Does gray matter?

There's a good chance you don't care about the San Antonio Spurs.

Most people don't. You might have a couple of friends who do. They live among the basketball junkies who insist the Spurs play a perfect version of the game, even if it looks like nothing special to you. But for most fans, the Spurs are just Them, a team that seems to play at a distance from the rest of the NBA.

The Spurs' defining characteristic is selflessness. From the top down, everyone in the organization is assigned a role and put in a position to succeed. This might seem like an obvious way to run an NBA team, but the way the Spurs handle their business is unique, and that distinctness makes them both nonconformists and the league's standard bearers.

For the Spurs, winning has always been about affirming their hard work, not drawing them attention -- and in avoiding attention, they've succeeded almost too well, as TV ratings and Internet traffic patterns continue to show.

During the past 15 years or so, despite the titles, the reputation, the culture, the admiration of the game's insiders and all the rest of it, millions of people have found better things to do with their time when the Spurs are playing.

Avid NBA fans who yawn at the Spurs have told focus group leaders at ESPN that they want players to be less selfish, to play less one-on-one and more team ball, to express humility. And fewer dunks.

But if that's what they really want, they don't want it enough to make the Spurs popular.


Some NBA franchises are worth a half-billion dollars, and the top players can make several hundred million. This is all fueled by fan interest, broadcast revenue, lucrative licensing, sponsorship and marketing agreements and an endless stream of media. Viewers and sponsors are drawn to specific brands and players, and that requires a bit of a sales job. If you're a team or a player, you have to get out there and connect. The stronger and deeper that connection is between the NBA and the outside world, the more the league grows and prospers.

Creating that relationship can be taxing for teams and players, but that's what a tax is -- an investment or inconvenience (depending on your political outlook) in exchange for what serves the larger group. The NBA's entertainment tax falls most heavily on the most talented players, and it's their responsibility to create the wealth and opportunities for themselves, their teammates, their teams and their sport.

Some guys enjoy being at the center of the intrigue. They do it with candor (Kobe and his recent cranky old man shtick) or wardrobe (Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade) or irony (Blake Griffin) or countercultural appeal (Allen Iverson c. 2000) -- and, above all, with outrageous displays of athleticism and skill that few other human beings can exhibit.

For the Spurs, personified by Tim Duncan, reticence is the preferred mode. For them, this entertainment tax is a drag, and the act of putting themselves out there feels more like prostitution.

But the game can't be played in an empty gym, no matter how much authenticity Duncan or the Spurs would bring to the building, because empty gyms have no spectators and revenue, and spectators and revenue drive the basketball business.

It's important to note that the Spurs and their key players put in a lot of work locally in San Antonio connecting with their community, performing charitable works and lending a presence -- and the Spurs do it as well as any team in the NBA on the civic level -- one reason they are insanely popular locally.

But overall the landscape for the Spurs resembles that classic New Yorker cover, with Bexar County, Texas, as the point of view, and everything else peripheral. They're a team both unconcerned about the rest of the world and wary of attention.

The best way to understand this tendency is to consider Duncan.


For almost 16 seasons, Tim Duncan has been San Antonio's defining player. And if you ask people whose job it is to sell the NBA to explain the public's allergy to the Spurs, they'll arrive sooner rather than later at Duncan's mechanical nature on the floor. There's a faceless quality to his game, which is neither power nor finesse, forceful nor graceful.

As a player, Duncan doesn't have the sort of signature game that has helped big men overcome the Goliath vs. David problem in terms of fan appeal. Like Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were quiet NBA big men focused on winning and excellence. But Kareem's lofty skyhook, Olajuwon's elegant Dream Shake and Ewing's Hoya Paranoia defensive style gave their games personality that excited fans.

But what is a fan supposed to do with Duncan's jab step and shoulder fake? How giddy can a viewer get about a deliberate, almost programmatic move designed to throw a defender off balance for an instant so that Duncan can either step back and discharge a line-drive bank shot off the glass or take a couple of high dribbles and find an angular shot at close range? The Spurs' patented "wedge roll," designed to get Duncan a mismatch in the half court, has won multiple championships and been replicated by half the league. Now try selling the nuances of the wedge to a global village.

If you've rooted for a dynamic NBA star over the past 15 years, the Spurs have beaten that player, and not by matching his dynamism, but by identifying weaknesses and exploiting them. Being a Spur requires concentration and focus, living a somewhat monastic existence insulated from the rest of the league where "Who's gonna take the last shot?" governs thinking. That place, where a team like the Spurs needs to live in order to be that team -- that isn't an interesting place to visit for many fans.

Sports sell best as escapism, or as spectacle, but when a team is "workmanlike" or "efficient" or "all business," that means its effort is a facsimile of what most of us spend eight to 10 hours a day doing -- and few people watching want to come home from the office and tune in to the NBA's version of a TPS report. Most people don't root for process or systems which, by their very definitions, are designed to produce reliable outcomes rather than spontaneous outbursts. The viewer wants a fresh kill, one inflicted with force, not order.

The NBA is fraught with these kinds of contradictions -- we love winners but also need the prospect of failure hanging in the balance -- but the most profound tension is the one between team and individual.

Most of the larger-than-life storylines that have propelled the NBA in recent years fall under this rubric. Bryant's steely insistence on taking every big shot for the Lakers. Is LeBron a choker or a beta male or some sort of deferential head case? The Melodrama in Denver, followed by the constant monitoring of Anthony's shot selection/ballhoggery in New York. Every plot twist in Oklahoma City, from Durant vs. Westbrook, to whether Harden could achieve his full potential as the Thunder's sixth man, to Harden's ultimately being shipped out to Houston, to the question of whether Durant could carry the Thunder by himself in the wake of Westbrook's injury.

Duncan doesn't want any part of this TV drama. Trying to be the leading man would be an affront to his team. He needs that energy and focus just to be Tim Duncan, to guide his team in more discreet ways. If that costs the league a couple of million eyeballs and deprives fans a sexy storyline, this is the price of Duncan's hushed mastery of the game.


Duncan unquestionably chose the right career path when he decided to be an NBA power forward, but the ancillary demands of the job -- selling the game with a smile, bringing an audience closer to him, indulging our fantasies to Be Like Tim -- aren't for him. Duncan would never wallow in self-pity, but people who don't share his guarded disposition have no idea how exhausting and soul-crushing being "on" can be for certain kinds of people.

His lack of flair on the court is an extension of his personality. "I'm not an extrovert," Duncan says. "I don't feel comfortable putting myself out there. I'm just a basketball player. I play the game. I go home."

Duncan, the introvert, needs a layer of space around him. Some people disdain the social requirements that come with certain jobs.

"It just doesn't suit me," Duncan says. "I love to play basketball and if I could leave all that behind there, I'd be fine with that."

Cornering Duncan one-on-one for a brief battery of questions isn't easy. He has no inclination to share, but he's here, in a flannel shirt, sitting on the far edge of a training table in the corner of the trainer's room behind a door just off the visitors locker room at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento after another Spurs win.


People choose to try to be bigger than the game, to make themselves an individual brand or whatever it may be, and luckily enough there are enough of those guys around the league. I choose not to.

"- Spurs forward Tim Duncan

Duncan is mournful as he listens to the questions. For a reporter, floating theories about how the Spurs dodge the entertainment tax and other ambassadorial responsibilities feels uncool because listening to them is so clearly excruciating for Duncan. Yet he isn't defiant. He's not Westbrook at his locker, who won't deign to look up from his smartphone during an official media availability. Duncan stretches his gaze downward, but still offers thoughtful responses, even if they're strained. But, yes, this is among the most unpleasant 10 minutes of his day, parsing whether the Spurs are takers who choose not to pull their weight commercially.

"I guess there's an argument there," Duncan says. "People choose to try to be bigger than the game, to make themselves an individual brand or whatever it may be, and luckily enough there are enough of those guys around the league. I choose not to."

Duncan acknowledges the league's reliance on guys who "try to be bigger than the game" while simultaneously recusing himself from that burden. He doesn't want it, and finds comfort and virtue in his blandness.

"Trying to be something that you're not gets you out of your comfort zone," Duncan says. "I'm not that guy. I did a little bit of that. I've done my share of it, but I'm just not that guy. I don't think of myself in that respect. I love playing basketball and that's what I want to do. I don't need the extra stuff."

In a 2012 survey conducted by ESPN of avid NBA fans, not a single teenager in a survey pool of 18,000 fans of all ages ranked Duncan as his favorite player. Duncan knows he and the Spurs aren't marquee attractions. Without being prompted, he references the lousy ratings for NBA Finals series that feature the Spurs, but he's unapologetic. In Duncan's worldview, he and his team owe the game, the fans and each other the most professional effort, and if the market doesn't respond, that's on us.

Spurs point guard Tony Parker is expressive when asked about what the Spurs do and how they do it, but asked why Duncan didn't give more of himself, he is quiet, before moving into a testimonial on Duncan's perfection as a teammate and how he's actually funny off the court. Is it the quiet of someone who's not going to betray a teammate by psychoanalyzing him on the record? Probably. But it's hard to be certain whether Parker, or anybody else, truly knows why.

"You'll have to ask him."

The short answer for Duncan is that he doesn't need the lifestyle in a way so many do. Duncan -- and teammate Manu Ginobili, coach Gregg Popovich and to a slightly lesser extent Parker -- prefer to derive their affirmation for what the game has given them and what they've contributed in more private confines, to be shared by a precious and important few.


Nobody in the Spurs organization, from management to Popovich to Duncan to even Parker and Ginobili, takes major issue with the "boring" rap. They readily concede the point -- they're a niche product for a select group of basketball fans who want less noise and an emphasis on the substance of the craft.

Popovich turns to politics to draw a revealing parallel, comparing the Spurs to David Gergen, an adviser to both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who now serves, for a select few, as the voice of reason among TV news pundits.

"I want to be entertained by David Gergen giving commentary about the election; I'm going to be entertained," Popovich says. "When he says something, I'm entertained as hell because it makes me think about whether I'm right or wrong or whether I want to change my opinion. But he doesn't have to tell a joke or scream or do something else as 'entertainment' for me to appreciate him."

Gergen is the sensible guy they cut to after the political hacks are done screaming -- he provides the shades of gray in a world of black and white commentary.

To the extent the Spurs mount a defense of being boring, this is their line of thinking. The NBA is a diverse ecosystem. It needs species like the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks. But the Spurs make it a healthier, saner world.

"There should be an appreciation of differences," Popovich says. "In players, in teams, in organizations, in how things are done."

Parker is more animated about this idea. He feels that the Spurs' character should be celebrated as a commitment to stylistic diversity.

"You have something for everybody," Parker said. "You have a lot of people out there that love pure basketball, ball movement, beautiful basketball. Beautiful basketball -- not dunking and spectacular plays -- is playing the right way. It's the way we've played. You have all sorts of fans, and there should be something for everybody."

That Parker provides the most vocal defense for the Spurs' style is striking because he's the guy whose personality would fit best on a bigger stage, a more electric environment. When New York emerged as a possibility a few years back, it was easy to imagine Parker lighting up Madison Square Garden.

"Maybe I thought about it," Parker says of playing elsewhere. "But this is where I'm happy. You can't do this everywhere."

The Spurs don't have a name for what this is. This isn't Ubuntu or Showtime, and besides, self-branding isn't the San Antonio way.


The Spurs stress that there was no grand scheme to be boring. It's merely a consequence of who they are.

If the Spurs had held the No. 1 pick in 2003, they would have drafted LeBron James, and they'd have an entirely different persona by now. But as it happened, they had the No. 1 pick in 1987 and again in 1997, and they did what any other team would've done -- they took David Robinson and Tim Duncan, two big men with tremendous talents. But neither has had the kind of charisma that draws in the masses.

Upon those cornerstones, they created the culture they have now, particularly from '97 forward, with an almost-new coach in Popovich and a super-efficient low-post weapon in Duncan. For more than 15 years, they've stayed true to their core philosophies, as the best organizations do, even as they've innovated to remain competitive. For the Spurs, stability and serenity emerged as the organization's defining qualities from the top down, so they were adopted as edicts in the team's manifesto.

Self-knowledge isn't easy to come by. If a franchise is fortunate enough to have it, that team should do everything it can to preserve it, even if that means building a fortress.

"From a team-building perspective, we should know who we are and what we believe to be successful in our environment," general manager R.C. Buford says. "This has allowed us to build processes and to make decisions that we hope to be sustainable."

Robinson, Popovich and Duncan have been excellent conductors of those principles, and the Spurs, in turn, have constructed an identity around all of this. Since extracurriculars, internal drama and media attention disrupt both stability and serenity in the NBA, the Spurs have deliberately avoided those distractions, both individually and collectively.

For most teams, disruption can be harmful without being a betrayal of their identity. For the Spurs disruption would be an affront to who they are. Consequently, they've pledged their faith to this idea. That's great for the Spurs, but less so for fans who need something to keep their attention, and for the NBA, which needs the attention of fans.

The Spurs do change aspects of their game. They embrace innovation in player evaluation, analytics and training, and their style of play has been anything but static. Popovich constantly refines his offensive system, which has evolved from a collection of smart, high-percentage, often inside-out schemes to a more holistic, read-oriented, almost European approach.

To the fan, though, evolution of a team's on-court style is far less interesting than bold dramatic arcs. The league needs storylines to captivate fans, and the Spurs haven't provided many of those in the past 16 years. Maintaining a quiet, stable, serene presence in a fast-moving world might be a recipe for on-court success but it doesn't do much to create fan interest.

While the Spurs' identity has remained fixed, the league's public image has shifted dramatically several times during that span. But to the Spurs, chasing popular fashions, even in the service of entertainment, would mean changing their character, and that would kill their continuity.

Naturally, the NBA has molded the league's marketing approach around the elite teams and stars. When the Spurs started winning titles and Duncan won MVP awards in 2002 and 2003, the NBA -- struggling to find an overarching identity after the demise of Michael Jordan's Bulls -- could've looked to San Antonio. But the league couldn't figure out how to sell the Spurs, and fans, rather than embracing the excellence of Duncan and his team, waited for another generation of stars to emerge.


There's Tim Duncan, processing, always processing. Many of the NBA's most colorful players are cerebral: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, brainiacs who are usually five paces ahead of the game.

And once the processing is over, most stars translate those brain waves into spectacular highlights. But Duncan and most of his teammates process in service of process; they're using this information to refine, not to thrill. Duncan & Co. are also five steps ahead -- maybe even 10 -- but those paces are careful steps, not flights of fancy.

The Spurs are a working example -- and a romantic ideal -- of how the world should be. They operate on the principles of flexibility and trust, on the idea that treating people like grown-ups isn't just a nice thing to do, but a way of getting the most out of everyone. Even those who subscribe to sports-as-escapism can root for this, because who doesn't want to play on a team, work at a business, be in a family and live in a community where this is gospel?

Who doesn't want a boss who will "cook us breakfast" after we hit a game winner? We all want to work for someone who understands that self-confidence and hard work don't always translate into results, but will keep us in the game if we're faithful to the team process.

There's no definitive way to quantify how much value the league derives from the Spurs being the Spurs, but the organization's broad influence on the NBA offsets considerably whatever the league loses in eyeballs whenever the Spurs take to the airwaves. Rather than be regarded as a ratings killer, San Antonio should be thought of as the NBA's research and development division, a group that doesn't generate great line-item profits but whose output facilitates ideas big and small that are crucial to an entity's success.

Over the past two decades, the Spurs have created some of the league's most valuable intellectual property, a gift to the game. Their innovative approaches to the draft, international prospects, player development and the D-League have been groundbreaking.

Subtle examples of their influence include the way Kevin Durant speaks almost as a co-owner of the Thunder, not in a presumptuous way, but as a young player who has claimed a rare accountability for the team's future because management has empowered him. That's classic San Antonio Spurs, where Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti cut his teeth working for Popovich and Buford.

The Spurs' coaching and managerial tree has spawned numerous acolytes who apply the Spurs' best organizational principles to their own team-building. Parker and Duncan boast a bit about this: You may not care, but people inside the NBA worship the Spurs, marvel at how easy they make the day-to-day enterprise of a basketball franchise seem.

"People around the game are envious of what we have," Duncan says. "They're envious of the way we run things, and how we do things and how we get things done and the kind of coach that Pop is. They're envious of that stuff. They're not envious of the image."

When Durant embodies leadership and purpose, when the league expands its global reach, when the bar is raised for what it means to run a competent franchise, when players like where they work, and when coaches and management engage in smart trial-and-error experiments rather than make decisions based on fear of losing their jobs, the NBA is a better place.

Like almost all influential products that come out of a successful R&D operation, these things have monetary value, even if we can't measure it precisely.


There will always be Spurs fans who post great moments on YouTube of their team's history, and the Spurs' legacy inside the NBA will be lasting, but the Spurs are no more likely to stand out in the NBA's popular history than they do today. Many will forget the Spurs, or at least not honor the full breadth of their accomplishments, even if they win a fifth title in the next week.

Maybe this says more about basketball culture than it does about the Spurs themselves. Fans want to believe their devotion is requited, that those on the floor love and even need the cheers to be validated. A team or player who doesn't seem to care about that affection compromises that relationship.

Not that the Spurs really care. They'll continue to define success on their own terms, even if few are watching.