By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
For a dozen seasons, coach Gregg Popovich has been able to walk into the locker room and write those names into his lineup.
Earth, wind and fire. Like the fundamental elements, we just expect them to be there. The years have practically blended them together into one multi-syllabic name with a single identity.
TimTonyManu. Working, playing, synchronizing and simply moving on, the basketball version of a Swiss watch.
Tick, tick, tick.
In a sport where knees tear, tendons break, tempers snap and egos explode, only two other trios in NBA history have stayed bound at the hip for so long and experienced such success.
When Duncan, Parker and Ginobili take the court for tonight’s game at the AT&T Center against the Lakers (8:30, NBA TV) for their 664th game together, they’ll pass the “Showtime” Lakers trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper as the second-mot durable trio in NBA history. Their 490 wins currently ties L.A. Holding down the No. 1 spot is the Celtics combination of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
“Being a human, sure, one takes it for granted when you don’t stop and think about what those guys have done and how long they’ve been together and what they’ve gone through listening to me for all these years,” said Popovich. “One does have to stop and really think about what that’s meant to our program and how consistent those three guys have been. Because that doesn’t happen that often in the league. We all probably need to appreciate it more around here in San Antonio, for sure.”
When Ginobili was first learning to throw his body all over the hardwood in his hometown of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, the only way to see the high-flying act of Magic, Kareem and Coop was on snippets from highlight tapes. “We were not watching those games live,” he said. “It was not easy to watch the NBA then. You could get tapes and things like that.
“Of course, I remember. The Showtime thing — [James] Worthy flying for dunks, great defense and Magic flying to find open guys in the lane. Bryon Scott to Kareem. I never watched a full game. But I saw plenty of highlights and for sure they were an inspiration and those games against the Celtics were legendary.”
They are as disparate a trio as one might find and yet symbolic of the NBA’s globalization in the quarter-century since the Lakers were winning five championships from 1980-89. A lanky swimmer from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a Belgium-born Frenchman and an Argentinian whose games possesses all the hot passion of the native tango.
Most games played together
729 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
711 — Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson (Pistons)
663 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)
663 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
632 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)
Most victories by an NBA trio
540 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
490 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)
490 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
468 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones (Celtics)
463 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili won a championship in their first season together in 2003 and added another in 2005 and one in 2007.
“A great run and it feels very special,” Parker said. “I feel very blessed to play with Timmy and Manu and I feel very lucky and privileged to be named next to Magic Johnson and Kareem and Michael Cooper. I grew up watching them and never thought in my wildest dreams that my name would be next to them. It’s crazy just to think about it. Once I retire, I can look at it and enjoy it. Now I try to stay focused on the season, but it’s unbelievable.
“Growing up in France, soccer’s the main sport and they’re changing all the time. You go and buy [players] and stuff like that. In basketball, it’s a little bit harder to trade guys. But it’s still rare to have the same guys, us three for all those years, and the same coach.”
Toss in Popovich as the only coach that any of them have ever played for in the NBA and the stability and constancy of the Spurs is a little more understandable, yet it remains unprecedented. The Lakers were coached by Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead and Pat Riley during their run in the ’80s. The Celtics were led to their three championships in that decade by Bill Fitch (1981) and K.C. Jones (1984 and 1986).
“It is remarkable,” Ginobili said. “I guess we’re going to win a few more [games]. But even if you didn’t tell me about that stat, we know we are in a very unique position and situation having played together for 12 seasons with the same coach.”
Parker plays without his teammates during summers for the French national team.
“So sometimes I’m used to it,” he said. “But in a Spurs jersey, they are both gonna retire before me, so it’s definitely going to be weird. Hopefully it’s not anytime soon.”
It takes durability, compatibility, a shrewd front office plan and just plain good luck for three players of All-Star caliber to last so long together. In this era of free agency, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can choose to bolt for Miami to chase titles, Carmelo Anthony can go from Denver to New York and maybe have his sights set elsewhere this summer. Even Shaquille O’Neal, the most physically dominating player of his era, bounced to six different teams.
Then there are the debilitating injuries that this year alone have taken down Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have never seriously looked to leave San Antonio.
The once-proud Lakers team staggering into San Antonio tonight, potentially the worst team in the Western Conference this season, demonstrates how long the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili combo has endured and prospered. It’s bad enough in L.A. that the Spurs have sympathy for their long-time rivals — especially Bryant.
“It’s very odd, very unusual after so many playoff games and a very tough, great rivalry,” Ginobili said. “They’ve had so many injuries and, of course, you have two of your best players — Nash and Kobe — out for so long. I’ve never been been through anything like that. Achilles is as bad as it gets.”
Said Parker: “I don’t wish that on anybody. I wish everybody was playing. I wish D-Rose was playing. I hope [LaMarcus] Aldridge is OK. I don’t like injuries. I wish everybody was healthy and we are competing against each other.
“We definitely miss the Lakers. When the Lakers are good, it’s great for the NBA and it’s great for everybody. I love that rivalry — Spurs-Lakers. I miss that a little bit. We definitely are gonna miss Kobe (tonight) and hopefully he’ll be back 100 percent next year.”
The fundamental elements — Duncan, Parker and Ginobili — will be waiting.