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Super Model
June 25, 2007
Their style of play may not be captivating, but with four titles in the last nine years the Spurs have come up with a blueprint for success that's the envy of professional sports
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June 25, 2007

Super Model

Their style of play may not be captivating, but with four titles in the last nine years the Spurs have come up with a blueprint for success that's the envy of professional sports

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The Vietnam medals earned by San Antonio Spurs principal owner Peter Holt, which include a silver star, three bronze stars and a purple heart, are displayed in a glass case in the office of his Caterpillar dealership in suburban San Antonio. Actually, displayed is a bit misleading--the case hangs in a narrow hallway off the main room. The location suggests a trait shared by Holt and the NBA franchise he has run since 1996: Both have the hardware but neither feels the need to show it off. � With their fourth championship in nine seasons, this one completed last Thursday in Cleveland with a sweep of LeBron James's Cavaliers, the Spurs have become the most successful franchise in pro sports over the last decade, moving past the New England Patriots, New York Yankees and Detroit Red Wings, each of which has three titles. The tag of "model franchise" probably goes to the Patriots, whose success has come in a sport more popular with the American public. Yet even the Pats admire the Spurs' combination of stability and humility, high character and high achievement.

"To have sustained excellence over a decade is extremely difficult, and the Spurs have done it as well as anyone," says New England vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who has exchanged ideas about the right way to run a franchise with San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford. "What is really impressive is their player development, the fact that they've brought in so many international players and integrated them into a system." Says Jack Ramsey, an ESPN analyst and longtime coach who won a championship in 1977 with the Portland Trail Blazers, "If you're in the basketball business, the Spurs are who you want to be."

Unless, of course, you are bothered by their collective sin: They seem bland. Sure, their owner is a former hard-drinking hellion who got shot in the neck in Vietnam; their coach is a wine expert who speaks fluent Russian; their franchise player is the greatest power forward in NBA history; their lefthanded Argentine guard, the hero of Game�4, barrels through the lane like a running back; and their 2006 Finals MVP, a Frenchman, will soon say Oui, je le veux in one of the celebrity marriages of the year. So they might not actually be bland. But perception is all.

Any thought that San Antonio might gain traction in the attention wars was derailed by a Finals that lacked intrigue and, too often, offense. Ask coach Gregg Popovich if he thinks about his team's inability to connect with America and you will get a blank stare and one word: no. Ask superstar forward Tim Duncan and you will get a blank, tilted-head stare-- Duncan looks at the media like an entomologist peering through a microscope--that amounts to another no. The only one who will admit to even thinking about the subject is Holt. "More recognition for our players and our organization would be an acknowledgement that the way we do business is a good way," Holt says. "So, yes, I want it for our players and coaches. But only the right kind of publicity. I'm not interested in having our team be in the tabloids." He laughs. "I guess if anyone has been guilty of that, it's me."

Not the tabloids exactly, but when Holt checked himself into a rehab facility in 2004, it did make the newspapers in San Antonio. He had been sober for almost 20 years before falling off the wagon. "It was a one-day story," says Holt. "There was no wrecked car, no DUI, no divorce. I knew I needed to take care of some things before I got myself in trouble again." The only other thing Holt will say about the subject is that he hasn't had a drink since he entered rehab.

It was booze that landed Holt in Vietnam. The son of a millionaire--his great-grandfather Benjamin Holt, developed the modern tractor, which led to the formation of Caterpillar, Inc.--Holt was a first-class screwup. In the summer of 1966 he was apprehended by police after trying to outrun them in a car (while inebriated, of course) and found himself standing before a judge in his hometown of Corpus Christi. "Kid, you're on a bad path," the judge told him. "You're outdrinking your friends. You should consider going into the service." That phrase--outdrinking your friends--inspired him to act. Holt soon enlisted, and by September�1967 he was in Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive began in January�1968, and with the 25th�Infantry Division, holed up near the Cambodian border, Holt saw almost daily action until he mustered out in September�'68. During one firefight, Holt was shot in the base of the neck, patched up and sent back to duty within three days. He can recount other battles when he dragged men to safety or was dragged out of harm's way himself. It was hellish. But the story that sticks with him was something that could have happened but didn't.

"I was walking point, hacking through the jungle with a machete, when I came on a cross-trail," remembers Holt. "There was a hidden grenade, but the trip wire went the opposite way from where I swung my machete. Had it gone the other way, it would've blown my brains out.

"I came out of Vietnam with two things: a grasp of how the collective good keeps people alive, and the fact that luck can play a big part in everything you do." He chuckles. "Certainly that's been true with the Spurs."

He is referring, of course, to a pair of providential lotteries that earned San Antonio the right to draft David Robinson in 1987 and Duncan 10 years later.

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