Much is made of the San Antonio Spurs’ positive organizational “culture”. What it means, and how hard it is to obtain.
It can mean different things to different people. In general, the word “culture” refers to a certain type of enriching environment. Here’s what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has to say:
Full Definition of culture
2: the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
3: expert care and training <beauty culture>
4 a : enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
b : acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
5 a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time <popular culture> <southern culture>
c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization <a corporate culture focused on the bottom line>
d : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic <studying the effect of computers on print culture><changing the culture of materialism will take time — Peggy O’Mara>
In the NBA–and even among the other American major professional sports franchises — the San Antonio Spurs are synonymous with “culture”. The “Spurs Way” has been instilled from top to bottom within the Spurs organization for over 20 years. It is a direct reflection of the values of the past and present team majority owners, Peter Holt and Julianna Hawn Holt, respectively.
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While the Spurs culture is markedly different from the way most NBA teams are operated, there’s no denying the results: a team value of $1.1 billion (#11 on the 2015-16 Forbes list); five national championships; multiple division championships; multiple league MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and rosters full of past and future Hall-of-Fame locks. And a head coach that has the longest tenure among active coaches in the entire league.
The Spurs Way is so highly regarded that an increasing number of NBA teams are making pointed moves to elevate their teams to the Spurs’ level in all ways–and it’s happening as head coach Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree continues to grow across the league.
The Golden State Warriors, who won their first championship in 40 years last season, boast a both a former Spurs player and assistant coach in head coach Steve Kerr, who won two championships with the Spurs.
Kerr has made no bones about implementing Spurs plays for Golden State, and the pass-first mentality is what helped deliver the Larry O’Brien trophy to the Bay Area.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers is an unabashed Spurs admirer and even keeps a quote from Popovich in his phone for reference and inspiration. Multiple members of the Warriors roster have paid respect to their predecessors, noting that they not just trying to be like the Spurs, but are trying to be the Spurs.
“That’s why they’re legends, or why they’re going to be legends when they’re done,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry told Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a lot about the tone and atmosphere and expectations that they set. When you wear a Spurs uniform, you better be ready to elevate your game to their level. That’s the most impressive thing.…They’re the standard.”
The Brooklyn Nets, who have been a high-priced laughingstock of the league ever since they shed their blue-collar roots and relocated from the Garden State in 2012, hired Sean Marks as their GM and Kenny Atkinson as their head coach.
Marks was the former assistant GM (under RC Buford) for the Spurs, and Atkinson was an assistant coach under Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who himself was an assistant coach under Popovich for 20 years.
It’s no stretch to figure that the Nets will try to sprinkle a bit of Spurs fairy dust on their underachieving franchise in the hopes of gaining some respectability.
A lot draws from the military experiences of both Holt (U.S. Army) and Popovich (U. S. Air Force). The military is all about accountability, teamwork and merit-based promotion and recognition–the staples of the Silver and Black.
Popovich said it best:
"“A synergy has to form between the owner, whoever his president is, whoever the GM is, whoever the coach is. There’s got to be a synergy where there’s a trust. There (are) no walls. There is no territory. Everything is discussed. Everything is fair game. Criticism is welcome, and when you have that, then you have a hell of an organization.“That free flow through all those people is what really makes it work. And that includes everything from draft to Os and Xs. Nothing should be left to one area – only to the president, only to the GM, only to the coach – or the culture just doesn’t form. At least that’s what’s worked for us.”"
Sounds simple enough.
Or maybe not. The NBA has always catered to the superstar players and encouraged their marquee ways in order to sell not just regular tickets, but also the more lucrative executive boxes, season ticket packages, and courtside seats.
Infamous teams–not just players–had their own monikers, like the “Showtime Lakers.” Glitz and glamour have always been a glittery thread woven through the alleged blue-collar, work-for-reward ethic of the league.
The new NBA is quite different. Players are more aware than ever of their “brand” and are encouraged to cultivate it as early as their youth AAU teams.
They aren’t solely reliant upon league salaries to live anymore; indeed, product endorsements pay more than the NBA ever will, even if the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement renegotiation manages to recoup the players’ union’s losses during the 2011 CBA. The bigger the personality (which extends to social media), the bigger the endorsement dollars.
Being “lit,” as the young ones say (insert your “fire” emojis here), is becoming more important than assimilating into a culture that deliberately suppresses the individual in favor of the collective (even though team sports are, by definition, supposed to be about the team, but I digress.).
Curry once said that people try to copy the Warriors but “won’t have the personnel”, and he’s correct. The same used to be said of the Spurs, but now the Spurs personnel are leaving to set up their own shops elsewhere in the league (and even in college). This can only help a league that is ever more concerned about its entertainment value and winning five minutes ago, than culture-building.
Even if a team implements The Spurs Way, it’s all for naught if it’s done for the wrong reasons. From boosting the bottom line to the more simplistic needing to be better than everyone, those that try to copy the Spurs solely as a means of league advancement are doomed to failure.
The beauty of the Spurs culture is that it’s been developed from the inside out. Without the proper personnel — the people who can embody this culture and make it work for themselves and others — it won’t work. And the league will be the worse for it.