Spurs journeymen savor title journey

Many go a long way to grasp championship

June 27, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- He sat on the podium, an NBA championship hat on his head. And as he answered questions, with a wide grin on his face, David Robinson recalled his MVP season of 1995, when many expected the San Antonio Spurs to win the NBA title.

"I remember sitting in the Houston arena after Game 6 [of the Western Conference finals] and hearing that tickets for the NBA Finals would go on sale," Robinson recalled. "That was a low moment."

The Spurs reached their NBA high on Friday night, winning the Finals in five games with a 78-77 win over the host New York Knicks. After partying into early yesterday, the Spurs returned later in the day to San Antonio, where this week they will ride boats down the RiverWalk in their version of a parade.

It's been a long, long journey for the Spurs, who in 1976 were one of four teams from the old American Basketball Association to make the cut into the NBA. From those days the team earned a strong following from fans as the only pro sports team in town. And those fans erupted in downtown San Antonio after the team captured the title.

"A lot of those people have been through a whole lot with us," said Spurs forward Sean Elliott. "And the people that really stuck by us, they deserve a piece of this trophy. We've had our ups and downs. It's been an agonizing wait."

And it's been a most difficult journey for a lot of key players: Avery Johnson, who hit the game-winning shot on Friday, has played with five NBA teams and is in his third stint with the Spurs. Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire once said that the Spurs would never get to the Finals with Johnson at the point. Not only did he get to the Finals, he won a ring.

"My whole life should be a big example to a lot of people out there, it's been an example of just not really giving up" Johnson said. "I've been cut on Christmas Eve, the Spurs cut me on David Robinson's wedding day -- after I was in the wedding. It's just unbelievable sitting up here [as a champion]."

Elliott is in his second stint with the Spurs, after the team traded him to Detroit in exchange for Dennis Rodman. Just completing his 10th season, Elliott was re-acquired by the Spurs the following year.

Jaren Jackson has played for eight NBA teams in nine seasons, including in Washington, where he played 75 games during the 1996-97 season. Jackson also has played in the CBA (where he won two titles) and the WBL. He's the first Georgetown product to win an NBA title.

"I have been cut a lot, but I appreciate all of those experiences," said Jackson, who hit five three-pointers and scored 17 points in the Game 1 win. "I thought a lot of the decisions made about me were unfair, but I never stopped believing."

Mario Elie, another longtime journeyman in minor leagues and foreign leagues, was coming off two titles with the Houston Rockets. After Elie signed as a free agent with San Antonio before the season, he was criticized by Charles Barkley for not caring the previous season.

Elie lit a fire under Tim Duncan and Robinson after the team's 6-8 start, ripping the two for their "soft" play.

"I'm going to keep proving people wrong," Elie said. "Houston already knows what I did, I kissed them off during the season with a three-pointer and left it at that. And now they're home watching me get another ring. I got three rings. I'm ahead of a lot of people right now."

With all those components, this title would not have been possible without the two towers on the front line -- Duncan and Robinson.

For years many have wondered who would step up as the best player after Michael Jordan's retirement. That label goes to the second-year man, Duncan, who has been named first-team All-NBA in both of his seasons and capped San Antonio's championship run with MVP honors in the Finals. Duncan played all but 11 minutes in the Finals.

"In a word: special," is how Elie described Duncan. "I never played with a second-year player like him. The guy's a special talent. Hopefully he'll be around San Antonio the rest of his career."

And Robinson's the player almost everybody spoke about after the win. He's been criticized for being soft, for being too nice, for not having a passion for the game. He got abused by Hakeem Olajuwon during the 1995 playoffs, and was physically manhandled by Karl Malone in the 1998 playoffs.

Now, the Naval Academy product is a champion.

"It's a joy, man," Robinson said. "Worth every minute of the journey.

"If this was easy, it really wouldn't be worth that journey," he added. "You go through all those hard times, then you're finally able to get it done. It's satisfying."

Longest waits

With San Antonio winning the NBA title on Friday, David Robinson is now tied for third on the all-time list for playing the most seasons before winning a championship:

Player (First title) Season

Jerry West (1972) 12th

Nate Archibald (1981) 11th

O. Robertson (1971) 10th

D. Robinson (1999) 10th

H. Olajuwon (1994) 10th

Elvin Hayes (1978) 10th

Wes Unseld (1978) 10th

Jerry Lucas (1974) 10th

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