The melting pot: How the Spurs keep churning along

USA TODAY Sports

Every year, San Antonio brings in different players from different cultures. Yet they blend together so easily because of the infrastructure the franchise has built.

TORONTO — Standing in the visiting locker room at the Air Canada Centre when the San Antonio Spurs are in town is a little like standing in the middle of Toronto's Union Station.

In one corner, a conversation is taking place entirely in French. In another, Manu Ginobili is speaking Italian with a couple media members. Patty Mills is at his locker explaining Australian sayings, and Matt Bonner is reminiscing about his time in Toronto, where Canadians are still waiting on him to get his citizenship.

There isn't an NBA roster that is more blended than the Spurs. With 10 players hailing from countries other than the United States, they come together to bring out the best in each other year after year after year.

Still managing to fly under the radar despite being a Ray Allen hail-mary-step-behind-the-3-point line-falling-out-of-bounds three-pointer away from winning a fifth championship since 1999, the Spurs quietly keep things rolling. And they don't care if you think they're boring.

"What's wrong with vanilla ice cream?" former Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen told SB Nation when describing the franchise.  People say, ‘Oh, it's boring,' but it's flavorful. People love vanilla ice cream. How do you make vanilla better? You make it better by adding things to it. You add strawberries, you add whipped cream, you add nuts, you add bananas, you add chocolate sauce then it becomes something other than just plain vanilla and that's a team. You have a vanilla center in Tim Duncan, back in the day, you add a little Tony [Parker], you add a little Manu, you add other pieces around it and it makes it go."

With a clear identity and players that have defined roles, San Antonio has managed to perfect the art of staying steady through an 82-game regular season. It's that lack of drama that keeps the Spurs near the top of the standings.

"You've got to take into account how well everyone gets along," reserve point guard Mills said. "I'm not even speaking basketball, I'm speaking off the court, the way we interact with each other, the way we enjoy each other's company. It's something that is underrated."

Whenever a player has fallen off the beaten path, many point toward San Antonio and wonder if he'd be able to find a home with the Spurs and their system.

"We had a young Stephen Jackson [on San Antonio's title-winning team in 2002-03]," Bowen said. "He was volatile, but he wasn't able to be volatile because that didn't work with us. When you don't fit the mold, you stand out like a sore thumb."

From starters to superstars, rookies and reserves, Popovich coaches everyone the same way. This makes the hierarchies that naturally exist within the realm of professional sports seem to disappear.

"He's honest every day," Mills said. "He wants us to get better, and we want him to be on us for that exact fact. Every day for the rest of the season, as long as we're with the Spurs, he'll be on us every day. That's what makes him a great coach."

Part of the reason for players falling in line is the standard set by Popovich, but within the locker room, it is also the leadership of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. When the trio that has spent their entire careers collecting championship rings speak, their teammates tend to listen.

"When you don't fit the mold, you stand out like a sore thumb"-Bruce Bowen on the Spurs

Not that those players were always willing to offer advice, though.

"Timmy didn't talk to me like the whole first year," Parker said with a smile. "He wanted to see what I was made of. Coming from France, I had to earn his respect."

Thrown into the fire almost immediately, the 19-year-old rookie quickly became the team's starting point guard. A key in his success was never complaining about the criticisms put in front of him.

"It was great," he said of that rocky first year. "I was very happy. I was so happy to be in the NBA, I was ready for the challenge."

Leadership styles differ among the Big 3. While Duncan made Parker prove his worth, Parker has had a huge impact on Mills since the Australian's arrival in San Antonio.

"He gives advice to me," Mills said. "Professional athletes, we have to learn on the fly. It might be one thing one time, then next week it's something different."

In addition to learning from Parker on the court, Mills is picking up things from his teammates off the court.

"I'm trying to learn Spanish at the moment from Manu and Tiago [Splitter], but they don't have that much patience with me, so I don't know how long it's going to last," Mills said with a laugh.

Beyond the language lessons, Mills points to the diversity of the team as something that aids their chemistry. Spending much of their time on the road learning about the cultures and traditions of their various teammates, the Spurs have used their differences to create an appreciation of each other.

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"The different ways [my teammates] live, whether it's to do with currencies, or animals, or whatever it may be, I feel like I'm learning [the world] without even going to the countries to visit," Mills said.

While the Spurs have set the bar for consistency, they also show what can happen when everyone is operating on an equal playing field. This allows San Antonio to quickly squash issues when and if they arise.

"You know this in life: sometimes the easiest way is the simplest way," Bowen said. "It's not about creating something dramatic, let's just keep it simple. It's about the discipline, more than anything else.

Popovich's steadying but firm approach has earned the respect of his players, while the success they've had with him has kept them coming back for more.

"I was just happy to be there," Parker said of that rookie season 13 years ago. "Obviously [Popovich] was hard on me, he screamed at me, stuff like that, but I wanted to make it so bad. For me it was part of the journey."

That journey of routine consistency has allowed Parker and his teammates to become experienced travelers, never rattled by circumstances beyond their control. Surviving the ups, downs and sometimes turbulent times in an NBA season is tricky for most teams. The Spurs make it look easy, even enjoyable.

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