The team at the top of the mountain showed up at the Wells Fargo Center Monday night to play the team digging a hole so deep that it may eventually reach the planet's inner core. Fortunately for the coach of the team digging the historic hole, the man in charge of the team at the top of the mountain is one of his best friends.
If nothing else, the coach of the woebegone winless basketball team from Philadelphia was going to get some quality time with his mountaintop mentor before the evening's proceedings began and another game was added to the 76ers' loss column.
And so Brett Brown and Gregg Popovich went for a walk. They walked and walked and walked some more.
It's possible that Popovich, the coach of the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, informed Brown at some point during their stroll that he would not be playing Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, two of the most selfless stars in NBA history. Brown probably knew it would not alter the outcome, especially when Sixers power forward Nerlens Noel became a late scratch with a hip flexor.
"He made me walk with him for an hour and a half today," Popovich said before his undermanned Spurs posted a 109-103 victory that sent the perpetually overmatched 76ers to their 17th loss in as many games.
One more defeat and the Sixers will match the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets for the worst start in NBA history and the morbid fascination with this team will continue to intensify. So, you wonder, what could Brown and his close friend Popovich possibly have to talk about for 90 minutes on a beautiful late autumn day in the city?
"All he talked about is the things that the Spurs are doing wrong," Popovich said. "Just like he always did before."
Nothing about what the Sixers are doing wrong?
"He didn't want to [talk about that]," Popovich said.
As one reporter quickly noted, the two men would have needed more than 90 minutes to air that list of dastardly deeds. Popovich laughed, but that does not mean he is devoid of empathy for Brown.
There is no way the Spurs' coach could really know what Brown is going through. The man had one losing experience in his NBA life. When he took over from Bob Hill as the Spurs' coach in 1996-97, the team went 17-47 the rest of the way as superstar David Robinson sat out all but six games.
Brown said he has talked about that season with Popovich and his mentor said all the things you'd expect him to say.
"But it is hard living it day to day in regards to doing your job, not skipping steps, not cheating days, valuing relationships, caring for the players, making it a high level of accountability, keeping it real," Brown said. "And somewhere out there growth has a chance."
The Spurs, of course, grew into a monster that so many NBA teams, including the Sixers, try to emulate. That one losing experience in Popovich's life proved to be most serendipitous for the Spurs. It gave them the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft and they used it on Duncan.
For all the innovations Popovich and the Spurs have given the NBA, including resting star players like Duncan and Parker in an effort to preserve their playoff health and prolong their storied careers, the coach at the top of the mountain knows good luck ranks high among the list of reasons for his success.
"Good fortune has something to do with it," Popovich said. "I've said many times, 'Give me a program that wouldn't want to follow David with Tim.' That's not a bad start and we had that advantage and we never forget it. When I'm having a glass of wine at dinner, the first thing I say is, 'Thank you, Timmy.' And then I have dinner."
It would be too simplistic to say that the Spurs' five titles in 16 seasons were all about Robinson and Duncan, but it is not an overstatement to say that great cultures begin with great players.
We will not know for quite some time if the 76ers have those great players. Their foundation is being built on two first-round draft picks from last season - Michael Carter-Williams and Noel - and two first-round draft picks from this season - Joel Embiid and Dario Saric.
Carter-Williams was the NBA rookie of the year last season, so that was good, but Noel is experiencing immense growing pains in his first season after missing all of last year. Meanwhile, Brown dreams about the day when Embiid and Saric are on the court.
Saric, 20, was named the Euroleague MVP for November and in Sixerland that is about as good as the news gets these days.
"Dario Saric being the youngest player in the history of the Euroleague to be named an MVP validates his skill set, which we all thought and now is being seen even more," Brown said. "And ultimately those people will be joining us."
In the meantime, the digging continues and the hole grows deeper.