Steroids. Basketbrawl. The NHL lockout. Desperate Housewives. There aren't a lot of positive headlines in the sports pages these days, even by today's standards. It's almost as if a giant black cloud has descended over the sporting landscape. No great team or superstar seems immune to questionable ethics or character.
Then there are the San Antonio Spurs.
They not only win big; they seem to do it without any of the negative stuff that crops up everywhere else. No public feuds. No drug busts. No players griping over contracts or swearing at fans. "That's just the way it is here," Spurs forward Malik Rose says. "We've got a good group of guys."
With an NBA-best 15-3 record, and as clean a reputation as can be found anywhere in sports, San Antonio should be the talk of the league right now. In Tim Duncan they've got one of the best players and citizens in the game. In Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili they've got two of the game's most creative and entertaining players. In coach Gregg Popovich they've got a hard-nosed no-nonsense disciplinarian coach who knows his X's and O's and doesn't take guff from players.
Isn't this what we Americans say we want in our sports teams? A superstar who went to college all four years, stays out of trouble and plays fundamental basketball each night? A coach who represents old-school values? An unselfish team that plays together and isn't afraid to do the dirty work on defense?
Yet the Spurs' 22 national TV appearances (not counting NBA TV) trail the 24 games sexier clubs such as Shaq's Heat or Kobe's Lakers will play in front of the nation. San Antonio ranks in the top 10 in merchandise sales, but still behind the likes of long-ago champions such as the Bulls and the Celtics. One TV talking head even recently called the Spurs "boring."
Quick trivia question. Which team in the four major U.S. pro sports has been the winningest (in terms of percentage) over the past seven years? If you guessed the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots or the Detroit Red Wings, you're wrong.
It's the Spurs.
Since 1997-98, the year Duncan arrived, the Spurs have racked up a record of 394-166 (.704) to go with their two NBA titles. The Red Wings (.673), Yankees (.625) and Tennessee Titans (.619) each lead their respective sports, but none has won at a higher clip than San Antonio. If that's "boring," there are a lot of NBA fans in Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans right now who would love to be put to sleep like that on a nightly basis. "I think it's a reflection of what you see in everyday life," says Popovich, when asked why his team doesn't get more recognition for winning the right way. "Turn on the news and you're going to see the negative. It reflects society. People pay more attention to those things. It's not specific to sports. It's across the board."
Popovich, an Air Force grad, takes pride in the fact that his team has been able to thrive without sullying the franchise's image. Though realistic enough to know that it's talent that wins games, he believes there is a benefit to having good people in the locker room. It's no coincidence that the Spurs over the years have had so many high character guys such as Duncan, David Robinson, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr. "Those guys are consummate leaders, great professionals, great people," Rose says. "They weren't just great basketball players; they were great people to be around. ... [This organization] has a knack for finding them. It's nice to have great people, but you've got to win games. They've found a way to do both."
San Antonio, with few exceptions, has found a way over the years to walk the tightrope between big-time success and off-the-court shenanigans. The next time you're fed up with all the jerks and prima donnas in sports, try watching Duncan and the Spurs. If you can find them on your TV, that is.
Marty Burns covers pro basketball for SI.com.