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Crown rests uneasily on Spurs; NBA: From an arena vote, to Sean Elliott's health, to Tim Duncan's contract, distractions abound for champs.; PRO BASKETBALL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Since claiming their first NBA championship little more than four months ago, the San Antonio Spurs have experienced distractions that would cause less-experienced teams to lose focus and coaches less confident than Gregg Popovich to lose sleep.

It began in August, when starting small forward Sean Elliott underwent a kidney transplant that left his career in doubt. It continued earlier this month, when the Oct. 1 deadline to lock up NBA Finals MVP Tim Duncan to a long-term contract passed without any attempt to re-sign the third-year center.

And hours before the Spurs are scheduled to open the 1999-2000 season at home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, San Antonians will go to the polls to vote on a referendum that, if passed, will build a $175 million arena to displace the sterile Alamodome as the team's home court.

Elliott's health aside, the Spurs and Popovich are treating these events with the same insouciance they did their Western Conference playoff opponents last spring. They simply flick them to the side as they prepare for the season.

Put it this way: The New York Knicks, the team San Antonio beat in five games for the title last season, seemed more troubled by Latrell Sprewell's cross-country car trek that kept him out of training camp and led to a barrage of stories in the tabloids and angry calls to the talk shows.

"We've been talking about the arena for the past four or five years," Popovich said a few weeks ago. "And I knew when Tim Duncan signed that he would likely test the waters [of free agency]. If I were Tim, I'd do the same thing. Our fans and the media are talking about these things, but we're not. We have no control over them."

Yet this much is clear: The franchise's continued success, if not its outright future, revolves around Duncan and the new arena. The former Wake Forest star hasn't issued any ultimatums that he'd go elsewhere if it isn't built, or made any guarantees to stay if one is, but the two issues are tied together.

"I'm not worried about it," Duncan said after the Spurs opened the preseason with a one-point win over the 76ers in Philadelphia on Oct. 10. "But there might be some people [in San Antonio] who are."

Duncan and his teammates seem more concerned with another piece of business -- repeating as NBA champions. It will not be as automatic as it appeared with their predecessors, the Chicago Bulls. The Western Conference is typically loaded, with challenges expected from the usual suspects.

The Utah Jazz is a veteran team looking to avenge last season's playoff disappointment. The Los Angeles Lakers are hoping to harness their immense talent under new coach Phil Jackson. The Portland Trail Blazers, with the recent addition of Scottie Pippen, are trying to reverse last year's sweep by the Spurs in the conference finals.

"Every one of those teams have improved themselves," said Spurs center David Robinson, whose numbers declined markedly last season with Duncan's ascension to stardom but who is still expected to play a significant role going into his 13th season in San Antonio. "After we won, I looked at our team and said, 'We have a lot of room to improve.' "

Robinson's assessment was made before Elliott's disclosure that he was suffering from a kidney disease that required getting a healthy kidney from his older brother, Noel. Elliott has received clearance to begin running and play some light games of one-on-one, but he is not expected back until January at the earliest.

In his place, the Spurs signed Samaki Walker, a former No. 1 draft pick who spent his first three seasons with the hapless Dallas Mavericks. After trying power forwards Walker and Malik Rose at small forward with little success, Popovich has been rotating Chucky Brown, who was signed as a free agent on Oct. 1, and Jaren Jackson.

San Antonio also signed veteran guard Terry Porter to back up Avery Johnson at the point.

"We couldn't replace Sean with one guy because he's such a terrific all-around player," said Popovich, who also doubles as the team's general manager. "But we wanted to see if we could replace some of those talents. That's what Samaki Walker does, and that's what Terry Porter will do."

In truth, it all revolves around Duncan. A year ago, he was merely looked at as the best young player in the NBA and, because of that, the Spurs were considered an outside threat to win the championship. Now Duncan is widely viewed to be the best player in the league, and the Spurs are given a legitimate shot to repeat.

"Tim is one of those guys that transcends age," said veteran guard Steve Kerr, who was an important member of the past three Bulls championship teams but is now little more than a spare part in San Antonio. "Both teams were very professional, but the Bulls were very arrogant because of Michael [Jordan]. Teams weren't going to beat us in Chicago. Teams don't fear this team yet."

Not that winning a championship has changed the team's low-key image. The Spurs received a warm reception when they went to represent the NBA in the McDonald's Championship in Milan, Italy, but it wasn't with the same frenzy that surrounded the Bulls two years ago in Paris.

"The Bulls were rock stars," said Kerr, who was treated more like a roadie. "This team is made up more of blue-collar workers, even Tim."

History isn't on San Antonio's side. The only team besides the six-time champion Bulls to repeat this decade was the Houston Rockets, who took advantage of Jordan's first retirement and subsequent rusty return to win back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. "I've got a whole new respect for teams that repeat," Duncan said. "We're playing as the hunted, not the hunter."

Said Robinson: "Everyone puts us on a different pedestal. And everyone is going to be coming at us with their best shot."

Depending on what happens Tuesday in San Antonio -- as of last week, polls said the vote was too tight to call -- this season could be the second in the NBA's newest dynasty or little more than a prolonged audition for Duncan. The Orlando Magic and the Bulls reportedly have cleared money under the salary cap to woo Duncan as their savior next summer.

Robinson is interested to see what kind of response the Spurs get, at the polls and later that night when they are scheduled to receive their championship rings in a ceremony at the Alamodome. The timing of the two events could work in the team's favor.

"I think it's a plus, having the vote that day," Robinson said. "I've been around long enough to see what kind of impact this team has on the city. Either they want us or they don't. I think given what happened last season, the momentum might be on our side."

That momentum could carry San Antonio a long way. To a new arena and a long-term commitment from Duncan. But first they'd like to carry it to another NBA championship.

Looking ahead

A look at what's ahead in The Sun as the NBA prepares to open its season on Tuesday:

Tomorrow: A preview of the Washington Wizards' season.

Tuesday: Team-by-team previews, a profile of new Lakers coach Phil Jackson and a look at rules changes for this season.

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