The San Antonio Spurs basketball team has for years used as its team mantra a quote by journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
“That stonecutter story is really the foundation of our ethos,” says R.C. Buford, CEO of Spurs Sports & Entertainment and a two-time NBA Executive of the Year. “It’s painted on the walls of our locker room hallway.”
Buford, who started his professional career as an assistant coach at the University of Kansas, has been an executive with the Spurs organization for more than 30 years, rising from assistant coach and scout to various executive positions. Since 2019, he has been the top executive of the parent organization that not only includes the NBA champion Spurs basketball team but its NBA G-League’s Austin Spurs and USL Soccer League’s San Antonio FC, as well as the operations of the AT&T Center and Toyota Field.
The Spurs won five NBA championships between 1999 and 2014 during one of the most dominant stretches in NBA history. In 2019, facing the twin challenges of new leadership within his organization and the COVID-19 lockdown, Buford enrolled in the Stanford LEAD Program to help him up his game. “It was a life-changing experience,” he says.
Did where you grew up and how you were raised influence your career path into professional sports?
I grew up in Kansas, where basketball is life. My dad, mother, and my sister were incredibly supportive of my non-traditional career path. When I was growing up, no one would have thought I’d do anything but work with my dad in the oil, ranching, hospitality, and real estate development businesses. Thank goodness for both of us that didn’t happen. It would have been an incredibly different path.
You lead a public-facing organization in which the stakeholders include highly opinionated fans. Is that pressure different than in a more traditional business enterprise?
I’ve only been a part of basketball programs, so I’m not sure I understand traditional business environments. I think our values, our work ethic, and our human relationships are what we can control. I believe we have alignment with our community with our values, and we take those responsibilities to our values seriously, and the success our coach and players have brought to our organization creates an incredibly inspiring relationship with stakeholders and communities.
Can you give a specific example?
Recently, more than 150 people from our organization were in Uvalde, Texas, where there was that terrible school shooting. We shared a day of clinics and carnivals. It wasn’t a group of people who have a responsibility to our stakeholders to do good work. It was our entire organization.
What was the most challenging part of your transition from leading only the Spurs to leading the entire sports and entertainment conglomerate?
There was a lot to learn. Having never operated a business unit during my career, I needed to spend time to learn both internally and externally. And that was a large motivation to join Stanford LEAD. I can’t tell you how valuable I found many courses throughout the program — strategy, communications, crisis management, disruption. Probably the most impactful for me was the introduction to design thinking, which taught the ability to think and problem-solve with empathy, and not just focus on outcomes. That fits right in with what I want to do, which is to build teams.
What are the most critical factors in creating a successful pro sports enterprise?
Values alignment is incredibly powerful. Commitment to our communities, especially in real areas of need. Equity in underserved communities and communities in crisis. And communicating the shared responsibility to each other as an organizational community. [Spurs Coach] Gregg Popovich has a couple of sayings we reflect upon. One is: “Get over yourself.” That’s part of a successful team and organization. And really the foundation of our ethos is the story about the stonecutter pounding a rock. It’s about all the work that came before. Pound the rock. Get better every day.
What’s an example of a failure during your career that taught you an important lesson?
My college academic career was not particularly impressive. I was incredibly disinterested in studying and it showed in my commitment to my education. That’s completely different than if you ask people who I am today. They would say I’m curious and a life-long learner when it’s focused on areas of interest and areas that I think can help our team get better. Learning doesn’t have to be burdensome. That’s the lesson I learned from a disastrous college experience.
Your organization has never shied away from dealing with issues of social justice, including systemic racism. What is the origin of that?
As a leader of our organization, Pop has always focused not just on basketball but on getting to know each other as people. There have been many stories written about our time together that had nothing to do with how to guard LeBron James in the pick-and-roll.
One of the best examples of this was from the 2013 NBA Finals. We had a 3-2 lead against the Miami Heat, but Ray Allen makes a three-pointer at the buzzer, and we go into overtime and lose. We went on to lose Game 7. It was a devastating defeat for our organization. Tim Duncan was 36, Manu Ginóbili was 35. To have the championship within reach and not accomplish it, well, no one expected us to bounce back from that. But the following season we made it back to the finals, against the Heat again. It was one of the best seven-game series in the history of the NBA. Game 1, we had the morning shoot-around and Pop gets the team together. He says to Patty Mills, the first indigenous Australian to play in the NBA, “What’s today?” And Patty says, “Pop, it’s Game 1 of the Finals. It’s the Heat.” Pop goes, “What else is it Patty?” Patty looks at him strange, and Pop goes, “Is today Eddie Mabo Day?”
He was the first indigenous Australian to get the right to own land. Like Patty’s father, he was a Torres Strait Islander. So, Patty told the story of how Eddie Mabo fought and became a real hero for their community. He became really emotional. The way the team came together just from that story… Pop didn’t take the team out on the floor and go over anything. He brought them together in a way that shooting jump shots would have never done. We came out in that series and played as good a basketball as we ever played. That came out of the way we learned about each other in ways that had nothing to do with basketball.
The Spurs have drawn players from all over the world. How do you think that diversity and those different perspectives strengthens the organization?
Eleven of our 14 players on that 2014 championship team were born outside the U.S. Pop is the person who allowed that to happen. Many coaches in the NBA wouldn’t have welcomed the international team-building strategies that we developed. It’s a much less traditional approach, but he appreciated the diversity of players like Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), Fabricio Oberto (Argentina), and Tony Parker (French), Boris Diaw (France), and Marco Belinelli (Italy). We’ve had the story of the stonecutter on the wall since 2002, and we’ve translated it into every language that we had on the team. It’s now in 19 different languages, including German, Polish, French, Canadian, and Senegalese. The diversity of thought, the relationships that these players gained outside of basketball and that we gained with them are what makes this journey fulfilling.
As a former NBA scout, what intangibles did you consider in a player beyond simply athletic ability?
Their values. Do they align with our values? Are they high character people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves? We talk about the eyes, ears, and numbers. Our eyes are what scouts see. Our ears is the intel work we do to learn about the human. And then the numbers are the more traditional and now more advanced metrics that allow you to assess and analyze value. How do teams perform when they’re on the floor? There’s traditional basketball metrics like points, rebounds, and assists, and data analytics have given an entirely new set of opportunities to analyze value. But their values, that’s our first filter.
You don’t wear your championship rings. Where do you keep them?
In a drawer in a closet that I haven’t looked at in a long time.
Photos by Reginald Thomas