Franchise Primer: Why the Spurs Unite San Antonio
San Antonio without the Spurs would be a far less interesting city and probably a much harder sell to the talented young professionals and creatives we are trying so hard to recruit here.
Nothing unites people in San Antonio like the Spurs, except the military in moments of national unity, as happened after Sept. 11, 2001. Too often in our city’s history, the narrative has been North-South, rich-poor, Anglo-Hispanic. There is less of that now than when my family moved here in 1989, but through the 24 years we’ve been here, people have always come together around the Spurs.
Monday’s Memorial Day sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies puts the Spurs back in the NBA Finals for the first time in six years. The veteran team some thought was too old to compete includes future Hall of Fame forward Tim Duncan, the last active player from the 1998-99 strike-shortened season when the Spurs beat the New York Knicks to win their first NBA Championship.
Many divide the modern-day Spurs into the David Robinson era (1989-1997) and the Tim Duncan era (1997-present), an arbitrary division that is a bit unfair to Robinson, who helped win titles in 1999 and 2003.
I see another era, one defined by the current leadership, and that goes back to 1996 when Peter Holt bought a controlling interest in the Spurs from a group of investors that included Gaylord Properties of Oklahoma City, which also owns Gaylord Entertainment in Nashville. Both cities coveted a NBA franchise. That was the same year that Spurs General Manager Greg Popovich a/k/a “Coach Pop”, signed on as coach. They had their work cut out for them. The injury-plagued Spurs set a new franchise low that season, going 20-62.
What we see today, and what we’ve seen for the last 18 years, is the system Peter and Pop and their talented supporting cast began to put in place back then, a system built around teamwork and values, on and off the court. I mention the talented supporting cast to acknowledge that Pop’s protegés are prized by other franchises interested in building long-term value.
One day after the sweep, former Spurs player and executive Danny Ferry, now general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, hired Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer as the Hawks new head coach. Budenholzer has been with the Spurs since Pop was named coach. Assistant coaches are fairly anonymous in many cities. In San Antonio, neighbors got together Tuesday and placed brooms in their Alamo Heights front yards to salute Budenholzer. You can read the Express-News story here.
The plan put in place by Holt and Coach Pop extended to off-court and off-season. The Spurs Foundation, renamed the Silver and Black Giveback, has distributed many millions of dollars over the last 25 years to worthy community causes, particularly in the realm of education and youth programs. Players who sign with the Spurs understand that some contractual obligations will take them out of the gym and into inner city schools and non-profits.
But winning is what gets all the attention.
You haven’t seen downtown San Antonio until you’ve been here when the Spurs win the championship. I don’t mean the formal river parade that happens later.
I’m talking about the spontaneous, same night fiesta that breaks out right after the last game. It first happened in 1999 when tens of thousands of jubilant fans poured into downtown, turning freeways into parking lots, and the streets and River Walk into one big party. It happened again in 2003, 2005 and 2007, the years when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili joined Duncan in hoisting the trophy. Cars didn’t burn, fights didn’t break out. It was peaceful partying.
Now, after a six-year hiatus from the NBA Finals, the Spurs are back, a team that carried the best record in the league for much of the season, yet remained a longshot in the eyes of most to contend for the trophy. Such doubts stop at the San Antonio city limits.
Get ready for more “Go, Spurs, Go!” banners hanging from office buildings and homes, and black and silver flags flying from cars and trucks as a city roots for a fifth trophy. The Spurs have played in four NBA Finals and won all four times. It can happen again.
The Spurs Stay in San Antonio
There have been times when the city could have lost its only pro sports franchise. Red McCombs and co-owner Angelo Drossos brought the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals to San Antonio in 1972 and Red renamed them the Spurs. He sold his share of the team in 1976, owned the Denver Nuggets for several years, and bought back the Spurs in 1988. There was talk back then of a possible sale to Philadelphia investors who wanted a second NBA franchise in that city.
The Spurs played in Hemisfair Arena, when it was hard to make a buck in San Antonio with a losing franchise in a revenue-poor arena. That was before the city built the Alamodome in 1993 and the Spurs moved in, revenues climbed, and McCombs sold to the group of local investors who would eventually sell to fellow investors Peter and Juliana Holt. I mention Juliana because she seldom appears in stories about he franchise, but she was a force in her own right and part of the deal. She also is shrewd judge of horseflesh, well-known in the high roller world of horse racing and breeding. The Spurs franchise certainly does not exclude her in their historical timelines.
Gaylord could have bought out other local investors if the Holts had not done so, and then moved the team. The Las Vegas-based Maloof brothers, Joe and Gavin, also made a play for the team. Gavin had attended Trinity University, and Gen. Robert McDermott, the longtime president and chairman of USAA and the chairman of the board of the Spurs, was inclined to make that deal. McDermott will go down in history as one of San Antonio’s great visionaries, but no one ever accused him of knowing much about basketball or running a pro sports franchise.
Holt’s bid kept the Spurs in San Antonio and ushered in the championship era. The Maloofs eventually bought the Sacramento Kings, and after a decade of mismanagement and threatened franchise moves to various cities, finally won league approval to sell the team to a new owner who will keep the Kings in the California state capitol. It’s easy to imagine how different the Spurs story would be today if the Maloofs had prevailed instead of Holt. Lucky us.
The David Robinson Era
Lucky for us that the Spurs organization won the NBA Draft Lottery in 1987 and selected David Robinson, even though it meant waiting two seasons while he fulfilled his post-graduate military commitment from the U.S. Naval Academy. Robinson arrived in November of 1989, easy for me to remember, having arrived here that same month. The Spurs went 28-54 the year they drafted Robinson, and 21-61 in the 1988-89 season, the franchise’s worst season ever at the time. Could today’s Spurs fan endure such losses?
The Robinson era changed everything. In his first game here, he posted 23 points and 17 rebounds in a 106-98 win against Magic Johnson’s Lakers. The team’s turnaround that season to a 56-26 record set an NBA record (since broken) for biggest single season turnaround. Robinson was named Rookie of the Year, and the team drew attention beyond San Antonio, although some say the Spurs still don’t get the respect and attention they deserve.
That could be changing, evidenced by such stories as the one that appears in today’s Wall Street Journal by sports writer Jason Gay: “The Completely Awesome San Antonio Spurs.”
Robinson won attention off-court, too. He attended church services, played the piano and saxophone, and was a philanthropist in the making. He eventually donated more than $9 million to start the Carver Academy, a high performance, private charter school on the city’s predominantly African-American Eastside. His character helped define the Spurs as a team that stood as much for its good behavior and community involvement as its on-court accomplishments.
It wasn’t all Robinson. Holt, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and Popovich, an Air Force Academy graduate, together set a tone that often contrasted sharply with other franchises where the off-court conduct of some players often made for damaging headlines. Robinson, however, stood out among all peers, starting with his decision after military service to sign with the Spurs, even though he had not signed a contract when drafted and could have opted to sign with a more winning team in a bigger market after his military discharge. Lucky us.
The Tim Duncan Era
Robinson won everything except an NBA title in the years he led the team, but he missed most of the 1996-97 season with injuries and the Spurs fell to a new low point. The team’s 20-62 finish positioned them well and once again they won the NBA Draft Lottery. They picked Tim Duncan to become Robinson’s dynamic on-court partner and heir apparent. The Spurs were, in an instant, a major threat. Finally, in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season, they became NBA champions, the first former ABA franchise to win an NBA title.
After several seasons in the cavernous Alamodome, the increasingly popular team campaigned for a new arena designed specifically for basketball. The City of San Antonio thought it had a deal with Holt and the Spurs to build a new arena next to the Alamodome, but Bexar County Judge Cindi Krier, working behind the scenes, made the Spurs a better offer. Then-Mayor Howard Peak and the downtown business establishment were stunned to learn the Spurs were moving to an Eastside location next to Freeman Coliseum, home to the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.
Animosities over the deal linger to this day. The political brinksmanship, however, didn’t affect the outcome. The arena vote came on the same November day the Spurs received their championship rings from the league. Coincidence? Hard to say, but nearly 60% of the voters gave the Spurs a new arena.
Voters, in effect, overwhelmingly said yes to the Robinson-Duncan franchise. The AT&T Center was opened in 2002 at a cost of $186 million, largely financed by county bonds backed by hotel-occupancy and rental car taxes. Yes, the visitor industry — not you — paid for most of the facility, with Holt and the Spurs contributing $28.5 million of the total, including the many original works of art found in the arena. SBC, later renamed AT&T, paid $41 million for the naming rights for 20 years. Mark your calendars: The deal expires in 2022.
Robinson and Duncan won one more championship together in 2003 and then Robinson retired, but he stayed in San Antonio and he continues to make a difference.
For people new to San Antonio, I don’t think any look back at the start of the Spurs golden era is complete without considering Sean Elliott, the other key player in the 1999 championship run. Elliott played in every game that season, and immediately afterwards, revealed that he suffered from a kidney disease. He underwent kidney transplant surgery in the of-season, gaining a brother’s kidney. Incredibly, he became the first pro athlete in any sport to resume his career after a major organ transplant.
Elliott joined the team as a rookie in 1989, the same year Robinson became a Spur. Count me as one of many in the city who was dismayed when he was traded, after three excellent seasons, to the Detroit Pistons in 1993 for Dennis Rodman. A league-leading rebounder and defender, Rodman, a party animal, even bought Elliott’s house, to the chagrin of a former San Antonio Light newspaper publisher who lived across the street. Rodman’s colorful antics soon wore thin here. He was a bad fit: a rebounder without equal trapped in the mind of a troubled child.
Elliott was actually cut from a losing Pistons team after one season and found his way back to San Antonio for the 1994-95 season. He went on to enjoy the best seasons of his All-Star career over the next two years. His most memorable career moment, the one no Spurs fan here for the 1998-99 season will ever forget, was the Memorial Day Miracle, considered one of the greatest shots in NBA history and a must-see video.
The Spurs had home court advantage against the Portland Trailblazers in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals, but were down 85-83 with 12 second left in the game. After a time out, Mario Elie desperately inbounded the ball to Elliott, who almost fell out-of-bounds in the far corner while reaching for Elie’s pass. Elliott quickly recovered, planted his feet on the line and in the face of 6’11” Rasheed Wallace’s outstretched arms, fired a perfect 3-pointer with 9.9 seconds on the clock. The basket left Portland reeling as pandemonium broke out in the Alamodome. The Spurs went on to sweep the demoralized Trailblazers and beat the Knicks in the Finals.
Elliott, like Robinson, has made San Antonio home and works as a color commentator for the Spurs. he’s been retired for more than a decade, but fans still stop him everywhere he goes.
Express-News sports columnist Buck Harvey had a nice take on both the 1999 and the 2013 Memorial Day wins for the Spurs in his Tuesday column. You can read it here.
If you’re basketball fan and new to San Antonio, you probably root for another team, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself becoming a Spurs fan as the excitement builds this week and next when the Finals open on June 6. The Spurs are the best story in the league. You have to be good to be this lucky.