It happens all the time to Gregg Popovich. He's on the road, worn out after a game, and he just wants to relax. But when he climbs onto the team bus, he can't hear himself think over the din of players yapping on their cells. It sounds a little like the Tower of Babel in there. "Speak English or get off the damn phone," the Spurs coach yells.
He's kidding, of course. After all, Popovich is the head honcho responsible for this most-successful hoops hodgepodge. San Antonio entered the season with six foreign-born players who came from five different countries and spoke eight different tongues. And as one of the most international pro teams in the world, the Spurs are a model for the going-global plans of commissioner David Stern, who in February announced he'd like to put five franchises in Europe over the next decade.
When The Mag hatched, a decade ago, Popovich was in his first full season as skipper of the Spurs—a team that had never made the Finals. Four titles later, no major pro team can claim more rings during that span. And few can claim more diversity. "He really trusts foreign players," says guard Manu Ginobili. To understand why, look no further than GP's CV.
The grandson of Serbian immigrants, Popovich majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy. He then spent the early 1970s touring Europe with the Armed Forces team. "I couldn't believe how many great players were over there," says the former guard. In 1988, after landing his first NBA coaching gig as a Spurs assistant under Larry Brown, Popovich convinced the front office to let him scout the world championships in Cologne, Germany. He and Warriors coach Don Nelson—the only other league exec who showed up—sat wide-eyed as they watched a Yugoslav dream team that featured Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc. Popovich was taken by the Euros' low-maintenance, hardworking, fundamentally sound game. "You didn't have to be a genius to know these guys could play in the NBA," he says. "I was like a kid in a candy store."
So when he became the Spurs' head man, in 1997, Popovich went all Willy Wonka. During his tenure, 10 of San Antonio's 15 draft picks have come from somewhere other than the 50 states. Tim Duncan was first, the No. 1 overall choice in 1997 and a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Next came Ginobili, an Argentine and Italian League MVP, who was plucked in 1999's second round and brought over three years later. Tony Parker (Belgium) starred in the French League before Pop picked him in 2001, and Ginobili's Argentine countryman Fabricio Oberto followed in 2005. The Spurs signed the since-traded Francisco Elson (Netherlands) in 2006 and added forward Ian Mahinmi (France) this season.
"It's like the United Nations," says Spurs assistant Brett Brown, a 14-year veteran of the Aussie pro league. And that doesn't even take into account California native Bruce Bowen, who is married to a Cuban woman and is fluent in Spanish.
The man who makes it mesh speaks Russian, chastises his charges in Serbian and has a playbook that includes an offensive set called Paris University. Popovich is dedicated to pushing his team's boundaries. Literally. In the summer of 2005, while on a Basketball Without Borders trip to Argentina, he accompanied Ginobili to his hometown of Bahía Blanca. That fall, Popovich held training camp in St. Thomas, near Duncan's birthplace. The following year it was in Parker's adopted country of France, where Yanks Michael Finley and Brent Barry returned last summer for Parker's wedding. Says Parker: "We're like a family."
Of course, like most families, the defending champs have their disagreements, especially when it comes to mealtime. Who decides where the team chows down? The guy they call Pop, naturally. "If I go to a French place, Tim Duncan's not going," says the coach. "If I go Italian, Timmy and the Argentines will go, but some of the others won't." The compromise? "Seafood usually works best."
After a road game, the players in most locker rooms scatter like cockroaches exposed to light. But you're more likely to find the Spurs—win or lose—gathered around a table for 12 at your friendly neighborhood Oceanaire talking politics and religion.
Occasionally, they can even understand each other.