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Lessons From the Spurs Big 4

Having spent my formative years as a sports fan in the 2000s, no team has enamored me quite like the San Antonio Spurs. Sure, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers were dominant and flashy, the Steve Nash Suns were fast-paced and exciting, and the Chauncey Billups Pistons were gritty underdogs, but you can have all of them. For me, my love for basketball truly grew because of the small-town Spurs and their commitment to playing pure basketball – at both its most plain and most creative.

As any basketball fan knows, there were four main characters that defined Spurs culture in the 2000’s and set the tone for what Spurs culture is in the present. That’s the ever-reliable captain Tim Duncan, the pesky little general Tony Parker, the free-spirited Manu Ginobili, and the militaristic brains of the operation Coach Gregg Popovich. Each of these four, either Hall-of-Famers or soon-to-be Hall-of-Famers, left an enduring mark on both the Spurs organization and basketball as a whole. They’ve also left their mark on me, teaching me valuable lessons as a Spurs fan who watched them religiously.

1) Tim Duncan – Longevity Starts with Consistency

Tim Duncan is objectively one of the ten best players ever. If you ask me, I might even put him top 5. A big part of Duncan’s case as one of the all-time greats is that pretty much only LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were able to match Timmy’s longevity. The 2x MVP won his first championship when he was two years into the league and won his last two years before he was out of it.

Where did that longevity come from? For many of us, it’s hard to even focus on a simple daily task or deliverable that we need to do, much less stay in the same job, or perform at a high level for over a decade. And Tim Duncan understood better than anyone that the key to fixing that was to be consistent.

Day in and day out for an almost two-decade career, Duncan led by example, and did the little things that make a leader dependable bank shots, rebounds, assists, and adjusting his game to whatever the team needed. It’s being present in increments that led to Duncan’s success, and what made his winning not just a peak, but a habit over almost twenty years.

2) Manu Ginobili – You Can Do Anything, If You Can Pull It Off

There’s an old saying that "you can do anything, as long as you pull it off," but you’d think that the one exception would be an extremely strict and fluid system like what Coach Pop made with the Spurs. However, if there was anyone who was able to break that mold and do anything, because they could pull it off, it was Manu Ginobili.

The Argentinian was never afraid to be himself, sporting a uniquely unconventional style that one might initially think was too flashy for the Popovich system. But Manu was a talent like no other, being able to score seemingly at will by hypnotizing opposing defenses with his skill and herky-jerky move set. And this was something that Popovich saw, understood, and respected.

That, to me, is the biggest thing that Manu taught me. Of course, it’s important to be a team player and work within rules, but there’s nothing wrong with going out there and betting on yourself, even when it might be unconventional. If you pull it off, your leaders and team might even respect you for it.

3) Tony Parker – Leaders Reach Out

Tony Parker is not just one of the most successful NBA players ever, winning 4 championships and one Finals MVP, but also one of the most successful international players ever. The Frenchman is a 2x FIBA Europe Player of the Year, and since retiring, has won 3 championships as President of his home basketball team ASVEL.

And what’s been consistent throughout all his leadership roles is that he was never afraid to reach out to others. As a point guard, his role on the court was to lead the team in strategy, and the way he did that was doing the same off the court. Tony was always the type of person who would check in on his teammates and attempt to develop personal relationships with them. Having that kind of trust between teammates is important in leadership, and that’s something Tony knew to do, regardless of what language he was speaking.

4) Gregg Popovich – See the Best in Others

On the outset, Coach Pop seems like a surly guy. He’s always shrewd in interviews, and his military style of leadership is one that not everybody can work well in.

But despite that rugged exterior, the best thing about Coach Popovich is that he always sees the best in other people. Pop was known for his excellent scouting abilities, being able to find gems in underrated prospects like Parker, Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Dejounte Murray, among others in the draft. He was also able to turn around careers of guys like Boris Diaw and bring out memorable careers from role players like Bruce Bowen. And many of his assistant coaches and former players Mike Budenholzer, Jim Boylen, Brett Brown, Steve Kerr, Ime Udoka, and Sean Marks – went on to become successful coaches and managers in their own right. All of these people have Popovich to thank for their new chances at life, because Popovich was able to see the potential in them.

To me, being able to see the value in others is not only an admirable leadership quality, but a quality of a good person, and something we all need to do and be.

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