SAN ANTONIO -- The pregame conversation in the San Antonio Spurs locker room turned to Paul McCartney, and from there on to The Beatles, and, suddenly, Manu Ginobili was inspired to tell teammate Matt Bonner and a handful of reporters the Spanish word for beetle: "escarabajo."
With eight countries and a U.S. territory represented on their roster, the Spurs are always a language lesson or a cultural discussion waiting to happen. They stand out even amid the most multicultural NBA season yet, with a record 92 international players on the opening-night rosters across the league.
The Spurs had 10 of those players, and while Nando de Colo spent most of the season in the Development League, the playoff roster still contains nine players born outside the U.S. border: Ginobili from Argentina, Aron Baynes and Patty Mills from Australia, Tiago Splitter from Brazil, Cory Joseph from Canada, Boris Diaw and Tony Parker from France, Marco Belinelli from Italy and Tim Duncan from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Spurs also led the NBA in victories this season. Spend enough time around this team and you'll understand the reasons those two stats are related. It's as good an explanation as any for how, in a star-driven league, the Spurs managed to post the best record without a player ranking among the top 10 in points, rebounds or assists, or finishing among the top 10 in Most Valuable Player voting.
"It's such an underestimated factor, the amount of diversity we have on this team," Mills said. "And it all starts before you even walk on the basketball court. It starts in the locker room. It starts away from the basketball court, with learning about each other and understanding where each and everyone comes from.
"You're talking about stuff in everyone's home country and, all of a sudden, you sit and look at the time and we've been talking for an hour. So there's the start of the camaraderie, I guess, and where the trust is built."
Trust is such a sacred commodity in the NBA. It's even more elusive than talent. The Indiana Pacers had players, but they didn't have trust. It's one reason the Miami Heat, not the Pacers, are facing the Spurs in the NBA Finals. Diversity can be a valuable asset in its own right. This ESPNW story by Alyssa Roenigk alerted me to an interesting study by the Kellogg School of Management that found diversity led to better problem solving. In the study, diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups.
From the report:
The mere presence of diversity in a group creates awkwardness, and the need to diffuse this tension leads to better group problem solving, says Katherine Phillips, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. She and her coauthors, Katie A. Liljenquist, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, and Margaret A. Neale, a professor at Stanford University, demonstrate that while homogeneous groups feel more confident in their performance and group interactions, it is the diverse groups that are more successful in completing their tasks.
But that study merely looked at the impact of adding people from different social groups, not different countries. How do people speaking different languages cross those barriers to find trust? It can be challenging, as 10-year NBA veteran Ronny Turiaf, a Frenchman and friend of Diaw and Parker, can attest.
"When I first came to America, definitely didn't speak English. Guys were looking at me like I was basically an alien," Turiaf said. "You just have to figure out a way. I had to figure out a way to relate to them on some level."
From his freshman year at Gonzaga, Turiaf wound up going to movies with teammates, even if he couldn't follow the dialogue. He just wanted to do something to be a part of the group.
"You're surrounded by a foreign language. You don't understand anything, nothing," Turiaf said. "The people's reaction or desire to do things, you don't understand. Basically, you're thrown into an environment where you automatically become in survival mode."
With the Spurs, there's strength in numbers.
"In the beginning, it's hard," Splitter said. "But the thing is, you've got a lot of guys in the same situation as you, so everybody helps each other. All the American guys here, they're really open minded and very cool guys. That makes everything easier. We make fun of the French, we make fun of the South Americans, but at the end of the day, everybody's really good friends."
The Spurs have flipped the scenario; having so many people from so many places isn't a problem. It's the solution. If no one is in his comfort zone, they're forced to find one collectively.
"The more differences you have, the more you can talk about," Mills said. "And we have so many here that you never get bored of it, and you never stop finding something new.
"They've tried to teach me a little bit of Spanish. I've done Italian in school. Then, you start learning some stuff in French, and then you forget what's in Spanish, so then you go back to Spanish and Portuguese ..."
So how does the coach, Gregg Popovich, mesh all of these cultures into a single, functioning unit?
"Ah," Popovich said, pausing to savor the question like a sip of cabernet sauvignon.
Wine and global discovery are two things Popovich actually enjoys discussing, unlike the daily drudgery of starting lineups and tactical moves. Popovich, who is of Serbian descent, grew up in an Indiana town that contained "a white family here, a Puerto Rican family there, a Polish or Czech family over there," as he told Sports Illustrated in 2013.
He majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy and traveled through Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces basketball team in the early 1970s.
"Through his time with the military and USA Basketball [Popovich was an assistant coach on the men's national team from 2002 to 2004], he had a great appreciation for the players and the culture that's developed around the basketball world," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "To have the success of any player that you bring in, you have to have the support of the coach."
Popovich was behind the acquisition of the first international Spur, when, as an assistant coach under Larry Brown, he helped sign Zarko Paspalj from what was then Yugoslavia in 1989. Paspalj was one of five Eastern European players -- led by Los Angeles Lakers first-round draft pick Vlade Divac -- who joined the NBA that summer, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Paspalj acted out all the stereotypes that led to the NBA's bias against Europeans -- more interested in smoking cigarettes than playing defense -- and was cut before the end of the season.
The Spurs weren't deterred, following a plan that was a mix of philosophy and necessity.
"Where we've drafted, we've had to look at alternative environments," Buford said.
They nabbed Ginobili with the 57th pick in 1999 and Parker with the 28th selection in the 2001 draft. They've joined Duncan, the No. 1 overall pick in 1997, to win more playoff games than any other NBA trio. And Popovich has managed to blend in different players from different continents to keep the Spurs' machine humming for 18 years.
"You might do something for your team like go to a museum, like the Holocaust Museum. You might have talks and films about Martin Luther King.
"There are also other people in the world. Things have happened in France and Argentina. Things have happened in the old Yugoslavia. Having a variety of situations where people feel that they're in a home where they're appreciated by everybody [helps].
"It helps build a group that wants to play with each other and play for each other. And that's what we talk about: trying to play for each other. It doesn't mean you're going to win all the time, but at least you enjoy coming to practice and being with the group."
It can also mean getting entangled in international incidents, as in December, when an old picture surfaced of Parker making what's considered an anti-Semitic gesture. Parker issued an apology and said he didn't know the meaning of the gesture.
If you're like me and had never heard of the gesture before, it opened the door to learning about the state of anti-Semitism in France through this Grantland story. We're so insulated in America that we only consider our problems. Are the racially tinged ramblings of one team owner in a recording as bad as thousands of racially abusive fans in a soccer stadium?
Historically, the best way to combat ignorance is integration. It's much harder to objectify people after you've seen them up close, witnessed all of their features and flaws that make them humans. That's the Spurs on a small scale. A United Nations assembly in shorts and tank tops, winning more games than anyone else in the world's best basketball league.
"That's what life is all about, in a sense," Turiaf said. "When you travel, or when you do anything, you see another perspective on life. That's what the Spurs organization has been able to do, as far as just scouting the world, seeing that there are great basketball players everywhere. You can see that once you put a nice mix of basketball players together, something beautiful happens."