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Spurs veterans along for title ride

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - When the end of his career comes, Danny Ferry isn't expecting any kind of extravagant remembrance of his time in the NBA.

Ferry, a San Antonio Spurs reserve, isn't even sure when his career - 12 years and counting - is going to end, but if this is his only trip to the Finals, he plans to savor every moment.

"I don't know that there needs to be a big announcement," Ferry said jokingly before a recent practice. "There won't be a farewell tour. I'm going to enjoy this. This could be it, it might not be. There's no reason to look past this. I've been waiting to be here my whole career, my whole life. I grew up around this. I have always wanted to be on a NBA championship team."

It's the hunger for a title that has kept Ferry, and his veteran teammates Steve Smith and Kevin Willis, mum at the end of the San Antonio bench, waiting for a chance to contribute, while lesser known and younger players like Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen get limelight and playing time.

To a certain degree, their teammate Steve Kerr is in the same situation, anchored to the bench after years of contribution in the league. But unlike Kerr, who has four NBA championship rings in 15 seasons, Willis, Smith and Ferry have never won a title.

"It's one of the great stories of the Finals for me personally, to see Kevin, who's such a great guy, totally upbeat, a positive influence every day, from training camp all the way through," Kerr said. "I'm thrilled for him and thrilled for Danny Ferry, Steve Smith, some of the older guys. There are a lot of guys in this league who've been great players and have been around a long time who have never been able to get here."

Kerr has taken advantage of his moment to shine, playing nine minutes in the fourth quarter of Friday's 93-83 win over New Jersey, scoring six points. He stole the ball from Kenyon Martin and made the subsequent three-pointer with 2:47 to go to help the Spurs fight off a New Jersey surge.

"I understand the situation," said Kerr, who hit four three-pointers in the clinching game of the Western Conference finals. "I have people ahead of me who are better players than me. That's just the truth. I think 'Pop' [San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich] has done a great job all year long. We won 60 games, we are in the Finals and one game away from winning the whole thing. My role is what it is. If they need me, I'll be ready, and if not, I'm fine with that."

For Ferry and Willis, their relative lack of playing time so far in the series, which shifts to San Antonio for tonight's Game 6, didn't come as a surprise.

Both players said Popovich informed them early on that they would likely get sporadic playing time this season. Willis played in 71 games, earning six starts, while Ferry played in 64 games in the regular season. Ferry has played two minutes in two games in this series.

"I understood that," said Willis, 40, a 17-year NBA veteran. "When a coach or anyone in life comes to you and tells you what's up upfront ... then you understand and accept it and then you deal with it. There's no reason to get [ticked] off, at least that's how it is with me. That's how, as a professional, you have to handle it and you always have to be prepared, when you're called upon. As long as you understand that and we're all on the same page, everything is all right."

Willis, a 7-foot forward, who has finished in the top five in rebounding three times in his career, got some important time in Wednesday's Game 4, with 16 minutes, six points and five rebounds - all offensive - when Tim Duncan and David Robinson got into foul trouble.

He reportedly blasted his teammates for lackluster play after their Game 5 loss to Dallas in the Western Conference finals, and has been a vocal leader on a team where Duncan leads by example.

"Kevin, Game 5, the Dallas game, he was not a happy camper, and he let the team know how long he's been waiting around to do this sort of thing," Popovich said. "He's really been one of our leaders this year. He's been a really fine player for us, got a lot of minutes during the season and he's been great in the locker room and during games. It's wonderful for him."

Although Ferry and Willis understand their lots in Spurs' life, Smith has quietly seethed.

The 1998 All-Star was the starting shooting guard in San Antonio last season and led the NBA in three-point shooting. He began this season with 18 starts before suffering a few minor injuries, then was replaced in the lineup by Jackson and hasn't cracked the rotation in the Finals yet.

Smith, 34, said he didn't get an explanation from Popovich and doesn't understand why he can't be of service when the Spurs have been in need of quick scoring, and he hopes that teams haven't forgotten what he can do.

"I don't know what he [Popovich] goes by. The good thing is that we're in the championship. The other thing is sometimes things aren't going right and you look down and you see what you see, give them a chance. It may not be 48 minutes, but if it's one minute or two minutes, then who knows? If it's not working, then great.

"The guys you're looking down here at are not immature. They won't be upset. They'll understand. If not, if you didn't have those other guys, then we wouldn't have gotten where we are today because those guys wouldn't have been grumbling and making a big fit. We didn't. I didn't. I had every right in the world. I was the second-leading scorer and was starting last year, and I could make a big thing of this, but I have a little bit more courage. Things don't always go your way individually, but I could have [been bitter] and had every right to be."

Yet, Smith, like Ferry and Willis, sees the greater goal, the chance to be recognized as a champion.

"Obviously, it would be more fun if I was out there getting 30 points and 20 rebounds, like Tim can do," Ferry said. "But it's still been pretty cool, to go through the whole process and to see how things unfold. I've been to the conference finals a few times, but to make it this far, seeing the reporters multiply like rabbits, the whole energy and excitement surrounding it has been a great thing to see. I'm also excited to be a part of this team. I think we have a real chance, and I'd love to be a part of a championship team."

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