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 would hoist the 2014 NBA Finals MVP trophy 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.
Leonard was asked if he saw that team that started it all.
" I don't think I watched the finals when I was 7 years old," he said. "I was busy playing kid games, running around."
Duncan remembers all of the titles. But called this one the most special. In part, because of how last year's run ended with the Spurs blowing a lead late in Game 6 and then losing Game 7. He had gone as far as to say after winning this year's Western Conference Finals that he was confident the Spurs would win it this time.
"It makes last year OK," Duncan said on the court after the game. That loss is the only one in six Finals for the Spurs. They won championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 before this year's.
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.
"This is a team, and that's what makes this so, so great," Ginobili said at the Spurs' trophy acceptance ceremony.
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.
"We went to four straight finals in four years," James said. "You know, we're not discrediting what we were able to accomplish."
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. Dwyane Wade had 11 points and hit just four of his 12 shots and it was the second straight bad game for him.
But the longtime guard has been a big part of the Heat's success and a big reason James originally signed with the team.
"It's been a hell of a ride these four years," Wade said. "When we decided to play together, we didn't say, 'OK, let's try for four years.' We said let's just play together and let's see what happens. ... We'd love to be 4 for 4. It just wasn't in the cards."
The Heat were trying to win a third consecutive championship in their fourth straight trip to the Finals. But, since Game 2, the Spurs completely dominated the series.
"They played exquisite basketball this series and in particular these last three games and they are the better team. There's no other way to say it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.