Basketball: Spurs nick it from Knicks

SAN ANTONIO cheered itself hoarse over the weekend to celebrate the city's first-ever victory in the NBA championship. After a nail-biting game on Friday night, the Spurs beat the New York Knicks by just one point to take the series 4-1.

More than 10,000 people waited at the city's airport in searing heat for the team to fly back from their triumph at Madison Square Garden. Tim Duncan, the modest 6ft 10in centre who led the team to victory and was voted Most Valuable Player of the series, was greeted with loud chants of "MVP! MVP!"

Duncan, who scored 31 points in the team's 78-77 victory, is the first player to win the MVP after Michael Jordan, who held it as an almost permanent possession. Jordan won the title six times in the 1990s, including a straight run from 1996-98, and Duncan is being spoken of as his successor. He and David Robinson, who tops seven feet, were the team's "twin towers". But Robinson is 34 years old; Duncan is only 23, in his second season in the NBA, with a great career in front of him.

From the US Virgin Islands, he is quiet, diffident and calm, preferring to play rather than talk, unlike some of his colleagues in the NBA. He has few illusions about the pressure that winning the MVP will put on him next season. "It's an incredible honour," he said. "But all it means is that they're going to come at you harder next time. All you do is get a high off it all summer and come back at it next year."

The final game had shifted madly from one side to the other, and it never once seemed that the Knicks were beaten, even right at the end. With 21 seconds left to play, Latrell Sprewell was too far under the basket as a pass came in from Charlie Ward. Sprewell fluffed it, and the Spurs fans went wild. It was the second victory for Texas this year, after the Dallas Stars took the Stanley Cup, ice hockey's top prize.

The Knicks had never looked likely to make it as far as the play-offs, let alone the finals, so to get within a whisker of the trophy was an achievement in itself. Injury took Patrick Ewing from them. But the season ended with redemption of a kind for Sprewell, one of the most reviled players on the court for his 1997 attempt to choke the Warriors coach, PJ Carlesimo. He won a starter's place in the team, and he scored 35 points in the last game. If that last pass had gone differently Sprewell would have been the hero of the hour.

Basketball came into this season looking very poorly. The lock-out had delayed its start and led to some very harsh words from players, managers, fans and the media. And Michael Jordan, who so dominated the game, had gone. But the drama and excitement of the finals went some way towards erasing that.

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