What do Tommy Lee Jones, Selena Gomez, Armie Hammer, Eva Longoria and George Strait all have in common? They’re fans of the San Antonio Spurs—or at least have been spotted courtside cheering the Alamo City’s favorite NBA team.
But in San Antonio, even Hollywood celebrities don’t attract as much attention and love from locals as the Spurs. In the AT&T Center, the Spurs’ home arena, Fancams rarely zoom in on famous faces. The focus is on the players, owner Peter Holt and coach Gregg Popovich, whom fans affectionately call “Pop.” Players are known by first names, too—like Manu, Tim and Tony. Perhaps that’s because Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been San Antonio Spurs so long, playing together since the 2002-03 season—longer than any three players on any current NBA team—and having shared in three NBA titles and 11 straight playoff appearances. Even Coach Popovich has been with the Spurs since 1994, and the Spurs’ Silver & Black nonprofit organization has been steadfastly supporting local charities for 25 years.
Sure, San Antonio loves its Spurs, and not just because they’ve made the NBA playoffs for 23 of the past 24 seasons. Fans admire how professionally the players carry themselves. The Spurs are not the bad boys of basketball; they behave like gentlemen, on and off the court. Coach Popovich would have it no other way.
“We try to do our work early and make sure the people we bring to the team have gotten over themselves and understand the responsibility to their teammates and to the city, so they conduct themselves like other good citizens,” said Popovich. “They dine at local restaurants and shop at stores with the fans, and the majority owns homes here. They support local businesses. Some have established their own foundations, and all are generous with local charities. Many end up staying in San Antonio when their tenure is done ... . We try to give the fans the best possible team we can so that they can enjoy success; but also, and perhaps more importantly, we try to give them a team they can be very proud of.”
Loyal fans appreciate that and see their relationship with the Spurs as something sacred, like a marriage, including “for better or for worse.”
Last summer, fans stood by the Spurs when things went from wonderful to heartbreaking during the 2013 NBA Playoffs. In Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Spurs lost to the Miami Heat during the stomach-turning, roller-coaster-ride final 30 seconds of overtime. Then, in Game 7, the Spurs lost the series. Still, fans’ support never wavered. San Antonio baker Miguel Marty Sr. of El Volcan Panaderia even created spur-shaped doughnuts in the team’s honor.
Doughnuts aside, the marriage between the Spurs and their fans has been sweet for a long time. In fact, the Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs in the 16 seasons since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997. With the exception of the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio is the only team with a tied or better head-to-head regular season record against every active team in the NBA.
“The Spurs have a unique relationship with the residents of San Antonio that’s unlike any other in the NBA,” says Julián Castro, San Antonio’s young mayor, who's a self-proclaimed sports buff and regularly burns up Twitter with enthusiastic Tweets about the team. Born only two years before the Spurs’ first season, Castro grew up in San Antonio playing basketball with his twin brother, Joaquin, who is now a U.S. congressman. Both are fans. “The Spurs provide more than entertainment. They are a unifying force within our community with the rare ability to lift the spirit of the entire city,” says Mayor Castro.
Die-hard fan Taylor Young of East Texas agrees: “You’ll never find a bandwagon Spurs fan—somebody who likes them for a season or two and then starts to back another team instead.” A bright 23-year-old who works for a non-profit youth ministry, Young has seen how sports and positive role models like the Spurs can shape kids’ lives. When he was a boy, he and his father were Spurs season ticket holders, even though they lived 70 miles away in Austin. “Seeing those games with my dad meant the world to me—I still call him after every game.”
“It was Memorial Day, 1999. I was nine years old. Sean Elliott made a 21-foot three-point field goal shot during Game 2 of the 1999 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, giving the Spurs a one-point lead with nine seconds left to play. They still call that shot the Memorial Day Miracle,” he says.
Ladies love their Spurs, too—like Missy Alwais, a 43-year-old fan living in Houston who was born and raised in San Antonio. She remembers when the playoffs were still a faraway dream. “I started going to games with my dad and my grandfather at the age of three, when the Spurs first moved to San Antonio ... . Waiting 26 years before their getting to the finals is something that younger Spurs fans have never had to experience. To my family, the Spurs are a legacy, something handed down from generation to generation, something I have shared with my nieces and nephews who live all over the country but still love their Spurs.”
The younger generation is just as loyal. “When I was born, I came out with a Spurs shirt on,” says 11-year old Sebastien De La Cruz, a young fan who appeared on “America’s Got Talent” and was invited to sing the national anthem during the Finals. After being the target of racist Twitter posts following his appearance at Game 3, De La Cruz received an outpouring of support from the Spurs, who immediately invited him to sing the anthem again for Game 4. Ginobili was one of the first members to approach De La Cruz and tell him how proud he was of him. “I got to meet the Spurs, and it was wonderful—they shook my hand and gave me high-fives. They were all so good to me. Coach Pop tousled my hair, and Manu was really nice,” says De La Cruz.
Fans come from all walks of life. So local parishioners weren’t surprised last summer when superfan Catholic Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller entered into a friendly NBA Finals wager with an archbishop in Miami. When the Spurs lost, Garcia-Siller sent fajitas and barbecue to two Miami homeless shelters. Mayor Castro also wagered with Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez only to pay up in Tex-Mex fare, too. Likewise, a San Antonio-based restaurant chain, Taco Cabana, bet on the Spurs with Miami-based partner restaurant group Pollo Tropical. Good sports all, three top executives flew to Miami Beach to work at the other side’s restaurant while clad in Miami Heat jerseys. “I wore my Spurs shirt under it—I didn’t want their jersey touching my skin,” Taco Cabana’s C.O.O. Todd Coerver said with a grin. It was all in good fun for Taco Cabana folks, who had supported the Spurs by giving away celebratory, free breakfast tacos the morning after each playoff win.
Such support motivates the team, says Spurs guard Manu Ginobili.
“Our fans in San Antonio are wonderful,” he said. “I’m consistently amazed by the support we receive and the passion our fans have every day—at games, on the street, at an H-E-B, at the airport. It always feels good. As a player, it’s important to be in a city where the fans are involved and committed. For me, it’s humbling to see how important the Spurs are to the community. When we win, it seems like the entire city is happy.”