5th title for Spurs or Lakers would make it their era

Baltimore Sun

Shaq & Kobe & Timmy ... as the tagline for "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" went, imagine the possibilities.

It only seems as if Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers, the Spurs and whichever team Shaq is with have been duking it out forever. It's actually 11 years, since the spring of 1999, when the Spurs won the first of their four titles, after which the Lakers won the first, second and third of their four titles in the decade ... with the grand showdown yet to come?

Kobe, Timmy, Shaq, the Lakers and the Spurs are tied at four titles apiece. Whoever wins No. 5 gets an era named after them.

Even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who cares less than anyone in the NBA about popular opinion, acknowledges the rivalry.

"It has gone through my head, sure," Popovich said recently. "I'm human. I sit there, I watch the silly shows you guys are on. It's been mentioned a lot…

"Sure, it goes through your head. And if the three of them were honest, it's probably gone through their head. I won't lie to you and say, 'No, what the hell are you talking about?' "

Happily for Bryant, he was 20 in the spring of 1999, making him 31 now. Duncan will be 34 this month. O'Neal is 38.

Bryant also plays with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and, the Lakers hope, Andrew Bynum.

Happily for O'Neal, he's in Cleveland with LeBron James.

Duncan has a refurbished supporting cast that's more athletic but needs a center taller than 6-5 1/2 DeJuan Blair or younger than Antonio McDyess, 35.

Old Spurs never die, at least not Popovich and Duncan, who have turned over one entire supporting cast and are working on their second one.

Even in their heyday, the Spurs were spurned as small-market ratings killers who got in the way of the Lakers - the NBA version of a three-ring circus everyone wanted to see, if only to see if the clowns got in a fight.

No one is remembered for the way they carry themselves, but the Spurs were special. They didn't blow cigar smoke, brag, complain, work officials, make excuses or indulge in conspiracy theories.

When they got the ever-living stuffing beaten out of them - as in 2001, when the Lakers swept them, winning Games 3 and 4 by 111-72 and 111-82 margins - the Spurs said they got the ever-living stuffing beaten out of them. Or as Popovich put it: "Custer had no idea."

The Spurs are rebuilding on the fly. Unfortunately for them, the Lakers are already rebuilt with Twin Tower 7-footers Gasol and Bynum.

Of course, every GM and coach in the Western Conference could tell you where he was the moment he heard the Lakers got Gasol from the Grizzlies for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, Aaron McKie and two first-round picks.

"Pau Gasol changed the landscape of the NBA, as far as the West is concerned and championship-caliber basketball," Popovich said. "He's a great player, perhaps the most versatile big man in the league."

Popovich would have said more, but it was hard to talk with his teeth clenched.

If you want to look at it this way, Popovich is playing with house money, having won four more titles than anyone ever imagined, starting with himself.

"The overriding common denominator with me, I still think I'm a Division III coach," he said. "Because that's what I am. I'm a Division III coach who had a lot of good fortune and ended up in a situation where I didn't screw it up.

"I sometimes wonder what the hell I'm doing here. Do we really have those championships? Did we really do that?"

Popovich really was a Division III coach at Pomona-Pitzer, but if he wanted to coach in college again, I'm sure he could land a Division I job.

Actually, he's a Spur for life, at a crossroads, with owner Peter Holt having ventured deep into the luxury tax for the first time and with Manu Ginobili in his free agent year while playing the best ball of one of the most intermittently spectacular NBA careers.

Insiders say the decision on whether to pay up to keep Manu or lure 7-foot Tiago Splitter, their 2007 first-round pick, from Spain depends on how the Spurs do in the playoffs.

In that case, I hope it turns out well somehow.

They really have those championships. They really did that. If anyone ever earned the right to die with their boots on, the Spurs have.

Mark Heisler covers the NBA for the Los Angeles Times.

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