MIAMI — The one phone call that’s telling, the one greeting that matters, the one word that a few years later puts these NBA Finals into proper context came just a few days after the Heat signed LeBron James.
This was in July, 2010. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich phoned Heat President Pat Riley. These are two men who have spent careers chasing excellence, creating two very different franchises. Now their teams meet Thursday night in Game 1.
One franchise is small-town quiet. The other is big-city glitzy. One was built slowly through the draft. The other was built loudly through free agency. One roster has been together for so long you expect Cain and Abel to come off the bench.
The other, well ...
“We’re still coming together in some ways,” Heat newcomer Ray Allen said.
But three summers ago, after years of salary-cap planning landed The Big Three, as a national chorus decried “The Decision,” Riley got a call from one opposing team executive.
And just one.
“Congratulations,” Popovich said.
And now, sitting in AmericanAirlines Arena, Popovich says: “He put together a team fairly, within the rules, that is a monster. So why wouldn’t he get credit for that? Why wouldn’t you congratulate him for that?”
Excellence, you see, is what matters. However it arrives. There are two uncommon stories pulsating at the heart of these NBA Finals, two opposite ways up the mountain, two smart manners of doing business deep in two contrasting offices that define basketball excellence in their own right.
San Antonio’s core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been together so long that Popovich called a play they hadn’t practiced in four years during the Western Conference finals against Memphis. The result: a Duncan layup in the final minute to help close a Game 3 win.
The Heat are so new that Bosh says: “We’re doing things entirely differently this year than we did two years ago. Play calls, for instance. Every play was called our first year. Now we don’t even call plays out.”
Which way is better? That’s like asking whether fried eggs or scrambled are better; whether sports cars or pick-up trucks are better; whether, as the old-school beer commercial asked, tastes great or less filling matters more.
Duncan was asked about living in a media fishbowl like the Heat does.
“I’m definitely glad I don’t have that kind of pressure, absolutely,” he said.
Bosh was asked about living on a smaller stage like San Antonio does.
“I like being on the big stage,” he said.
That’s just it. These teams live opposite basketball lives, just like the franchises that brought them together today.
Here is how the Spurs built their team: They drafted Duncan first overall, drafted Ginobili from Argentina 58th overall, drafted Parker from France 28th overall, drafted Tiago Splitter 28th overall from Brazil, drafted George Hill 26th overall, then traded him to Indiana for the 15th pick, then drafted Kawhi Leonard.
So it wasn’t just the draft the Spurs built around that’s differed from the Heat model. It’s the worldwide talent they mined. Just off the gold medal-winning Argentine team from the 2004 Olympics, San Antonio took three players in Ginobili, Luis Scola and Fabricio Oberto, who were parts of title teams.
“Other teams were signing players from around the world like we were at the time,” San Antonio General Manager R.C. Buford said.
Not the Heat. Not with Riley. He has been steadfast in his idea of staying with American talent. It’s not that Riley dislikes foreign talent. It’s just that, as he once said, “I prefer homegrown talent.”
Here is how the Heat were built: Riley structured the salary cap three years out, plotted for the “Triple Crown,” as he said of signing LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade, then threw a bag full of championship rings down in front of LeBron as a recruiting pitch.
That’s what everyone heard, anyhow. But the un-televised hours after “The Decision” were just as revealing. Udonis Haslem, for instance, came to the Heat offices to say good-bye to Riley since he was offered bigger contracts by Dallas and Denver.
Wade called Bosh and LeBron. They agreed to give up millions each. Three hours later, after signing for $15 million less than he could have elsewhere, Haslem was back with the Heat.
“Best decision I’ve made,” Haslem said Wednesday.
San Antonio players arrived there the old-fashioned way through the draft. But the Heat’s players came by self-determination and financial sacrifice. Just this offseason, Allen took a two-year, $6 million deal from the Heat rather than a three-year, $12 million with his former Boston team.
“I’m happy with the decision,” Allen said.
It’s not that San Antonio didn’t try to sign a big-name free agent. It did. Once.
“And for whatever reason we didn’t land the guy,” Buford said.
That was Jason Kidd in 2003. He went to the bigger lights of Dallas. Maybe there was a lesson in that for the Spurs. Maybe it’s best for San Antonio, too. Through the years, they’ve signed a progression of B-list free agents — Richard Jefferson, Robert Horry, Michael Finley — to build around their drafted core.
They’ve kept that core happy, too. Duncan twice was a free agent and could have gone elsewhere. He stayed. Parker and Ginobili, too, have had chances to move. They stayed. They won. They’re still winning.
“It’s a total function of who those three guys are,” Popovich said. “What if they were jerks? What if they were selfish? What if one of them was, you know, unintelligent? But the way it works out, all three of them are highly intelligent.
“They all have great character. They appreciate their teammates’ success. They feel responsible to each other.”
Doesn’t that mirror what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has said for three years about his Big Three? And that’s just it. These teams are reflection of each other at the top — stable owners, stable front offices, stable coaching staffs.
Success is what matters. San Antonio and the Heat have gone their respective ways and succeeded.
“There are a lot of ways up the mountain,” Buford said. “These are just two of them.”
Starting Thursday night, they meet on the mountaintop. One team the definition of big-time glitz, the other full of small-town stability, each the definition of excellence.
©2013 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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