No one in Miami bought a ticket to watch Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, because those players are relevant to no one in Miami. Mostly, they come to watch LeBron and D-Wade, or they don’t come at all. Few people watch the Spurs on national television – unless they’re playing the Heat or the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s because the Spurs never deliver the dysfunction and self-destructive bents that fuel the sport’s storylines.
Stern once declared that his fantasy NBA Finals would be the Lakers vs. the Lakers, and no one laughed in San Antonio because they understood Stern was stone-cold serious. And well, if there was a little “Bleep You” out of Popovich toward Stern after shipping his players back to San Antonio after five games in seven nights, it was beyond understandable.
Stern doesn’t care about the realities of his league, just the appearances. To him, the appearance on Thursday night was that Popovich had tried to embarrass him on national television and that’s why the commissioner tossed that tantrum. Apologize to the fans? In a league where the mere appearance of players on the floor doesn’t guarantee preparation and effort, the Spurs never cheat the public. They’re honest, in a way so few are honest. When too many others wear the uniform and yet still take the night off, the Spurs come to play – or they don’t come at all.
In every way, Popovich let his players be the stars. He never self-promoted. He’s never done endorsements. Stern wanted a players’ league, and Popovich gave him the ultimate players’ program. It was team, team, team. Only, Stern couldn’t market it. He hated it. Four times they reached the NBA Finals, and Stern didn’t like the TV ratings of those series.
For all of his so-called marketing genius, Stern could never sell the global appeal of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They brought the NBA to the corners of the world, glamorized basketball over soccer, and somehow it was Popovich’s failure that Stern couldn’t market this to people. The NBA failed the Spurs, far more than the Spurs ever failed the NBA.