The San Antonio Spurs are the answer to the sports question that transcends generations: When you grow up, who do you want to be?
Well, for Sacramento and the Kings, who will be married at least for the next 30 years, that’s a slam dunk. You want to be the Spurs, with one caveat. You don’t want their building, the AT&T Center. More specifically, you certainly don’t want their building in its current location, a business park area about five miles from a vibrant, dynamic downtown that features the Alamo, the River Walk and enough hotel rooms to ensure its stature among America’s premier convention cities.
But enough about location.
As the lights went on and the party began Thursday night at basketball’s grand opening of Golden 1 Center, the list of invitees included – more than a little appropriately – San Antonio’s Spurs, the franchise widely regarded as the model among small and mid-market organizations, or as Golden State general manager Bob Myers suggests, for NBA teams of all sizes and locations.
“What the Spurs have been able to do, their consistent success over the years, is just fascinating,” Myers said the other night. “You’re talking about the quality of people in an organization, consistent success, over 20 years. We all look up to them.”
In the past two decades, the Spurs have won five NBA championships, assembled rosters featuring past and future Hall of Famers, and maintained stable, understated ownership and an innovative front office headed by team president and head coach Gregg Popovich and his second lieutenant, R.C. Buford.
More? Though other teams are catching on, the Spurs have most effectively exploited the international market, surpassing the early 2000s Kings squads of Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, and the first NBA players from France (Tariq Abdul-Wahad), Turkey (Hedo Turkoglu) and, more recently, Israel (Omri Casspi) playing for Sacramento.
The only bummer about Thursday night’s celebration was that Tim Duncan is retired and no longer around to tussle with DeMarcus Cousins in the low post. But don’t misunderstand. Boogie is a big Duncan fan. Always has been. And though the Spurs are still talented, are still coached by Popovich, still have Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, life after 19 seasons with Timmy is an adjustment for everyone.
“(Duncan) was like a security blanket for everybody, even if things went awry,” Popovich said. “He was like the center of the universe, and everybody knew how to act around that. I’d get on him as much as a rookie, and he would allow me to do that. Then he’d go try to do what I asked him to do. When your superstar is like that, your job is pretty easy.”
Somehow, one suspects the Spurs will be just fine. Yet while they conduct their annual tutorials on how small-market franchises not only can exist but thrive, that wasn’t always the case. In 1993, they moved out of the antiquated, if ideally situated, downtown HemisFair Arena and into a massive, multiuse facility that seated 60,000 and was known as the Alamodome – a decision that decimated the season ticket and luxury suite base and flopped economically.
Recognizing the need for a more viable financial model and the return to a more conventional arena, the Spurs sought public funding for a new facility in 1997 but were overwhelmingly rebuffed. Other proposals were examined and similarly rejected, leading to the inevitable possibility of relocation.
“We were at a crossroads,” former Spurs vice president Russ Bookbinder said years later. “We were not moving just to have a prettier building. In order to stay in business, to compete in the league, we need to change the economic structure of what we’re doing. And when we looked at long-term projections, salary projections, we realized that smaller markets that did not have new facilities began falling farther and farther behind.”
City and county officials eventually agreed on joint funding for an arena seating 18,000-plus on the complex five miles outside the city where the annual rodeo is held, thereby enabling expansion and shared use of the facilities.
But there was one catch: The deal to increase rental car and hotel/motel taxes required voter approval, which was far from guaranteed. Aware of the opposition toward any public contribution, the organization mounted an aggressive political campaign (”Saddles and Spurs”) and enlisted the help of several players.
“I would get up in the morning and go to campaign headquarters,” current Spurs analyst Sean Elliott recalled before Thursday night’s game. “They would send me to people’s homes, to public events and forums. We would make phone calls. Whatever they needed.”
Something else aided the Spurs’ cause: that 1999 championship.
“Having the vote on Nov. 1, which was ring night, surely had an impact,” Buford recalled. “And I think by that time it was clear to the community that everybody wanted it to work out.”
Popovich, a food and wine connoisseur who frequents various downtown restaurants during visits to Sacramento, said he tried to ignore the relocation chatter but remembers feeling a huge sense of relief on election night.
“It was just fantastic to know you had a home that was going to be yours for a long period of time,” he said. “That feeling of constancy was a real thrill, a real pickup for everybody.”
Those saddle sores apparently were worth the pain. Before Duncan retired last spring, the Spurs earned four more titles. The only downside is that the arena is not downtown, not near the Alamo, the River Walk, the city vibe. Five rings will have to suffice.