MIAMI -- While plenty of folks were cursing the Heat, spitting on their method of building a team, screaming about the unfairness of it all and shaking a fist at the welcome party the threw for themselves in the Summer of Hate, 2010, team president Pat Riley heard his phone ring and was stunned that the voice on the other end was friendly.
"He put a team together fairly, within the rules, that is a monster," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "Why wouldn't he get credit for that? Why wouldn't you congratulate him for that? So I called to congratulate him."
It wasn't much of a surprise that Popovich was the only NBA executive to reach out to Riley. Popovich, in a sense, could relate. Back in 1996-97, when he took over the Spurs, he heard a share of whining and complaining, too. The Spurs endured a dreadful season because of a back injury to David Robinson, fell into the draft lottery, and came away with the first pick. That pick became Tim Duncan, giving Popovich a pair of game-changing big men and a chance to be a contender for the next few decades. There was no shortage of those who bellyached and thought it was a cruel joke. One was Rick Pitino, who took the Celtics job believing he had a tremendous chance of getting Duncan. Whoops.
In the cases of Miami and San Antonio, a championship formula was born, and this 2013 NBA Finals matchup became possible. The Spurs drafted their three main players, one with the first overall pick and added two more later in the first round and in the second round. Miami found two A-list free agents and put them with a former NBA Finals MVP. A pair of teams are bringing a Big Three in this series, each formed a different way, and now 28 other teams in a copycat league are busy conducting their own star search, times three.
But those others will soon learn that uniting three future Hall of Famers is actually the easy part. The hard part is finding three who are willing to make major concessions in terms of money, visibility, ego and personal statistics, all for a common cause. That's what allowed the Spurs to stay together for 12 years and counting, and what has made the Heat the league's most dominant team of the last three years.
"We all came together for this," said Chris Bosh. "This makes it all worthwhile, the chance to win multiple championships. Otherwise, it would never work. It never would have happened."
Popovich and the Spurs are fortunate that Duncan, a laid-back guy from the islands, came into the NBA with the kind of maturity and baggage-free approach you don't often see with rookies. Everyone has an ego, and Duncan is no different. But his ego doesn't need to be fed by commercial endorsements and magazine covers and sneaker sales and by what the public thinks. He's not insecure that way, not wired that way. In a sense, he was 35 years old even when he was 22.
"As far as personal accolades and legacy, it doesn't even enter his mind," said Popovich. "It's who he is. He just plays the game. Anything that's put to him in an accolades sort of way, that's not something he spends time thinking about."
This makeup transformed the organization. It's why Duncan stayed with the Spurs when he had two chances to leave as a free agent. The big city never held much intrigue to him, and more visibility certainly wasn't something he pursued, either then or now. For example, Duncan looks at LeBron James and shakes his head.
"I'm glad I don't have that kind of pressure on me," he said.
Also, for someone largely considered that best power forward of his generation, if not all time, Duncan has never been the game's highest-paid player. Each time his contract had to be renewed, he worked with the medium-market Spurs to make sure they'd have enough funds to surround him with the right amount of help. Once again, winning was the priority with Duncan, not being the highest-paid. There's no way the Spurs can function with a $100 million payroll or have one player swallowing up the salary cap by making upwards of $30 million, like Kobe Bryant on the Lakers.
Look at what happened in Oklahoma City. The Thunder beat the Spurs to win the West last year, but James Harden wanted to get paid. They couldn't afford him without paying a steep luxury tax bill, so they traded him and went from a Big Three to a Big Two and a Half. Oklahoma City is roughly the same market size as San Antonio, but the Spurs don't have those issues because their three are all about sacrifice.
Therefore, when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili arrived, the atmosphere was already set. They saw Duncan, the centerpiece of the organization, unspoiled and totally focused on winning, and how could they not fall in line?
Ginobili made sacrifices by being the sixth man throughout his prime and never making a big deal out of not hearing his name called with the starters. Parker grew upset only once, when the Spurs tried to sign Jason Kidd, but otherwise was willing to operate behind Duncan until the last few years, when Duncan pulled Parker to the front of the line.
"I've got a great example in Timmy, who has been unbelievable all these years," Parker said. "I want to do the same thing. I want to try to improve my game. As the responsibility and the ball comes into my hands more, I'll try to do more and try to deliver."
Bosh said the unification of three franchise players isn't as simple as it looks. There are times, he said, when he misses being the focal point, when Wade would love the amount of touches LeBron gets. But they're winning and therefore, who cares? They don't, at least not as much.
LeBron left money on the table in Cleveland to come to Miami. That little factoid was summarily dismissed by the public when he was accused of being self-centered. Same with Bosh in Toronto. And when those two arrived, Wade couldn't take max money. On the court, all three had to adjust to each other and Bosh, more than Wade and LeBron, surrendered the role he had with the Raptors and turned into more of a support player offensively.
Also, all three absorbed the public abuse dumped on them, when they could've just stayed with their original teams and spared themselves all the fuss. But the opportunity to unite and win multiple championships was too intoxicating, and that's why concessions were made.
"We can't concern ourselves with what people on the outside say about our team," Wade said. "It's the nature of the beast, part of the world we live in. I think our team has been pretty decent in our three years together. We're doing something right."
They didn't use the same blueprint, but the Spurs and Heat are getting the same results. Even more, they're mutual admirers, which happens when you're members of a very exclusive club. Not many teams right now can throw out a Big Three, and those who could were unable to reach the NBA Finals this season.
"It's incredible, for them to have pretty much the same core all these years," Wade said of the Spurs. "They just show the resilience of a franchise and of individual players to get to this point again. There's a lot of respect for those guys to do it every year with the same core."
The Heat and Spurs know what it took to reach this point, the placing aside of egos, the sacrifices made and the fixation on the big picture. These Finals will have six Hall of Famers whose greatest achievements have come as teammates. That's not easily done in the age of greed and need. That's the good news.
And here's the better news: A number of players, and 28 other teams, will be watching this series and taking notes.