Over the past 30 years, Maccabi Tel Aviv has come up against a fair number of great basketball teams - Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow of the 1970s, Tracer Milano and Yugoplastika Split of the 1980s, and Panathinaikos and Olympiacos of the 1990s. Maccabi has even battled it out with a reigning NBA champion once - the Washington Bullets, in 1978; but it has never before stepped onto the court to face a team of the quality it will meet this evening in Paris (live on 5+, 16:00). With three championship wins in the last seven years, one can safely count the San Antonio Spurs among the top teams in the history of the NBA.
No, the Spurs don't have the sex appeal of Magic's Lakers, Bird's Celtics, Michael's Bulls or even the Shaq-Kobi Lakers era; they are a quiet force, a rare combination of sorts of quality and stability, stemming from the presence of Tim Duncan.
Duncan is the least popular mega-star in the history of basketball, and he may not even be a mega-star at all; after all, his face doesn't appear on magazine covers and billboards, and he is hardly quoted in the press. Duncan isn't flashy - neither as an individual nor as a player, and his stable, solid performances out on the court are in keeping with his quiet, contemplative nature. No wonder Shaq dubbed him "The Big Fundamental," while Charles Barkley's "Groundhog Day" label sounds pretty accurate, too.
Because that's Duncan - a clerk who reports for work every day and does his job in the most fundamental and thorough way possible. And this is what one can expect this evening, too, when Duncan comes up against an unknown opponent that goes by the name of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Popovich repels superlatives
And if you like, Gregg Popovich is "the Tim Duncan of coaches." Going all the way back to the start of the NBA, one would be hard pressed to find as successful a coach who has won such limited esteem. Don't get me wrong, the Spurs coach is held in high regard, but coaches who have achieved far less have won a lot more recognition. With his quiet - yet cynical and sarcastic - manner, Popovich simply repels superlatives.
Popovich, the son of Serbian immigrants, grew up in Indiana and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at the age of 18. During his four years at the Air Force Academy, he busied himself with Soviet studies and starring on the basketball team. After spending five years in Eastern Europe, he decided to return home and devote his life to his first love - basketball.
While studying for a master's degree in sports sciences, he served for six years as assistant coach for the U.S. Air Force's basketball team; he spent the eight years thereafter as coach of Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, California; and then, in 1988, his breakthrough into the big time came with his appointment as assistant to the Spurs' Larry Brown.
After a stint as assistant to Don Nelson at the Golden State Warriors, Popovich was appointed Spurs general manager in 1994, making his most significant decision in the position two years later, when he axed Brian Hill and named himself coach of the team.
During Popovich's initial years as coach, his military experience may have helped him build a team that functioned as a clearly defined hierarchical system - Duncan as chief of staff, David Robinson in the role of the air force, Avery Johnson as the foot soldier, Malik Rose as the armored corps, and Steve Kerr and Stephen Jackson as the long-range missiles.
In 1999, Popovich's army won the NBA championship, but the coach knew that some of his soldiers were getting on in years, and it was time to recruit fresh blood - and he did so with brilliant draft picks in the form of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and the signing of Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry. The four, along with Duncan of course, gave Popovich another two championships, in 2003 and 2005, with the latter coming against his close friend and former commander, Larry Brown and the Detroit Pistons.
Over the past few years, Popovich has been nurturing a young and talented Croatian coach, Neven Spahija, who has been joining the Spurs coaching staff in the summer league every July. One can safely assume that this evening, Popovich will not want the Maccabi coach to embarrass him as he did Brown last year.
The love of a small Texan town
While Maccabi will be representing "the State of Israel and all the Jews of the Diaspora," this evening, its opponent will be playing only for a small Texan town. But don't get me wrong: The love the Spurs players are afforded in San Antonio falls no short of the love the yellows have in Tel Aviv.
San Antonio's love affair with the Spurs can be put down to three main reasons:
b It is the only professional sports team in San Antonio.
b The team is a very successful one.
b The Spurs place much emphasis on community activity, and most of the players on the team have charities that support the weaker members of the town's population.
Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether even the most ardent Spurs fan will give a hoot if his team loses this afternoon in Paris; for the Maccabi fans, however, a victory over Popovich, Duncan and Co. would remain etched in memory until the end of days.