SAN ANTONIO — When the San Antonio Spurs reached the pinnacle for the first of five times and sparked this era that wouldn't end, the player who was so pivotal in their latest evolution was an eight-year-old growing up in the Southern California town of Moreno Valley.
It's that sustained success, more than anything else, that makes their run so remarkable.
Fifteen years later, coach Gregg Popovich and his band of old men did it again on Sunday night inside a raucous AT&T Center — with a whole lot of help from 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard. Their 104-87 Game 5 closeout win in the NBA Finals — one in which Leonard had 22 points and 10 rebounds — not only ended the Miami Heat's three-peat bid but polished the already-shiny legacy of the big man whose arrival from Wake Forest in 1997 started this whole special run, Tim Duncan.
"It makes last year OK," Duncan said on the court after the game, speaking of losing in 2013 to the Heat.
David Robinson sat — no, stood — court side, the iconic Spurs center who retired in 2003 celebrating with the rest of the Spurs faithful. He pumped his fist with a collared shirt on this time, not looking much older than the younger version of himself who paired with Duncan to win it all in 1999. They all stood on their feet in those final minutes, the long, white balloons waving and the crowd exploding when Duncan sat for the last time with 2:12 remaining. His face stoic as always, he hugged teammates and staff members before Manu Ginobili was given the same adulation not long after.
LeBron James, meanwhile, suffered a far different fate. The Heat star who can be a free agent this summer (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) lost in the Finals for the third time in five tries, this time with so much unforeseen irony. Much like the 2007 Finals in which he had to carry a Cleveland Cavaliers team that had such a dearth in talent, the Heat teammates that once seemed so super withered in ways that never could have been imagined when they came together in the summer of 2010.