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Hoop years



After the Spurs’ wide-awake-nightmare loss to the Lakers in Game One of the Western Conference Finals, Gregg Popovich astutely anticipated the angle of choice for countless sports pundits. “When we win, we’re the experienced team,” he said, with characteristic sarcasm. “When we lose, we’re older than dirt.”

We’ve seen the same kind of mindless pontificating in this year’s political coverage: When Barack Obama loses a primary, it’s because he’s only connecting with godless, latte-sipping eggheads. When he wins, we’re told that those godless, latte-sipping eggheads really know how to get out the vote.

In any event, Popovich is on to something. Contrary to what Prince sang back in 1986, you’re well-advised in basketball to act your shoe size instead of your age, especially if you wear Shaquille O’Neal size-23 Reeboks. It’s become such a standard talking point this season to knock the Spurs for being long in the collective tooth, you’d think their practice facility was located at Lion’s Field. Give them all a subscription to AARP magazine, the skeptics seem to sniff, and pack their bags for Sun City, Arizona.

It’s one of many unflattering stereotypes the Spurs have endured while grimacing their way to three NBA titles in the last five years. Among the others: They’re too soft (haven’t heard that one in a while, have we?), too bland, too dirty, and too hard to sell to a network-TV audience.

If we put the age issue under the magnifying glass, however, it quickly starts to appear a tad overblown. At 30, Manu Ginobili is only a year older than his Laker two-guard counterpart Kobe Bryant. But every time Ginobili has a bad game, it’s taken as a sign that the decline has set in. When Kobe has a bad game (and, granted, that doesn’t happen too often), it’s simply seen as a one-game aberration. Sure, all that international play put plenty of hoop miles on Ginobili’s odometer, but let’s not forget that Bryant has played 12 long seasons in the NBA, and if you count the playoffs, that’s an extra two seasons worth of games. Why aren’t the experts fretting about his brittle bones?

Lakers starting point guard Derek Fisher is nearly 34, while the Spurs’ starting point guard, Tony Parker, just turned 26. And while Tim Duncan has more than four years on Lakers big man Pau Gasol, Gasol can only dream of controlling the defensive boards they way Duncan has in this series.

Let’s put aside these two teams, though, and look at the bigger picture. The starting five for the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls had a higher average age than the starters for this Spurs squad, and that Bulls team not only posted a record-setting 72 wins, they won the first of three consecutive NBA titles. Did anyone at the time bemoan the fact that Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman were well into their 30s? Not for a minute.

The second-best regular season in history belongs to the 1971-72 Lakers. The cornerstones of that team were 35-year-old Wilt Chamberlain, 34-year-old Jerry West, and 29-year-old Gail Goodrich. How did those geezers manage to get up and down the court enough times to win an NBA crown and post a 33-game winning streak? For that matter, how did the Showtime Lakers of 1987-88 win a championship with a 41-year-old starting center (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)?

Here’s the point: The Spurs may very well come up short this season. They’re playing a deep, gifted, well-coached Lakers team with the home-court advantage and a transcendent superstar (Bryant) hungry to prove he can reach the promised land without Shaq. But, regardless of the outcome, age will have little to do with it. Most of the true graybeards on the San Antonio roster - Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Damon Stoudamire, Kurt Thomas - simply round out the bench, and the Spurs have always chosen to bring in wily old veterans to give their bench a short-term boost. Out goes Steve Kerr, in comes Brent Barry, and no one misses a beat. Those parts are interchangeable, because the Spurs will always be able to pick up venerable journeyman on the cheap to give them a few minutes of steady play.

It’s easy to forget this now, but when the Spurs won their first title in 1999, they were the oldest team in the NBA. With David Robinson and Avery Johnson winding down, Sean Elliott in need of kidney surgery, and role players such as Mario Elie and Jerome Kersey ready for retirement, the title window seemed to be closing at the very moment it opened. Nine years later, the Spurs have added three Larry O’Brien trophies to their collection and posted the league’s best record in this decade. They’ve turned what Phil Jackson once called an “asterisk” title into a full-fledged dynasty. And they’ve consistently done it with a grizzled bench.

When he needs five minutes of playoff reinforcement in the second or third quarter, Pop inevitably prefers those savvy, seen-it-all types over the erratic promise of a Beno Udrih or Hedo Turkoglu. But he’s not banking on his geriatric role players to win the big games. That burden continues to fall on the troika of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, and none of them are quite ready to start collecting their Social Security checks.

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