The following is an uncut series of answer to questions that I, via JRW, was asked by Dane Carbaugh, who recently wrote an article for Dime Online. The article focused primarily on the travails that tend to be unique to the smaller market teams of the NBA, and seeing as how the Spurs have become a paragon for basketball excellence in general through those small market confines, it made sense that the relevant opinions were gathered. Thanks to Dane for the opportunity. His article can be viewed here.
1. Why do you think cities of roughly similar size have a differing perception as basketball friendly – for example, Toronto and Miami each with 5.5MM people.
When it comes to basketball (or really any sport seen as predominant or more important than another) in a small market, I feel that a lot of the perception toward it by the public has to do with how they personally feel about basketball first and foremost, but also whether or not there are other sporting options available. It goes without saying that in a larger market you have the luxury of a bigger well from which to draw, in terms of people. When a city or area has multiple millions of people, the odds exponentially increase as to whether those people will consider themselves to be basketball fans. More people equals greater odds that you’ll be able to fill the arena and sustain support towards the team. San Antonio differs from a lot of other cities in that the Spurs are the only major sports franchise either in the city itself or in the surrounding area, other than the WNBA affiliate of the Spurs. Though the city also fields several minor league attractions, the nearest neighboring professional franchises are set either in Dallas or Houston, several hours away. The nearest major city, Austin, is without a pro franchise of their own, so you don’t really see too many transient fans like you might in California or New York, where other teams seems to be more readily available as far as potentially being a fan might go.
Probably the best example of a smaller market providing other sporting options for their resident fanbases would have been Seattle, back when they featured the Supersonics. Unfortunately, that multitude of options might have been one of the contributing factors to the departure of the basketball team. With the Sonics underperforming and the area football team surging, as well as the baseball and soccer franchises also presenting themselves as options, there was almost a perfect storm of reasons for the team to not have the support it both deserved and needed in order to stay.
I feel as if San Antonio’s embracing of the Spurs has flourished because of the winning culture surrounding the franchise. With a couple of near misses for trips to the Finals back in the mid 90s, and a steady supply of all time great players staffing the roster (Gervin, Robinson, Rodman, etc) before Tim Duncan arrived, the stage was effectively set for when the real success began. I think that a lot of Spurs fans, if not all of them, recognize how fortunate they are and reflect that sentiment with proper appreciation and support of their team.
When you get into the specifics of the city-to-city perception towards basketball, I feel as if things become a little less concrete. Since you mentioned Toronto, I think that, in their case, it’s important to remember that they, being in Canada, are predominately a hockey-centric city, despite their relative proximity to New York, the unanimous "mecca" of basketball. Miami on the other hand, has an NBA championship about which it can boast, and even before that (and Dwyane Wade) was a perennial playoff team. The perception by the public towards a sport will always benefit from a championship, just as much as it will benefit from a preseason victory parade at which it’s new roster is publicly unveiled.
2. How do you think small market fans perceive each other from city to city? Do they empathize, see them as main rivals or are they indifferent?
As far as the perception that fans of smaller market teams have towards one another, I don’t necessarily feel as if it’s anything more than a gentlemanly nod in their direction, in terms of empathy. It’s more so an acknowledgement that those teams are in the same boat as us, as far as the struggle to perform and be seen go, especially in the face of the more popular franchises. I do feel however, that after watching Seattle being stripped of their team, there is a sense of solidarity among these respective fanbases, almost as if the awareness that the same thing could happen to them had been raised. As I said before though, I feel as if San Antonio has been among the more fortunate of these smaller market teams. Had the Spurs historically performed like, for example, the LA Clippers have, I don’t think I could say with any real assertion that the team wouldn’t have left in search of greener pastures.
3. How do you think large market fans perceive each other from city to city? Do they empathize, see them as main rivals or are they indifferent?
To me, I feel that fans of large market teams tend to perceive things a little differently though. Larger market teams are in the unique situation whereby the knowledge by the general public of them often transcends the actual knowledge or concern for the sport. What that means is that people that aren’t baseball or basketball fans are often aware of the comings and goings of the Yankees and Lakers, at least on a surface level. I tend to assert that most die hard fans of the Lakers are unfairly lumped in with the casual fan, because most people tend to meet those types of people on a day to day basis. Though it’s not a slight against the actual team or the die hard fans, I would argue that most people are more familiar with the casual sports fans who align themselves with such teams as the Lakers, simply because it saves them the trouble of actually following the sport itself. I think that a lot of the more serious fans of teams like the Lakers almost lament this in a way, as they seem very cognizant of the fact that they’re considered to be bandwagon fans simply because the team is among the more profitable and widely known, and are unfairly lumped in with the casual fan base. You tend not to see quite as many passive fans of teams like the Spurs or Jazz, especially outside state lines. In the end though, I still think it’s good for the game, especially if the retention rate of fans is high. If someone starts watching basketball because they’re dragged into watching or attending a Lakers or Celtics game, then gets into it and becomes a fan of the 76ers for example, I don’t see how that could be viewed as anything other than a good thing. Large market teams have an ability to generate new fans across greater areas that smaller market teams simply don’t, and that’s simply a reality.
4. What is the most important factor in determining fan voracity for a team? Management? Roster? Culture? Economic impact? (I realize this question has many facets and is too simplified to answer with real conviction. Gun to your head, what would you pick?)
When you mention the voracity of a particular team’s fanbase, I believe that there are a lot of factors that contribute, albeit some much more than others. I believe that although things like location of the team do contribute (places like New York and LA certainly have a glamorous, almost romantic allure to them), I feel that the most important things for both the short and long term voracity are A.) "Who is on the team’s roster?" and B.) "Are they winning?" respectively. High profile talent ensnares new fans, be it on a casual or hardcore basis, but those fans are kept through the team’s success with those players. Although you’ll always find fans who remain loyal to their team even through the worst of times, the fact is and will always be that people like a winner, and more importantly, they like their team to be a winner. You’d be hard pressed to find a Spurs fan in San Antonio who wouldn’t remind you of the team’s success at least 1-100 times in a casual conversation. Those very same fans would also be quick to remind you of some of the all time greats that have worn the Spurs’ Silver and Black over the years. Having Hall of Fame talents like Gervin, Robinson, Duncan, and Ginobili helps to generate new fans as much as it does to generate titles when a team gets the opportunity to win on the biggest stage and cement their greatness long term.
5. When do you think Tim Duncan will retire?
Personally, I tend to waver on exactly when Tim Duncan will retire. One of the detriments to contributing to a Spurs blog is that I’m constantly exposed to the opinions of many different people, and all of that plays a role in my own formation of certain opinions. If prodded at gunpoint, I’d honestly say I think he’ll be around for at least two more years. I believe that, deep down, Duncan feels both the team and he are capable of winning, and is enough of a competitor to where he’ll take a few more cracks at it. Obviously, things like health and other intangibles like the lockout could contribute either way, as much as winning immediately could. For example, if the Spurs are fortunate enough to claim another title in the coming season (whenever that may be), I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see him ride into the sunset while on top. If they don’t win however, and he still feels healthy and "good" about himself, then I’d expect the "two more years" argument to kick in in full. Also, I feel it needs to be said that I actually think Tony Parker’s future with the team is and will be a contributor to that decision. If Duncan feels that Parker is integral to championship success, and he (Parker) is traded away before or during a season in which the Spurs don’t win it all, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hangs em up for good.
6. Do you believe the Spurs will go all-in next year if Duncan stays, and what moves will they do?
As a long time fan of the Spurs (since ever since I thought that David Robinson was the only guy who could do flips in NBA Jam), I’ve become pretty familiar with the manner in which team management likes to do things. I feel like, in a way, Spurs management already has gone all-in in an attempt to win now. Fortunately, unlike a lot of other management staffs throughout the league, the Spurs will never mortgage their future success in an effort to win "right this second". Perhaps the most fortunate team in the history of the NBA not named the Lakers, Celtics, or Bulls, the Spurs have never really been placed into a situation in which they had to make a mad grab for all time talent either via trade or free agency. That, along with smart drafting and excellent player coaching and development, is the main reason the Spurs have been able to win at such an impressive clip over the past 12-13 yrs. The lone detriment to Spurs management, at least in the eyes of the fans, is that sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the fervor exhibited by other teams making mad dashes to procure the right pieces they need for their own success. Sometimes it’s hard to be patient, even if your team’s management staff has proven it works time and again.
7. When Tim is gone, what do you think the future for the Spurs looks like and what can we expect from Buford and the boys in silver and black?
Post-Duncan, I think it will be interesting to see the direction the Spurs take in order to continue their successes. When Duncan entered the picture, San Antonio’s roster featured one of the all time greatest and most prolific post scorers in the history of the game, who was also one gracious enough to step aside and alter his role on the team. With Robinson becoming the team’s defensive anchor, Duncan’s own considerable game was given the best kind of environment in which to flourish, and the titles followed shortly thereafter. Present day, we see Duncan’s own career winding down during the time at which another gifted post player in Tiago Splitter, is making his own place on the roster.
The issue many people will be quick to point out though, is the fact that Splitter is not chiefly an offensive player. With Duncan’s (and Ginobili’s) career in the twilight stage, there really isn’t another player on the roster that can generate such a large scale offensive attack. Most of the other players currently on the roster are player that score in bunches because of Duncan, and not in spite of him. While Tim’s offensive output has declined recently, it’s really difficult to gauge exactly where it falls on a meter because that decline has been through the design of limited minutes. Whatever the true case is however, it’s obvious he is still widely respected throughout the league, as seen in the space he’s able to create for San Antonio’s young shooters.
Briefly, in this lone season among his 12 previous, we saw the Spurs adopt a more fast paced offense that contributed to the tune of a 60 win season. On the surface, most people would argue that those numbers are hardly cause for alarm, but the joke here would be that those people aren’t Spurs fans. What I saw personally, was a glimpse at what a future without Duncan would look like, and it wasn’t one of championship pedigree. I feel that Splitter, as he works on coming into his own within the Spurs’ offense, will provide a means of helping to continue the tradition of boring, defensive, Spurs basketball that everybody hates because their team can’t score against it. The only concern will be whether or not the team can unearth the right pieces in order to provide the exact offensive spark they’ve had since Duncan came to town. Looking at this most recent draft, I feel it’s safe to say that the front office knows what is needed, but the proof will manifest itself on whether the right moves will be able to be made in the near future, which will unfortunately feature the end of the Duncan Era at some point during.