In an emotional and strikingly dignified farewell letter to the fans of the San Antonio Spurs, Tony Parker tried to outline what he called the ‘Spurs Culture’. For 17 seasons, Parker was an integral part of the success of the Spurs under their talismanic coach, Gregg Popovich. Sporting cultures are hard to define, no matter what the sport, but Parker gave an invaluable insight into the way it worked in San Antonio.
Yes, he said, the Spurs had Popovich, who would apply just one single principle to every decision he made: “What will happen here so it’s good for the Spurs”. There was no sentiment involved; if Parker was playing well, he would be central to the team, if he wasn’t, he would be benched. Popovich’s tirades at Parker became legendary, but offence wasn’t taken on either side because both men wanted the same thing: for the Spurs to win and Parker to become a better player. In that order.
Yes, the Spurs also had Tim Duncan, who Parker described not only as the best basketball player he’d ever played with, but the most ‘coachable great player’ he’d ever known. The distinction is subtle but important. Duncan set the tone for the whole club, on and off court. Leave your ego in the car park. “Guys would come in, take a look around and eventually they would do what Tim did,” said Parker. But there is more to it than a great leader and a great coach.
Spurs, added Parker, made room for the development of players, not in a ‘let’s teach this French kid (Parker was born in France) about the meaning of life’ sort of way, but in quick conversations along the road. Strong sporting cultures come from within, are created and handed down behind closed doors, on the training court or in the confines of the dressing-room. They are hard to build up and very easy to knock down. Just ask the fans of Manchester United.
United’s abject defeat to Brighton, in only the second game of the Premier League season in England, proved beyond doubt that the culture so painstakingly built up at Old Trafford over nearly 27 years by Sir Alex Ferguson had finally been destroyed. Paul Pogba, the United captain, blamed the attitude of the players for the defeat, but it was worse than that. All the qualities guaranteed in Ferguson’s era – pride, passion, pace and industry - have become optional extras under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, the managers chosen to sustain Ferguson’s spirit.
Ferguson was lucky. He had the Class of ’92 – Scholes, Beckham, Butt, Gary Neville and Giggs – ready and waiting to turn his blue collar values into Premier League titles. Under the leadership of Roy Keane, signs of complacency were ruthlessly banished, any suggestion that one player, a Beckham, say, or a Ronaldo might become more important than the club was swiftly cut down. Standards were set every day in training and monitored not by the manager but by the senior players. Winning was an expectation, not once but serially, year after year. Development, both individually and as a team, was, like the San Antonio Spurs under Popovich, internally driven. Lessons were learned and then passed on to the next generation. You had to get better to survive or the next stop would be Newcastle.
Only part of United’s current problems can be laid at the managers’ door. United knew what they were getting in both Van Gaal and Mourinho, ego-driven personalities with seductive credentials. But in trying to counter the inexorable rise of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, they have sacrificed pretty well all the principles that made United such a great club in the first place. Brand United has prevailed and a precious sporting culture sacrificed to the whims of self-obsessed managers not much interested in tomorrow.
After 17 years and four NBA titles with San Antonio, Tony Parker is moving on to the Charlotte Hornets. Before the end of his final season, he formally handed over his position as starting point guard to Dejounte Murray, 15 years his junior. He spoke first to Popovich then to Murray himself. “It’s a discipline thing,” said Parker. “It’s how I’ve grown up as a player. You’ve always got to stay moving forward.” Players might move on, but the culture remains intact. What will happen here so it’s good for the Spurs? United could learn a lesson or two from Tony Parker and San Antonio.
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