Wednesday, Popovich, general manager R.C. Buford and owner Peter Holt witnessed a high-profile divorce from a much closer seat. They could not save a celebrity union, but a 103-94 victory against the exhausted Chicago Bulls confirmed and validated their preservation of something much greater than TMZ fodder.
Eva Longoria and Tony Parker's all-too-public separation has nothing to do with basketball, except that the Frenchman plays for the Spurs and the TV star has often appeared at his games. The San Antonio front office mastered the art of disavowing pomp and circumstance and distractions long ago. Surviving this latest public relations slip, then, should prove a cakewalk. If they slip on the cream cheese icing while a few fans and bloggers throw a needless hissy fit, no one in the franchise's brain trust will panic.
Thousands of couples extinguish marital bliss every month with those dreaded papers. Longoria and Parker each headline a Sunday night ratings juggernaut and an NBA champion, but their annulment does not deserve the attention it will get.
How many inconsolable wives rake in millions alongside Terri Hatcher, Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman on an ABC mega-hit? How many husbands can comfort themselves with a handsome paycheck and indefensible speed on the hardwood? Parker and Longoria will move on as so many partners who cite "irreconcilable differences" in a split do.
Wednesday's real story was the divorce that Popovich and Buford prevented. For months, they sought counseling and contemplated the once unthinkable scenario. When the solution became apparent, the two executives needed a generous commitment from the boss to make it happen. Holt did not flinch in his near $90 million response.
He vowed in 2007, as his Spurs hoisted a fourth Larry O'Brien trophy, that he would not allow petty politics and clashing egos to destroy the dynasty for which he had footed the bargain bill. Popovich half-mourned the manner in which the L.A. Lakers dissolved into a Kwame Brown-Smush Parker embarrassment, but mere months ago, he knows he considered a similar dismemberment.
Tim Duncan, 34, was aging, Parker was more banged up than a bucket of baseballs after batting practice and Ginobili, 33, had become more of an expert bricklayer and turnover machine than a clutch performer, playmaker and crafty defender. Jefferson, averaging his lowest totals since his rookie campaign, did not seem to belong.
This time last year, the Spurs had not won a road game or two against .500 or better squads. Patience wore thin for everyone who expected the Jefferson and Antonio McDyess acquisitions to vault San Antonio back into contention.
Was it time for Popovich to order his team's own USSR-style dissolution? Did Buford dare advise his esteemed coach to discontinue what worked for so many years? Why not exchange one of the two tradeable assets for an athletic seven-footer to supplement Duncan? LeBron James' defection to Miami this summer also made staying power seem like a sports myth, and money remained an issue.
When the Spurs triad decided to fight Father Time and an unwelcome prescribed fate, Ginobili struck first. He hit harder than a corked baseball bat. His MVP-level play in March forced San Antonio management to take the Argentine slasher off the market before a vulture-like swath of suitors armed with cap space and desperation could further drive up his price.
Ginobili blocked Kevin Durant to save a home win, frazzled the eventual champs at Staples Center and dumped 43 on the Orlando Magic. There was no way, after his emphatic return to form, that Popovich, Buford and Holt could justify his departure. A group of season ticket holders even refused to renew their packages until the front office re-signed Ginobili.
Days after the Spurs thumped the Magic and Lakers, necessary triumphs that helped them avoid the eighth seed, the team announced Ginobili's four-year, $39 million extension. The deal should keep him in the Alamo City through his retirement.
Parker's case was much tougher to crack. He never wanted to leave San Antonio, but he understood like all pros that the business side of basketball might make him too pricey for a soaring payroll. Anyone who thought for a second he preferred the asbestos-filled Madison Square Garden to the banner-filled AT&T Center underestimated his competitiveness.
He performed simple math and figured a looming payday for George Hill and Ginobili's new contract might bump him from the Spurs' desired equation. He told reporters he would mull other options if it came to that. What else could he have said? When Popovich tapped Hill as the starter to open the playoffs and Longoria complimented New York City as a livable area months later, Manhattan-based rumormongers misread the situation.
Parker was returning from injury. He came off the bench as a form of in-game rehabilitation. He did not gripe or bemoan his supposed plight. Instead, he handled the role change the way Ginobili had before. The Dallas Mavericks labored to find a reserve that could match him.
Some sections of the league's collective bargaining agreement might make Euclid's head hurt, but Popovich needed simple math to solve the Spurs months-in-the-making geometry problem.
He realized over these last few months that four titles beats zero, no matter the cost. Buford must have accepted the same. So, with Holt's blessing, they worked together with Parker and Ginobili and their representatives to keep the best basketball trio in Texas history intact. Duncan's contract expires in 2012. They can suit up together until then.
If a lockout causes the cancellation of the 2011-2012 season, though, all bets are off. By then, Jefferson's annual salary will climb to double figures again, and Holt will have likely have approved raises for Hill, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair. James Anderson and Gary Neal look ready to stick around, too. Given that, the extensions handed to Parker and Ginobili may one day seem more excessive and exorbitant than economical.
None of that mattered Wednesday night. Parker showed early he would not let his two days in the tabloids affect his blistering start to this campaign. He hung with Derrick Rose on both ends and finished with 21 points and seven assists. Those who have accused him of not playing any defense should consider his two steal average.
Rose erupted for a second-straight night with 33 points, but he worked for most of them. Carlos Boozer-less Chicago did play a close contest Tuesday in Houston, but all NBA squads deal with unfair obstacles and rested San Antonio will soon face a similar test. The Spurs also lost to a less-talented Bulls team under the same circumstances in January.
Ginobili sparked a furious second-half rally after a 10-point deficit at the break. He twice crossed over defenders en route to roof-raising slams, and he converted all of his field goals after an inauspicious 1-for-6 start. Duncan clanged layups and short jumpers in the first and second quarters but navigated his way to 16 points and 18 rebounds.
Jefferson was 3-of-10 from the field, but two of those baskets were crucial scores. His engagement in the offense speaks volumes about his new-found comfort level in silver and black. He also spent time defending Luol Deng and harangued him into a horrendous 6-for-17 night. Matt Bonner drilled his eighth and ninth consecutive three-pointers, and Hill swished jumpers and floaters.
The Spurs scored 37 points in the third quarter after 37 total in the first 24 minutes. The Bulls notched just 12 and connected at a rate in the low 30s. Chicago finished shooting 42 percent from the field. Starting forward Taj Gibson was 0-for-7.
Parker, Duncan and Ginobili proved again there is no hierarchy in this star trio. The Spurs won for the ninth time in 10th tries, tying the best start in franchise history, because Holt kept his promise not to disband the dynasty. The Utah Jazz may briefly mute the fun Friday night at Energy Solutions Arena, but San Antonio can keep winning games this way as long as the triad and supporting cast continue to share the responsibilities associated with this expensive marriage.
Holt will not enjoy the publicity the aftermath of the Parker-Longoria divorce causes, but he can be sure after Wednesday's comeback that he made the right decision to open his wallet and avoid one he would have enjoyed even less.
Then, Popovich might have been making a Soviet Union wisecrack about his own team.