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SPURS HAVEN'T ALWAYS BEEN A LOVABLE TEAM

MAYBE it's because the Jazz are dominating their second-round series with San Antonio and could wrap it up tonight in the Alamodome. Or because both have been criticized over the years for being tough in the regular season and weak in the playoffs.

Whatever the case, when the Spurs were announced in the Delta Center last weekend, there was hardly a boo in the building. It was all as civilized as country club luncheon. When the announcer got around to the Spurs' resident superstar/good citizen, David Robinson, there were actually cheers. It was hard to tell whose team he played for. You'd have thought they were introducing Margaret Thatcher, not the best player on the other team.Normally, crowds don't cheer for the other team's player, they treat him like he's an ax murderer. But for some reason, the Spurs are a hard team to dislike. You see Robinson out there struggling through an 11-point night and you want to offer him an Excedrin. When Sean Elliott gets outplayed by Chris Morris and Bryon Russell, you want to pat him on the back and tell him things will be be better in the morning.It hasn't always been that way with the Spurs. For a few years they were as lovable as a tarantula. In the early 1990s, they gathered a collection of misfits and malcontents that looked like the cast of a Road Warrior movie. There was Rod Strickland, whose off-court activities have included hitting his former girlfriend, and charges of misdemeanor battery after arguing with a truck driver who backed into his car. There was Dale Ellis, who was convicted of drunken and reckless driving while playing in Seattle. And for a brief time the Spurs harbored Dwayne Schintzius, the underachieving, overweight poster child for bad haircuts everywhere.

The 1993-94 season - when the Jazz played the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs - was San Antonio's strangest collection ever. Besides Ellis the Spurs had Lloyd Daniels, the reformed problem child who still carries a bullet inside him from what police say was a drug deal gone bad. They had Jack Haley, whose main purpose in life seems to be caddying for Dennis Rodman (see Chicago Bulls, circa 1996). And they had Rodman himself, skipping practices, taking off his shoes during games and researching a future book by sleeping with Madonna.

The old Spurs were so goofy they even ran college legend Jerry Tarkanian - a maverick in his own right - out after 20 games. Next up was John Lucas, a guy who looked and acted like George Jefferson. You kept expecting him to walk into the locker room and and call, "Weeeeeezie! I'm home!"

But the Spurs of 1996 are from another school entirely. They're a team nobody could hate. The soul of the team remains Robinson, who dotes on his family, reads the Bible and plays piano. He's polite, as accomodating as might be expected of any superstar, and intelligent. The guy fans all over the country want their kids to grow up to be. You don't want to boo him, you want to introduce him to your parents. You might like to watch him play in an NBA Playoff game, but you're rather have him speak in your church.

There's also Elliott, an elegant player who speaks softly and, unfortunately for the Spurs, plays even softer. A guy who owns a pet shop. You can just picture him selling puppies below cost to some kid who came in with his allowance.

The list goes on. There's Avery Johnson, an engaging and open man who has played eight seasons in the NBA and been with six teams. A guy who knows how fortunate he is to be in the NBA because he started his career with the Palm Beach Stingrays in a league called the USBL. A player who loves his mom's pancakes, and after one bad game in the playoffs this year said he'd have to ask her to send some homemade gumbo in the mail to get him going again.

There's guard Cory Alexander, who struck a blow for education by becoming the first NBA player ever to leave college early and still attain his degree. And Greg "Cadillac" Anderson, who we know for sure didn't have a booster buy him a car in college because he got his nickname by riding a bike everywhere he went. And Vinny Del Negro, who won a "Most Caring Athete Award" for his help with abused youth. And Carl Herrera, the bilingual player from Venezuela, who says he still thinks in Spanish.

Which may explain why he he doesn't get into many games, because they're played in English.

My personal favorite, though, is Chuck Person. He has a receding hairline, an expanding waistline and openly admits to a weakness for Tootsie Roll Pops and Frosted Flakes - which anyone could have guessed by looking at him in a basketball uniform. He's doesn't play defense or pass, and he stands on the perimeter with his hands up, calling for the ball.

The kind of player all of us are after we reach 35.

Perhaps the Spurs will lose out again early in the playoffs tonight and never get that championship. If so, that would be too bad, because they're hard to cheer against. You may be able to question their toughness and maybe even their heart, but you've gotta like their style.