In a franchise that has no time for spotlights, with a roster that has no interest in headlines, R.C. Buford may be the very embodiment of the all-for-one San Antonio Spurs.
For more than two decades he has toiled in the shadows, happy to let the attention fall on coach Gregg Popovich and the team that Buford has played such a pivotal role in assembling. He quietly — happily — lives in the back channels and has built a reputation as one of the most respected executives in the NBA.
Yet for all his impressive work over the previous 11 years as a general manager and architect of the most enduring success story in modern American sports, Buford had never been honored by his peers as the league’s executive of the year. Until now.
Buford won the award Wednesday, and as is the custom in the Alamo City, did as much as he could to downplay his significant contributions to a team that posted the best record in the NBA.
“I think it’s not why we do what we do,” Buford said. “I think it’s a great honor for the group of people that have been here and have been through here that have built and an ownership group that’s allowed a continuity to build a program that we’re proud of so to be recognized as a program that people respect by your peers, that’s rewarding.”
That Buford had never won the award before while helping to put together a team that won four championships and has posted a staggering 15 straight 50-win seasons has been one of the great mysteries in league annals. He’s helped put the Spurs at the forefront of the international invasion, implemented a system that demands commitment and humility over recognition and individual achievement, and has been partly responsible for so many teams pilfering his staff to run front offices or teams across the league.
Yet he may have finally earned the award in his 12th season as GM because of what he didn’t do.
In the wake of a devastating loss to Miami in the NBA Finals last season, Buford didn’t panic. He didn’t give up on an aging Manu Ginobili. He didn’t let Tiago Splitter get lured away by big money elsewhere.
He followed the Spurs’ creed: Stay the course. Believe in the system. Never give in to outside influence.
While other teams chased huge stars and made big splashes, Buford quietly re-signed Ginobili and Splitter and added second-tier free agent Marco Belinelli. The moves weren’t flashy, but were exactly what the Spurs, who enter Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on Friday night leading Portland 1-0, needed to recover from that bitter defeat.
“It’s pretty cool,” Popovich said. “We’re all excited for him; long overdue. He’s done a great job for a very long time. We’re giving him the requisite amount of you-know-what all over the offices. He walks down the halls we hit the walls we hit the sides to make room for him.”
Buford received nine first-place votes and 58 total points to win the award. Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough (47) finished second for his superb job in turning the Suns from an afterthought into a 48-win team that just missed the playoffs.
Neil Olshey, who added Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson to bolster the Trail Blazers’ depth and get them into the playoffs, finished third in the voting with 34 points. Toronto’s Masai Ujiri and Miami’s Pat Riley rounded out the top five.
Popovich and Buford have made the Spurs the envy of the league, assembling one of the most uniquely stable systems in professional sports built around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili, a trio that has won three championships together and keep coming back for more.
“We’ve been working with each other for a long time,” Popovich said. “We participate in everything. It’s been a great relationship in that regard. We share everything it’s benefited both of us and the organization without a doubt. Just having that ability to communicate and having an owner that allows us to do that.”
Popovich gets more of the credit for making the Spurs machine go, and that’s just fine with Buford. But most around the league, and certainly everyone in San Antonio, recognizes what a big role Buford has played in helping the Spurs avoid the teardowns that almost every franchise has endured since he and Pop took over.
“You recognize how difficult that is and how fortunate we’ve been that an ownership group has allowed us to stay together and have the opportunity to survive through the growing pains,” Buford said. “To have a group of players that have wanted to be a part of what this community of San Antonio and what our fans mean to them. To have wanted to stay with an ownership group the sacrifices that they’ve made to make this a unique environment and then how they’ve handled themselves that presents a platform that other players want to come join.
“Again, we’re not in this to win an award. We’re in this to try to win a championship. That’s the reward we’re all hoping for.”
AP freelance writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this story.
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