NBA bubble asterisk? The champion ’99 Spurs say it shouldn’t exist


MILWAUKEE BUCKS COACH Mike Budenholzer would like to know what constitutes the antonym of asterisk. If such a word exists, he says, that’s what should be attached to whichever team wins the 2020 NBA championship under such unusual circumstances.

It’s also, he argues, what should be affixed to the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, who endured a season shortened by a lockout, then culminated in the franchise’s first title. Some critics tried to undermine the team winning it all by saying doing so in a partially compromised season should necessitate an asterisk in the history books. Budenholzer, then an assistant coach on that San Antonio team, sees it the opposite way.

“We were on the precipice of going off a cliff,” he says, “but then we won a championship. You couldn’t make up the things that happened. It was a crazy year.”

San Antonio’s journey saw a head coach clawing for his job just 23 days into the season; a fiery players-only session on a bus in Houston hours before tipoff; a clandestine meeting called by the aforementioned coach-under-siege at his home with his two most trusted veterans; a nine-game winning streak that signified the passing of the torch from one legendary big man to the next; and a clutch, corner-tippy-toe jumper in the playoffs by a player who should have been on dialysis at the time.

Asterisks are being thrown around again because some noted pundits — Shaquille O’Neal among them — argue the 2020 NBA winner should be tagged with one, providing the Orlando bubble holds and teams are able to complete this bizarre 2019-20 season. Those statements generated pushback from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who contends, “This is gonna be the toughest championship you could ever win.” Nearly every coach in the bubble affirms the sentiment: There should be no asterisk.

The renewed debate has stirred emotions for the Spurs, who objected to Phil Jackson famously declaring — more than once — that the 1999 title deserved that asterisk moniker. They still bristle at anyone’s attempts to dilute their accomplishments.

“It completely ignores all the hard work we put in that season,” former Spurs point guard Avery Johnson says. “What’s most disappointing about Phil’s asterisk statement was not so much the first time he said it, but five or seven years later when he felt the need to regurgitate it, after Pop had won his second ring.

“It was just so disrespectful. I think the real asterisk was when Phil was president of the Knicks.”

Keep in mind that in 1999, the Spurs weren’t “THE SPURS” yet. Gregg Popovich was in only his second full season as the team’s head coach and had posted a 73-73 career mark, not yet fully formed as a Hall of Fame leader and the social conscience of the league. Tim Duncan was in his second season, a quiet emerging superstar who liked nothing more than to sequester himself in his room and play the video game version of Battleship. No one lauded the Spurs’ culture as a model of professionalism and integrity because that culture was under construction, with the real possibility the whole project could be scrapped at any moment.

“When you consider everything,” says Sean Elliott, one of the stars of that San Antonio team, “how could anyone even think about an asterisk?”

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WHEN HE TOOK the controversial step of firing Bob Hill on Dec. 10, 1996, and naming himself head coach, Popovich was still San Antonio’s general manager. But after drafting Duncan and surging to a 56-26 season in 1997-98, San Antonio fell 4-1 in the Western Conference semifinals to Utah, putting Popovich’s job at risk.

“People don’t understand Pop was genuinely doing both jobs back then,” Budenholzer says. “[Current Spurs CEO] R.C. [Buford] wasn’t the R.C. that we all know and love yet. Pop was drawing up defenses while he was on the phone with Mark Bartelstein negotiating contracts.”



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