NBA bubble asterisk? The champion ’99 Spurs say it shouldn’t exist

  • Award-winning columnist and author
  • Recipient of Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award
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MILWAUKEE BUCKS COACH Mike Budenholzer would like to know what constitutes the antonym of asterisk. If such a word exists, he says, that’s what should be attached to whichever team wins the 2020 NBA championship under such unusual circumstances.

It’s also, he argues, what should be affixed to the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, who endured a season shortened by a lockout, then culminated in the franchise’s first title. Some critics tried to undermine the team winning it all by saying doing so in a partially compromised season should necessitate an asterisk in the history books. Budenholzer, then an assistant coach on that San Antonio team, sees it the opposite way.

“We were on the precipice of going off a cliff,” he says, “but then we won a championship. You couldn’t make up the things that happened. It was a crazy year.”

San Antonio’s journey saw a head coach clawing for his job just 23 days into the season; a fiery players-only session on a bus in Houston hours before tipoff; a clandestine meeting called by the aforementioned coach-under-siege at his home with his two most trusted veterans; a nine-game winning streak that signified the passing of the torch from one legendary big man to the next; and a clutch, corner-tippy-toe jumper in the playoffs by a player who should have been on dialysis at the time.

Asterisks are being thrown around again because some noted pundits — Shaquille O’Neal among them — argue the 2020 NBA winner should be tagged with one, providing the Orlando bubble holds and teams are able to complete this bizarre 2019-20 season. Those statements generated pushback from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who contends, “This is gonna be the toughest championship you could ever win.” Nearly every coach in the bubble affirms the sentiment: There should be no asterisk.

The renewed debate has stirred emotions for the Spurs, who objected to Phil Jackson famously declaring — more than once — that the 1999 title deserved that asterisk moniker. They still bristle at anyone’s attempts to dilute their accomplishments.

“It completely ignores all the hard work we put in that season,” former Spurs point guard Avery Johnson says. “What’s most disappointing about Phil’s asterisk statement was not so much the first time he said it, but five or seven years later when he felt the need to regurgitate it, after Pop had won his second ring.

“It was just so disrespectful. I think the real asterisk was when Phil was president of the Knicks.”

Keep in mind that in 1999, the Spurs weren’t “THE SPURS” yet. Gregg Popovich was in only his second full season as the team’s head coach and had posted a 73-73 career mark, not yet fully formed as a Hall of Fame leader and the social conscience of the league. Tim Duncan was in his second season, a quiet emerging superstar who liked nothing more than to sequester himself in his room and play the video game version of Battleship. No one lauded the Spurs’ culture as a model of professionalism and integrity because that culture was under construction, with the real possibility the whole project could be scrapped at any moment.

“When you consider everything,” says Sean Elliott, one of the stars of that San Antonio team, “how could anyone even think about an asterisk?”

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WHEN HE TOOK the controversial step of firing Bob Hill on Dec. 10, 1996, and naming himself head coach, Popovich was still San Antonio’s general manager. But after drafting Duncan and surging to a 56-26 season in 1997-98, San Antonio fell 4-1 in the Western Conference semifinals to Utah, putting Popovich’s job at risk.

“People don’t understand Pop was genuinely doing both jobs back then,” Budenholzer says. “[Current Spurs CEO] R.C. [Buford] wasn’t the R.C. that we all know and love yet. Pop was drawing up defenses while he was on the phone with Mark Bartelstein negotiating contracts.”

The Spurs’ former players say they emerged from a brief training camp following the work stoppage disjointed and uneven. “We needed more time,” says Elliott, who had missed chunks of the previous two seasons with knee trouble. He was still becoming familiar with Duncan’s tendencies. When the team arrived in Houston on March 2, they had lost three of their last four games, and rumors were swirling.

“We start out 6-8, and if we drop the next one, then Pop is gone,” Mario Elie says.

“There was no patience,” Antonio Daniels adds. “If a coach didn’t perform right away, the team got rid of him. We got off to such a rough start.”

As the team arrived in Houston for pregame shootaround, Johnson asked all personnel, including coaches and trainers, to disembark so the players could speak in private. Johnson informed his teammates it was highly likely if they lost to the Rockets that Popovich would lose his job. “We have to do better,” Johnson implored them. Elie jumped up next, challenging the twin towers of Duncan and David Robinson to do more.

That night, San Antonio bludgeoned Houston, 99-82. Duncan submitted 23 points and 14 boards, Johnson contributed 18 points and 13 assists, and Elie chipped in 15.

“We had that meeting on the bus in Houston, and it changed everything,” Daniels says.

The Spurs didn’t lose again for 17 days.

THE LEGENDARY TALE of that spirited bus meeting in Houston has been retold many times, yet there was another equally pivotal, unreported gathering that ensued one day earlier, on March 1.

During an off day for the team, Popovich summoned Robinson and Johnson to his home. The Spurs were coming off a 101-87 beating to the Jazz and coach Jerry Sloan, the man and the team that Popovich hoped to pattern his own franchise after.

“David showed up eating Popeye’s fried chicken,” Johnson says. “Neither one of us had any idea what was going on.”

Popovich welcomed them inside, then, according to Johnson, very calmly said, “Boys, we’ve got to win this game in Houston. If we don’t there could potentially be a coaching change.”

“We were significantly underachieving,” Johnson says. “There were all sorts of whispers that [then-Spurs color analyst] Doc Rivers was ready to take over. David, Pop and I had a good heart-to-heart about how we could jump-start the season.”

The Spurs’ defense ranked first in the NBA, giving up just 95 points a game, but San Antonio struggled to score. Robinson, who had previously won Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and regular-season MVP but never a championship, was approaching 34 years old and offered to cede some of his shots to Duncan, who was clearly on course to becoming a franchise player.

Popovich also suggested that Johnson, his undisputed floor leader, start calling the plays going forward.

“Pop told me, ‘You don’t have to look to the bench. Just run what you think makes sense, and during time outs we’ll talk about it,'” Johnson says. “He was very humble. There was no dictatorship. No ‘my way or the highway.'”

The three men kept their meeting confidential. In fact, Elie, Daniels, Elliott and Steve Kerr claim this is the first they’ve heard of it more than 20 years later.

Johnson and Robinson left Popovich’s house with a resolve they hoped could be conveyed to the rest of the team. Johnson also departed with a clear vision of what he should and could do.

“When I walked out of Pop’s house, I felt a tremendous sense of relief,” he says.

FROM MARCH 2 in Houston until the end of the regular season, the Spurs won 31 of their final 36 games.

“Because it was a shortened season, there were so many games that were condensed,” Elliott says. “And when games start coming at you like a conveyor belt, if you can keep your rhythm, you can rip off a lot of wins.”

The Spurs accomplished this despite an offense that relied heavily on their pair of big men, with Elliott the only true elite perimeter marksman. “They were very limited offensively,” notes Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks coach who met them in the Finals that year.

“He’s right,” Kerr confirms. “We didn’t have a lot of ways to score. It was Woody Hayes, three yards and a cloud of dust.”

The Knicks, an 8-seed who stunned No. 1 Miami in the first round, had their own problems. Cornerstone Patrick Ewing battled an Achilles injury and stopped playing in the Eastern Conference Finals when he was diagnosed with a partial tear. Larry Johnson was also hobbled with a bad knee.

Meanwhile, the Spurs got a scare from the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, with rugged big men Rasheed Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis complementing backcourt mates Damon Stoudamire and Isaiah Rider.

San Antonio eked out a Game 1 victory at home, but by the third quarter of Game 2, the Spurs were trailing by 18 points on their own floor.

“I knew what all the Spurs fans were thinking,” Elliott says. “It was, ‘Here they go again. They’re going to let us down …'”

Instead, San Antonio chipped away, closing the gap by feeding their two big men on the block, and riding the hot shooting of Elliott.

“Portland had an insane amount of talent,” Budenholzer says. “Most people don’t remember we were down big. If a visiting team wins one, they feel like it is their series.”

With nine seconds left and the Spurs down two, Popovich instructed Elie to inbound the ball to either Kerr or Elliott, who would immediately find Robinson in the post. But when the ball came to Elliott in the corner, “All I could see was the basket,” he admits. “Throwing the ball inside didn’t occur to me.”

Elliott’s normal pregame routine was to shoot 25 3-pointers from around the arc. That night, he hit 23 of the 25, and the two he missed rattled in and out. During the course of the game, Elliott hit five of his first six 3s, with one rimming out just as it had in pregame. “I went to the bench late in the fourth quarter and told the guys, ‘I’ve got at least one more 3 in me,'” Elliott says.

As Elliott rose on his toes to release his tightrope corner jumper, heels elevated over the out-of-bounds line, Wallace frantically lunged to alter the shot.

“If Rasheed had jumped an inch higher,” Elie says, “he would have blocked that thing.”

The shot, known as the Memorial Day Miracle, was not even the most incredible phenomenon that day — it was the fact that Elliott was on the court at all. He suffered from a chronic kidney condition and, after taking a blood test following the win, was informed his creatinine levels were at 7.5. His surgeon told him the normal level for a person his age was somewhere between 1.2 and 1.3.

Elliott finished the Finals against an underdog Knicks team and underwent a kidney transplant six weeks later.

“What I remember about San Antonio was how dominant they were after the first 12 or 14 games,” Van Gundy says. “They just rolled people.”

The Spurs dispatched the Knicks in five games. Duncan was named Finals MVP after dominating inside, averaging 27.4 points, 14 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. He also logged 45.5 minutes per night.

“I wish Pop found religion on load management a few years sooner,” Van Gundy says. “Then maybe he would have sat Duncan once in a while in that series.”

THE ASTERISK DEBATE has dogged the Spurs for years because of the shortened season and the Knicks’ injuries, with an amused Jackson often fueling the fire.

Taking the 1999 season off after a sixth and final championship with Chicago, Jackson commented that March that there wouldn’t be “a real NBA champion — just one that is tainted. … I’m just glad we stopped one year short of maybe the team’s fullest potential because this year is going to be an asterisk anyway.”

Robinson was so incensed about it that in 2000 that when Jackson was the Western Conference All-Star coach and attempted to greet Robinson during the customary pregame introductions, the stone-faced big man sprinted past without acknowledging Jackson.

“That’s just Phil,” sighs Kerr, who remains friendly with his former Chicago Bulls coach. “When he first mentioned the asterisk, I just rolled my eyes, because I knew his game.

“He likes to provoke, to get under people’s skin. He was poking the Spurs because they were a threat.”

Van Gundy doesn’t waste much time wondering what it would have been like had Ewing and Johnson stayed healthy. He concedes the Spurs were the superior team. He doesn’t believe they — or the 2020 champion — should be saddled with an asterisk.

But, he adds, “Whoever does win this championship, I don’t look at it as a continuation of 2019-20.

“This is a completely different thing. This is Bubble-palooza. How you qualify for the playoffs is different. You have play-in games, the schedule is different, there’s no home-court advantage.”

Van Gundy still believes the best team will win in 2020, and he believes that team is Milwaukee. Budenholzer sees one key difference between then and now: the ability to talk and collaborate with his players throughout the stoppage. For all the social distancing and separation, his players have stayed in as close communication as ever.

“There’s a connectivity that we’ve been able to maintain that we couldn’t in ’99,” Budenholzer says, “because we weren’t allowed to talk with the players during the lockout.”

The Bucks will officially resume their quest for the championship next week, with the future of Antetokounmpo — and therefore the franchise — potentially hanging in the balance. Budenholzer is revved about the restart, with no qualms about how others perceive this unusual NBA season.

After all, the last time he was affiliated with a team that was threatened with an asterisk, it was the springboard to a dynasty.

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