop and Tim’s relationship and their trust. Orlando did a terrific job of painting a picture that was very attractive, and you know they had enough cap room at the time to bring two great players together. We didn’t have that at the time. At the end of the day, I think, there was a…a late night David flew back from Hawaii, had dinner with Timmy in his house. That, I think, the two of them were real to each other, and then Tim stopped by Pop’s home after leaving David’s house. The two of them rolled around on the floor and wrestled and cried and laughed, and I think that, that was when things…we were real, we were who we are. We can’t tell you what’s it going to look like, but we hope you trust us. And the purity of their relationship, the respect that Tim had for David, and that David had for Tim, I think became clear at the time. What it also did was…the confidence that came with that was, at that point, it became clear. Don’t ever go into these circumstances trying to be something who you aren’t. Know who you are, know what works. That is what will be the key to the success, or the failure of opportunity that come in the future. If you try to do something that you aren’t, or if you try to be someone who you weren’t, it won’t work, at least not in our environment.
Woj: Did you walk out of that meeting with sort of a pit in your stomach saying: oh shit I think we just blew this? Was it that bad?
RC: It was a big pit. In what was interesting is we left that meeting and flew to a similar meeting, in front of another free agent, and we went in there and we were who we were. Walked out of that meeting, knowing that while the structure of the deal we were proposing probably wasn’t going to work, we had just made a connection was real. Fortunately Tim gave us a chance to trust us. I think it was this sincerity of his relationship with Pop that saved us.
Woj: Were you a better organization after that for having gone through it, and seen sort of that…getting a reminder like that in a moment, when all of a sudden you see how much you could lose if you weren’t yourself. Were you guys better going forward…did it…
RC: I think it provided a clarity. I don’t know we were better or worse, but I think it provided a clarity of, if we are going to be successful, we have to be who we are. And that was never a trait that if we’d have left with the Pop, he would probably carry it by himself. But I think you spend so much time overthinking things that it took us in a direction that ended up probably, we were fortunate to have recovered from.
Woj: RC there is a process of paperwork that has to go with retirement, like Tim’s stretching his contract. You have to file a waiver claim with the league. What was it like writing his name into that document, sending it out?
RC: You know, you just hated to press the send button. I got a clever response from a gal who we work with the leagthat ue office, who these gets submitted to, and she emailed back says, can I deny this? That’s the reality of the paperwork. But it’s the formality…the hard part was coming in a realization Timmy is not walking through the door to save us anymore. Now we’re on our own.
Woj: Were you sort of a party to a similar circumstance, when you, I think you did it with the Steve Kerr trade, way back…
RC: 1999, coming out a lock out. We signed and traded for Steve Kerr with the Bulls. That’s part of that transaction on the phone the Chicago Bulls had to renounce Michael Jordan to make the finances of the deal works. I felt the Grim Reaper to have been there when Michael was renounced, and then…to be waiving Tim.
Woj: RC you have been here for the Summer League in Vegas. You got work to do here, you got your team here. You are working on building your team. Has it been a little different being Pop has been back in San Antonio and Tim was there, you guys have met and talked plenty leading into this. Has it been a little different for you to be, no necessarily watching it from a distance, but to…you know, be a thousand miles away from it, as it just kind of playing out over the last three days?
RC: Well I know the emotion that everyone’s feeling. And it is not just Pop and Tim, it’s everybody in the organization, the fans. I think the league itself. I think Tim has had such an impact across the league. To be in Las Vegas, to be here at the Summer League, to have so many teams represented, to have so many players here either as participants or as observers, and to see the respect that they share for…and admiration they share for…not only Tim as a player, but Tim as a person. It’s meaningful to have to see that. You know, you wish that, or you hope that Tim recognizes all these feelings. And then] on Twitter the day that he…the tweets of supports the day he had announced this. I don’t know that if he will pay attention to it, but you hope that he shares in the appreciation and the joy that he has given to so many people.
Woj: And the thing too R.C., I think you get a better sense, you travel around the world, and you know what Tim is meant, Spurs have been truly a global team. And to see there’s lots of great players who have come and gone, and they go into the Hall of Fame, and they made an impact. Tim represented something. He represented a way of carrying yourself, a way of playing that meant something to a lot of people. I would think that over time the Spurs were a part of that. That he…and you seeing it now, he represented something bigger: be like him, carry yourself like him. Other guys have won championships, other guys have won MVPs, but there is something more he leaves with.
RC: Yeah but the thing that made him unique was, that wasn’t why he was doing that. I think there is often time people will hold themselves to a certain standard because that’s what they feel like they were expected to do, Tim was who he was because that’s who he was. He was being the son of his mom and dad, and the values that he learned from his parents and Saint Croix. The stories we heard of the relationship that he had with his mother before she passed when he was 14 years old. When his father passed, the message that his dad gave to Pop about, make sure he leaves this game the same person as he is today. They can feel good, because he is…[sobbing]
Woj: R.C., I appreciate you taking this time out…
Woj: No. Hey. He’s a special player, a special place in this game. Certainly you guys played a huge part in that. I appreciate you taking your time out, R.C. You got a Summer League playoff game coming up. It’s just keep going. It’s just on to the next. Just keeps going.
RC: Yeah, but it will never be on to the next after Tim.
Woj: Thanks, R.C.