Cavs consider San Antonio a franchise worth emulating
SAN ANTONIO — All the relationships that exist between the Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs would probably best be explained with a basketball tree.
The branches extend everywhere as the teams prepare for Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight at 9 at the AT&T Center.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich played for Cavaliers assistant Hank Egan at the Air Force Academy.
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown played for Egan at San Diego State University.
Brown worked as an assistant for Popovich in San Antonio in 2001-02 and 2002-03, with the Spurs winning an NBA championship in ’03.
Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry played for Popovich when San Antonio won its title in ’03, when Brown was an assistant, then was in the front office when the Spurs won it all again in 2004-05.
Ferry learned from San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford, who still gets great latitude from Spurs owner Peter Holt, just as Ferry now does from Dan Gilbert in Cleveland.
“This is definitely a model franchise,” Brown said of the Spurs on Wednesday afternoon. “We can’t be the Spurs because it’s too hard to be somebody else, but we definitely took from the things they’ve done.
“It’s a fantastic organization from top to bottom.”
The Cavaliers continue to take from the Spurs — the teams’ offensive and defensive play calls are similar — but Brown and Popovich have temporarily suspended their frequent talks while their teams compete in the finals.
Not so Carolyn Brown and Erin Popovich, who got together not long after the Cavaliers landed in San Antonio on Tuesday evening.
“Mike was and still is very special to me,” Gregg Popovich said.
“Personally and professionally, he was fantastic. He contributed a lot to our program. He had a lot of great ideas.
“I enjoyed being around him and his family. When it was time for him to move on, we lost a good one and we knew that. He’ll always be a favorite of ours.”
When the subject turned to Ferry, Popovich contorted his face in mock dismay.
“What was his last name? Ferry? Danny Ferry?” he asked with a smile. “He was here a month or so. I can’t really remember what he did.”
Popovich then turned serious, making it clear he holds Ferry in as high a regard as Brown.
“When Danny decided to retire (from playing in 2003), we wanted to do anything we could to keep him here,” Popovich said. “We told him he could have whatever job he wanted. ‘Do you want to coach? Do you want to manage? We’ve got to keep you here. You’ve got to stay.’”
Ferry stayed, but only until the Cavaliers came calling in the summer of 2005.
“It was exciting to be a part of (the Spurs organization),” Ferry said. “It made me want to stay in basketball and be a part of it.
“I understood it was important to hire high-character people. It made me realize the importance of being a top defensive team and paying attention to details.”
Brown left San Antonio in 2003 and spent two seasons with the Indiana Pacers before becoming Cleveland’s head coach, but he still makes frequent references to the Spurs and the man he calls “Pop.”
“His people skills are off the charts,” Brown said, launching into a story about how the San Antonio coach not only knows the names of a great many people in the organization, but also a lot about their lives.
“He understands the balance between real life and basketball. This is not life and death. He helped put in my head what those guys did in World War II, Vietnam and Iraq. I look up to him as a coach and a man.”
To hear Popovich tell it, his success has simply been a product of having great people around him.
“We’ll take credit for hiring good people,” he said. “After that, the credit goes to them for what they’ve done.
“When David Robinson is followed by Tim Duncan, your main job is not to screw that up. A lot of people would have liked to have had that opportunity.”
Popovich, the Spurs’ coach for all three of their titles (the other came in 1999), also credited Holt for hiring the right people at the top, then letting those people do their jobs.
“We’ve done whatever we’ve wanted to do for a decade,” he said. “That is an unequivocal fact. When you have an owner like that, you have a pretty good situation. Just don’t screw it up.”
Gilbert’s reign in Cleveland didn’t start quite as smoothly, but he quickly faded into the background and let Ferry and Brown run the basketball side of the organization.
With the 37-year-old Cavaliers earning their first trip to the NBA Finals in Ferry and Brown’s second year with the franchise, a lot of people have started referring to the organization’s first-class way of doing things as “Spurs West.”
“We’re not ready for that comparison,” Ferry said. “They’ve won multiple championships.”
While the Cavaliers didn’t even have a conference championship to their credit until Saturday, Ferry does concede there are San Antonio “fingerprints” on his team.
But, close friends with members of the Spurs or not, Ferry and Brown would much rather leave footprints on San Antonio’s backside as the Cavaliers march to an NBA championship.
“He’s out to kick my butt; I’m out to kick his butt,” Brown said of Popovich. “I don’t care who I’m going against. I want to win for the guys in that locker room, the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio. I don’t care who it is. It doesn’t make it tough at all.”
The way Ferry smiles when he thinks about the possibility of beating the Spurs, one gets the distinct impression defeating his former organization might actually be better than beating a lifetime enemy.
“I can promise you Pop wants to kick our butts and vice versa,” he said. “Teams don’t get to the finals too often.”
Contact Rick Noland may be reached at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: Clevelandat San Antonio
TIME: 9 o’clock
WHERE: AT&T Center, San Antonio
TV/RADIO: Channel 5; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM