- - Monday, June 16, 2014


A Baltimore-Washington native, I became a rookie Texan eight years ago. The first lesson: The Spurs are to San Antonio what the Packers are to Green Bay. Sunday night, the Spurs won their fifth NBA Championship, avenged their fingertip finals loss to the Miami Heat exactly one year ago — and completed a comeback for the ages.

Naturally, TV’s chattering classes focused mostly on tactics: which team executed the pick-and-rolls or dominated “the paint” beneath their opponent’s basket. While tactics and statistics have their place, the winning difference was strategic. The San Antonio Spurs are a well-drilled, superbly disciplined team. The Miami Heat often resembled a loose confederation of superstars mostly intent on their own salaries and agendas — like GS-15s over in the Department of Veterans Affairs checking on performance bonuses.

From Sports Illustrated to the usual pundits, everyone expected the Heat to dominate the finals — just as they once expected Max Baer to knock out James J. Braddock in 1934. Braddock and the Spurs never got the memo, though, which led to Sunday night’s unexpected reversal. Like Eric Cantor explaining his defeat or Barack Obama justifying his latest foreign-policy disaster, how could the mighty have fallen?

Maybe because they obsessed on details while missing the essentials.

Character determines destiny: As you may have recalled on Sunday, your father probably said that while your mother nodded in agreement. If you were lucky, you also had a coach who believes what San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich exemplifies and demands from his charges: Put the team first and yourself second. It sounds simple, but we live in a zeitgeist where wealth and self-obsession are constants. How refreshing then to hear Mr. Popovich casually praise his players by observing, “Those guys got over themselves years ago.” After the fourth game, when a reporter demanded which Spur was the series MVP, Mr. Popovich snapped, “Next question.” Care to try that anywhere else in the NBA — or on Capitol Hill?

How David beats Goliath: It took a business publication, the International Business Times, to figure out why the Spurs leadership style is unique in that “with little drama, they keep winning.” Reporter Bobby Ilich used terms like “hard-working” “not flashy” and “humble leadership” to describe an organization that might be “boring” but had a clear “sense of purpose or mission” — like reclaiming that narrowly lost championship. You can do that by recruiting superstars, as Lefty Driesell once did at Maryland before concluding that “teamwork suffered because everyone wanted the ball.” Teams of rivals might be the Washington norm, but San Antonio put together a team of truly exceptional equals focused on speed, depth and balance, one that elevated passing into an art form. With the best bench in basketball, teamwork rather than individual success became the key to winning.

Overcoming strength with speed: Hometown reporter Jeff McDonald of The San Antonio Express-News has admirably chronicled how the Spurs counted on their system to dim the bright stars of the Miami constellation. As the finals wrapped up this weekend, he diagrammed the Spurs passing scheme — not so much Xs and Os but a concentric Venn diagram showing multiple opportunities to hit the open man breaking for the basket or to isolate a defender and give a teammate his best chance to score. As tough as it was to follow the article’s elaborate diagrams, just try to imagine the head-swiveling confusion faced by the Miami Heat as those moving parts came alive in front of them. As dominant as the Heat superstars could be, they were simply incapable of being everywhere at once.

Never give the opponent an even break: An Air Force Academy graduate and one-time Soviet intelligence specialist, Mr. Popovich understands what happens when your opponent absorbs your best shot — and then gets up off the floor to come after you. When the Spurs lost to the Heat last year in that championship game they might have won, the winning margin was a matter of inches, seconds and small details.

It is one thing to talk about character but another thing entirely to absorb the pain of that loss, correct those imperfections and then start all over again. Those are the same techniques that distinguish other great coaches — not only Mr. Popovich, but also Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs and Vince Lombardi. It is no accident that most of the Spurs victories in this series were lopsided, a wise coach respecting his opponent by ruling out any chance for him to recover.

Sport become immortal when it teaches life lessons. The Spurs‘ victory is one for the ages and a canonical example not only for basketball coaches, but also for presidents.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.

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