MIAMI – Before LeBron James could turn the corner into the interview room, the young Cleveland Cavaliers star found himself face-to-face with history's greatest power forward. Tim Duncan reached out, grabbed James' shoulder and expressed a measure of gratefulness for letting a thirtysomething star secure his fourth championship.
"The league is going to be yours soon," Duncan told James.
Six years later, James has traded Boobie Gibson and Larry Hughes for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Cleveland for Miami. Six years later, the league does belong to LeBron James, but somehow Duncan and these timeless San Antonio Spurs await him again. Somehow, the Spurs make time stand still.
Beyond James' upgrade of supporting cast and coach, he promised something else late Monday night at the American Airlines Arena: "I'm a much better player – 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the '07 Finals."
James is completely transformed, a historical talent at the apex of his genius. Another Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals, and another unforgettable performance in this 99-76 obliteration of the Indiana Pacers: 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Finally, Wade played the part of the MVP's understudy and the Heat are onto the Finals for a third straight season, onto the Spurs.
Miami and San Antonio represent two diametrically different models, but standards of greatness within the NBA. Committed ownership that gives autonomy to two of the best management teams in sports, letting them construct environments where great players want to come as free agents; where great players are drafted, want to stay and ultimately thrive.
The Spurs are chasing a fifth championship, a forever legacy in a sport where core staying power grows increasingly transient. Who would've ever imagined that the Big 3 could come and go before the Spurs ever deconstruct its core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili?
Free agency looms for Miami in 2014, and it's chasing consecutive championships with no promises of a second act here.
"We're not young," James said on Monday night. "We're not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have."
On the night when they raised the Spurs' fourth championship banner of the Duncan era in late October of 2007, Spurs owner Peter Holt and I were discussing the demise of the Chicago Bulls and Shaq-Kobe Lakers dynasties. Holt left little mystery over whether he would ever have the desire to start on a course of rebuilding with Duncan and Ginobili pushing into their 30s.
"I'm not going to do it," Holt insisted that night. "We're all going to die together."
Only they keep going and going, those aging stars supported with a constant regeneration of supporting talent. All these years later, some things never changed with the Spurs: In a league where executives who've accomplished nothing in the NBA act like they have all the answers, like this is easy, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford – the best of them all – remains humbled and relentlessly searching for a smarter way to conduct his business. No one's won more, yet Buford studies and learns and seeks knowledge as though his franchise has never won at all.
Six years ago, Popovich had won his fourth title and still refused to ever do a self-help book, an endorsement, a celebration of himself.
"Listen, it's a player's league," Popovich told me on the eve of his last banner raising. "I think it's very important for a coach to make sure that his players believe 100 percent – and not with lip service – that it's about them. Coaches are going to do everything they can to create that environment for them. It's not about creating an environment for us. It's a privilege to be able to coach these guys. We make enough money."
"The other stuff is just a waste of time as far as talking about quality of life."
In 2010, the first – and maybe only – competitor to call Riley and congratulate him on his historic free-agent coup: Gregg Popovich. If Popovich is the antithesis of Riley – author of "The Winner Within" and father of the modern corporate jock speech for fistfuls of cash – Popovich has a kindred spirit in Erik Spoelstra. These Heat have melded into far more of the young coach's image than that of his emperor boss.
There's a reason you never see Spoelstra in television and print ads, never read or see long sit-down interviews and magazine spreads. Spoelstra turns them all down.
His reps don't bother to bring most of it to him, because they know Spoelstra's answer: It's about the players, not me. Ever since James and Chris Bosh came into his coaching life, Spoelstra has treated the job in a way that Riley never had the selflessness to do himself. Riles always wanted to be a bigger-than-life figure in the sport, an icon in which the way his greatest players were.
Spoelstra absorbed all the coaching genius of Riley, but his sensibilities are far more aligned with Popovich. When the summer of 2014 comes, Spoelstra could be a free agent and a franchise will make him one of the highest paid coaches in the NBA. Perhaps it'll be the Heat, or perhaps he'll be testing free agency too.
For now, Spoelstra and Popovich understand that these Finals promise to be a privilege to coach and compete within: Great franchises, great management, and most of all, great players.
Six years later, Tim Duncan turns the corner and there's LeBron James waiting for him again. This time, James comes back for Duncan and the Spurs with better teammates, a better coach and a far better self. The league does belong to LeBron James, yes, but it also belongs to the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. Greatness endures, and now it finally meets in these NBA Finals.
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