OKLAHOMA CITY — When Clay Bennett was seeking a leader for his team that would one day become the Oklahoma City Thunder, he picked a rising star from a San Antonio franchise on the verge of winning its fourth NBA championship in a decade.
It was the start of a process that would model Bennett’s franchise after the Spurs, leading up to their meeting in the Western Conference finals starting Sunday night.
The standards that led to San Antonio’s success rubbed off on Sam Presti, who got his start as a video intern for the Spurs before rising through that organization and eventually getting hired by Bennett as general manager of the relocating Seattle SuperSonics.
He recognized the importance San Antonio placed on humility, sacrifice and a family atmosphere and has tried to instill those standards in the Thunder.
“I think everyone within the NBA has great respect for what the Spurs have accomplished and the standards that they have established in recent years but I think every organization has to have their own identity,” Presti said Thursday.
“Certainly, we’re always going to look to try to pull from organizations such as the Spurs in our effort to build an identity and a foundation for an organization in Oklahoma City that has great endurance.”
The similarities are numerous. Each team plays in a smaller NBA market and has a nucleus of homegrown players acquired through the draft, including hidden gems plucked from overseas.
But more than the basketball product, the franchises have a reputation for how they handle their business: no bad-mouthing other teams or players, few scrapes with the law or other incidents and no sense of entitlement.
“I tell guys all the time: Not every guy can come here and play. This isn’t for everybody,” said Nazr Mohammed, who won an NBA title with San Antonio in 2005 and is now a backup for the Thunder.
“The same in San Antonio. That isn’t for everybody. … It’s not even the player, more so the person.”
It may not be no-nonsense, but there certainly isn’t much of it.
“It starts at the top, the way Sam has built the organization and then the players he’s brung in to match that system. It’s amazing to have these young guys around here that understand just the hard work, the family atmosphere,” Mohammed said.
“I’ve been on some teams where you’ve got a bunch of young guys. Family atmosphere is the furthest thing from guys’ minds. Guys are thinking about, ‘When am I going to get my opportunity to get out there and show the world what I can do and get my second contract?’ Here, it’s nothing like that. Guys just want to work, win, get better and they know and understand like veterans that the rest will take care of itself.”
While Presti has tried to foster that San Antonio-style atmosphere, he credits his players and coaches for carrying it out and putting in the work that has led to consecutive Western Conference finals appearances for the second time in franchise history.
The attitude filters down from ownership — Bennett used to represent the Spurs on the NBA’s board of governors — and through the front office, but Mohammed said the key is the franchises’ ability to find players who buy into it.
At the forefront, he sees San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Duncan — both superstars who don’t care about the limelight and only want “to work hard and play basketball.”
“You can preach it around but it’s still got to come from the player because you can get a young guy now who’s unbelievable but if he doesn’t buy into it, he’s going to think his own way and do his own thing no matter what,” Mohammed said.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said he knew within a week of hiring Presti that he wouldn’t be an intern long. Presti ended up helping persuade the franchise to draft point guard Tony Parker, who has developed into an All-Star and the Spurs’ leading scorer, on his rise through the organization.
Coach Gregg Popovich joked that San Antonio “tried to keep him in a closet for a while so no one would know about him” but word eventually got out. And now some of the Spurs’ secrets may be working against them.
“I don’t have the intimate details of what Sam’s culture is. But from an outsider’s perspective, the things that are important to the Thunder’s culture as established by Sam are similar to what’s important to the Spurs culture,” Buford said.
Bennett, who declined comment through a spokesman, said upon hiring the 30-year-old Presti in 2007 that he viewed the Spurs “as the premier franchise in our business” but he was hiring the GM on his own merits and not because he worked for San Antonio.
Presti has said from the beginning that he wasn’t trying to re-create the Spurs.
“No two places are the same and you’re going to have different circumstances and different approaches. That’s what makes the NBA great,” Presti said. “We have a lot of respect for them but we also have to build our own identity, but we’re also certainly using some of the core values that are in place there, that are also in place in other successful and sustainable sports franchises.”
And there are still four major differences between the franchises: The Spurs’ championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
The Thunder are still just starting to build their identity, finishing their fourth season in their new home.
“Everyone else wants to make us the ‘Spurs North’ or whatever but we’re the ones going, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!'” Presti said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”