Couples move in together, profess mutual love, have sex three times daily, then break up via text messages. People who voted for Obama and hung the “HOPE’’ poster now can’t wait for change. Mark Zuckerberg hit it big with Facebook and dumped his Harvard business chum. The Beatles couldn’t keep it together even while singing, “All you need is love,’’ ta-da, da-da-da.
Yet Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich aren’t aware of “conscious uncoupling’’ or any other description of divorce. They’ve been together 17 basketball seasons, and, to underscore the astounding improbability of their staying power, please consider what has happened to other NBA power tandems while the San Antonio Spurs have sustained title-level success over three separate decades. Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen split from the Chicago Bulls because the owner was cheap and maniacal and wanted to forge his own dynasty without Jordan, which, um, hasn’t come close to happening. Jackson moved on to the Lakers, where he melded the feuding egos of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal for three championships before the foundation collapsed under the infighting, O’Neal was traded and Jackson vanished for a year. Larry Brown fought with Allen Iverson, reached the Finals, fled Philadelphia for Detroit, won a championship, then was fired because he and his players stopped getting along. Mike Brown couldn’t win a title with LeBron James in Cleveland and was dismissed. Stan Van Gundy lost a power battle with Dwight Howard in Orlando. The Pacers are talented enough to win a championship, but they’ve become so dysfunctional that coach Frank Vogel likely has one season left to right the wrongs. Scott Brooks may not be long for Oklahoma City if he can’t achieve more with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Jackson was rebuffed by the Lakers for a front-office job, then rebuffed by Steve Kerr in his first major offer as Knicks president.
Timmy and Pop? Still stuck in the last century, if not on another planet, they’ve turned the same-old/same-old into a magnificent marriage, one of the longest-running triumphs in sports. It works because Duncan is a perfectly willing model for Popovich’s team-first, old-school, system-is-the-star methodology, because he’s the antithesis of a diva and would much rather be in a small media market like San Antonio — one of the few places where such a tandem could thrive this long — than in a bigger town where he’d be a much larger figure in sports Americana. With Popovich as the former military man and Duncan as the all-work, no-frills product of the Virgin Islands, they share a disdain for b.s., egos and shortcuts and a love for discipline, basketball I.Q., the pick and roll, finding the open shooter and mumbling through media interviews. They were made for each other, even when they yell at each other and never acknowledge to the neighbors that they’re fighting, such as when Duncan barked at Popovich by the bench during a feeble moment midway through the Western Conference finals.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean, miscommunication?” said Popovich, responding to a media question. When a followup was asked, Popovich snapped, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
He was covering for his partner, you see. And together, here in the NBA Finals, they still burn inside about last June. That’s when the Spurs, 28 seconds from a fifth title in the Duncovich Era, somehow allowed Ray Allen to roam free in the right corner and the Miami Heat to win Game 6 and … well, you know the rest. “It lasts. I have a very good memory, especially for my misses and losses,’’ Duncan said on Finals eve. “You keep those, you learn from them and you hope to change them next time. That moment stuck with me and obviously it’s always in the back of my mind. And every time I see anything to do with that, it pops right back in.’’
But that doesn’t mean Duncan dislikes the Heat, an idea advanced by James after Duncan’s uncharacteristic boast after surviving Oklahoma City in the West final. “We got four more to win. We’ll do it this time,’’ Duncan said.
James, launching a psychological duel, took that to mean Duncan has a deep grudge against the Heat. “They don’t like us. They don’t. I can sense it from Timmy’s comments over the last couple of days,’’ James said. “They want us, so they got us.’’
Popovich dismissed the back-and-forth as a time waste. He probably didn’t like that Duncan wanted the last word on the subject. “I don’t know what he’s (James) talking about,’’ Duncan said. “I don’t have a problem with him individually or (them) as a team. I have respect for what they’ve done.’’
The Spurs easily could have moped, wilted and faded away. Instead, they return to the Finals as a better, deeper, healthier and more motivated team, reminding us of their unique inner fiber and resilience. Popovich has slipped a couple of times and admitted he cringes every day about the 2013 collapse. They haven’t won a title in seven years, since whipping a Cleveland team that didn’t show up in the Finals despite the presence of a young superstar named James. Now, the roles are reversed. The Spurs want what James has, knowing that both have a piece of history at stake. Obviously, a fifth title in a 16-year span — one in each of three decades — would further Team Duncovich as one of basketball’s all-time teams. James and the Heat, to differentiate themselves, need a third consecutive championship after a painful fall against Dallas in the 2011 Finals.
James doesn’t agree. “I play for my teammates, our team, the city of Miami, my friends and family, and I give it all for that,’’ he said, defiantly. “At the end of the day, win, lose or draw, i’m satisfied with that. I don’t get involved in what people say about me and my legacy. I think it’s actually kind of stupid.’’
Stupid? James is the one who said a few months back that he wants to be on “the Mount Rushmore’’ of basketball. Now, steps away from the biggest obstacle on that climb, he’s calling it stupid?
Tim Duncan never would go there. He doesn’t care about Mount Rushmore. Back in 2000, given the chance in free agency to join Grant Hill and a new coach named Doc Rivers with the Orlando Magic, he decided to stay with Popovich after their first title together. The rest is history. You sense more is about to be made in what should be a classic series.
“Continuity and consistency have been really important,’’ Popovich said of his bond with Duncan, per ESPN. “And we trust each other. We can argue and fight and disagree, but we’re going to step onto the court and cheer for each other.’’
And if they win No. 5? Don’t make the mistake of thinking Timmy and Pop will fade into the South Texas dust, like two burned-out armadillos. “I’ve not come to that point yet,” Duncan said. “I don’t know when that’s going to come about. I don’t really care about that right now. It’ll happen when it happens. I’ll feel it, I’ll know it and I’ll call it a day.”
Right now, he’s feeling another championship with his blood brother. In a world of breakups, they’e the best old fighting couple we know. America should take notes.