clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Wonder Years, Part Two - A Spurs Retrospective

'Chopping away

As carina_gino pointed out, yesterday was the 10th anniversary since we drafted our Argentine wizard, Manu Ginobili. As when we drafted Robinson and Duncan, it was a momentous day in the history of the Spurs - even though Duncan certainly didn't realize at the moment. Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

Things are happening in the Spurs nation, and we're all getting pretty excited about our chances for championship number 5. Before we're swept in the fervor of the regular season (all 82 games of bracing basketball action), though, let's continue looking at the history of our team. For remember: he who does not learn the lessons of history is doomed to sign Nick Van Exel again.

Enter San Antonio

The Chaparrals were done in Dallas. Despite James Silas' addition before their last season in Cuban's city, the roster was depleted and finished the 1972-73 season with a mediocre record. Attendance was the worst in the league, and as we saw in part 1 photos of the arena showed only handfuls of people in the seats. The owners decided to cut their loses and sold it to a group of 36 investors from another Texas city: San Antonio.

The group were led by John Schaefer, B. J. "Red" McCombs, Art Burdick, and Angelo Drossos. At first they only leased the team for three years, with an option to buy it after that period, but they decided to go ahead and do it after only one year with the team because of the strong support from the fans. And thus, one of the most successful teams in the NBA was created.

To pick the new team's name, a public contest was organized. The first name picked was San Antonio "Gunslingers", but fortunately it was quickly changed to San Antonio Spurs before they played their first game of the season. The change was supposedly made because the new name represented the Texan heritage and also made for a nice logo - that sure worked out great for the Thunder, many years later.

Tom Nissalke, who had coached the Chaps during the 1971-72 season and had resigned despite winning the ABA Coach of the Year award, was hired. The starting line-up featured 5-10 Joe Hamilton, 6-3 James Silas, 6-3 Harley "Skeeter" Swift, 6-8 Rich Jones, and 6-9 Bob Netolicky (talk about small ball). The lineup would change quickly during the season, but it was good enough to treat San Antonio's new fans to a 91-89 exhibition season victory over the NBA Houston Rockets on October 6th, 1973. (Also signed in 1973? George Karl, who had been drafted 14th in the fourth round of the 1973 NBA draft and thus decided to give the ABA a try. He played 5 years for the Spurs. I feel dirty now.)

Life kills

Here's an anecdote from PTR regular tomasito that involves young Karl:

My brother had just graduated high school, and at the time, may have been the best high school basketball player in the history of San Antonio high school ball (he was the leading all-time scorer in city history). He was working as a counselor at Spurs basketball camp over the summer, as was a washed-up George Karl, after his stint in the league was over. Karl was just looking to try to catch on as a scout or assistant or something.

Anyways, my brother, Mr. High School Hotshot, challenged George Karl, washed up ex-NBAer, to a game of 1-on-1. They played to 5 or 7 or something, by ones. Karl won 7-0, and according to my brother, it wasn’t even that close. He never even got the ball; if he played off of him, Karl would just bury the J, and if he got up on him, Karl would drive around him for an easy layup. Bear in mind, my brother was a great high school player and went on to play D1 college ball.

I always think of this story whenever I hear someone say something like "Steve Nash (or insert random NBA player here) couldn’t guard me." Those guys are really, really good, and no, you could not do anything against one of them.

Growing Pains

Their first ABA game was played on October 10th, 1973 at the one and only Hemisfair Arena, and the Spurs started with a bang: they fell to the San Diego Conquistadors 121-106 before 5,879 hopeful fans. They went on to lose their first four games before claiming their first win on October 18th, when they beat the Virginia Squires 116-106. Only 1,799 people were in attendance.

The Spurs started to turn the tide in November, when they bought 6-11 Swen Nater for $300,000 and a future draft pick from the Virginia Squires - who, like many of the less popular ABA teams, were struggling to make ends meet. He was the first great big man in the Spurs' history, and on November 28th the Spurs played before a sellout crowd of 10,146 and beat the Kentucky Colonels, to improve to 13-12. Nater went on to play in the ABA All-Star Game, scoring 29 points and grabbing 22 rebounds, and was the winner of the ABA Rookie of the Year award.

And then, the Spurs hit the jackpot.

In January, the Squires were again in dire need of cash, and its owner asked Spurs Treasurer Angelo Drossos for a $225,000 loan. The collateral? None other than sophomore George "Ice" Gervin. Of course, Virginia's owner failed to pay the loan and Gervin's contract became a Spur. However, when ABA Commissioner Storen (seriously, that was his name - I almost thought they'd misspelt Stern's name and that he really was that old) found out about the Gervin deal, he tried to rescind it, claiming it was "detrimental to the league, and to the financial viability of the Virginia Squires franchise." Ignoring that he was probably right, this proves once again that the conspiracy against our beloved Spurs has been going on for decades.

After a month-long legal battle, a judge issued an order preventing Gervin from playing for any other ABA team than the Spurs. It was arguably the biggest deal in Spurs history (no, RJ doesn't count), and caused a lot of controversy at the time. In fact, at one point, the 21-year-old Gervin went into hiding for a week as the Spurs, the ABA commissioner and the Squires battled it out.

Hemisfair Arena - nostalgia alert!

Gervin, who would become a three-time ABA All-Star (and many years later, an NBA Hall of Famer), played his first game with the Spurs on February 7th, 1974 against the Utah Stars, and scored 12 points. But we'll talk more about Gervin and his finger roll when we get to the NBA years. I imagine some of the old-timers might even have memories of him playing.

We Were The Spurs

Gervin averaged 19.4 points in 26 games left in the regular season. He led the team along with Silas and Nater to a respectable 45-39 record (winning 12 of the last 18 games), good for third place in the Western Division. They met the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the postseason, and even though the series went back and forth, the Pacers eventually won it in seven games. The Spurs had the largest home crowd in their brief history for game 6, with 12,304 fans filling the arena to its maximum capacity.

So worth 3M

Reading about the Spurs' history, sometimes it's impossible not to find parellelisms between the teams I read about and our Spurs. The 1973-74 had a Big Three of their own, for instance, in Gervin, Silas and Nater. I'll talk later about Silas' style of play, which should remind me of someone else's. And the 1973-74 Spurs were described as "controlled and deliberate on offense, and extremely stingy on defense". Early in the season on October 20th, the Spurs beat the Indiana Pacers 92-66, which was an ABA record low for Indiana. Two weeks later, on November 3rd, the Spurs limited the Denver Rockets to 72 points. Ringing any bells? Over the course of that first season, the Spurs held their opponents below the 100-point level 49 times - another ABA record.

I imagine Nissalke as a sort of retro Pop, with hair, always asking Nater to practice his bank shot. Alas, it was not to last.

Oh My God, We Were The Suns

The 1974-75 Spurs's starting five were Gervin, Nater, Silas, sixth-year forward Rich Jones and Chaparrals veteran Donnie Freeman. They got off to a pretty good 17-10 start, but then Nissalke was fired in December, and the famous Bob Bass took over as coach. As I mentioned, Nissalke liked the slow, defensive half-court game favored in the NBA, and the Spurs' Front Office wanted the loose transition game most ABA teams used. Bass, who in the future would be the Spurs' general manager for many years, also moved Gervin from forward to shooting guard, getting him away from the post and giving him free reign to become one of the most proficient scorers in the history of the game. Suffice to say that Gervin excelled in the fast-paced offense, and in fact once said:

"The NBA people believed you won games with defense, but nobody ever won with defense. You won by putting the ball into the net more than the other guys."

Yeaaah... Forgive me for disagreeing with you, great Iceman, but unfortunately the run-and-gun (or run-and-shoot, as it was called back then) Spurs never won a championship, and wouldn't for many, many years.

It was a good season, regardless. San Antonio finished second in the Western Division with a 51-33 record. In what would become a common sight years later, Gervin scored 51 points against the Memphis Sounds on February 5th. They met the Indiana Pacers once more in the playoffs, and despite Gervin catching fire and averaging 35.0 points in the last three games of the series, they once again came short and lost in six games.

Nater was gone in the offseason of 1975, traded to the New York Nets for forward Larry Kenon. When the 1975-76 season started, the ABA only had 7 teams left, all playing in one division. The Spurs finished the season in third place with a 50-34 record, and won seven of the last eight. In the playoffs they met Julius Erving's New York Nets in the first round. During game 1, Silas, who at that point was still the team's leading scorer at 23.8 ppg, broke his ankle landing on a Net's foot. The Spurs somehow overcame his absence and pushed the Nets to 7 games, losing the last one (their last game in the ABA) 114-121. The Nets went on to claim the ABA's ninth and final championship.

Red McCombs in da hizzy

This Sounds Awfully Familiar

I've been reading some articles about the first true star that played for the San Antonio Spurs, like this one written by David Friedman - I can't recommend it enough. Now, I doubt any of you ever watched him play, so of course I'm basing this on the written accounts of his playing days. That disclaimer aside...

James Silas was Manu Ginobili.

He was Manu before Manu, that is. Manu is Silas 2.0, with extra Argentinian flair, but still recognizable. Allow me to explain: Silas was first and foremost the Spurs' 4th quarter specialist. He was so explosive in the clutch that he earned the nickname "Captain Late" (his other nickname was "the snake" - I don't know what to think about that one). Despite being one of the biggest stars in the ABA, he was content to live in relative obscurity playing for the Spurs. In an interview from 1974, where he was asked if he was bothered by the fact that only a few ABA games were televised, in sharp contrast with the NBA, he said:

"I'm happy with our league. We have a lot of fine talent. The television thing is not important to me. It would be nice for people around the country to see our talent, though. I feel they're being cheated."

When they met the Pacers (who were defending their title) in 1974 and took them to 7 games, it was Silas that the Pacers double teamed, ignoring Gervin. Bob Bass, his coach, shared an anecdote:

"I remember calling a play and Gervin had a bad mismatch, like he did most of the time because he was so big for a guard. I was going to go to Gervin at the end of the game, but he said, 'Give the ball to Jimmy Si and he'll get it done.' For a guy of that stature, a guy as good a player as Gervin was, to say that, you can imagine what kind of respect James Silas had with our team. When he drove to the basket he could take a hit and finish the shot as well as anybody I’ve ever seen--maybe the best I’ve ever seen. You could hit him and he was so strong and could elevate so high that he could still finish the shot. He was a great free throw shooter. It’s amazing—George Gervin led the NBA in scoring four times, but he never got to the free throw line as much you’d think he would. He had all of these tricks; he’d move under you or over you. But James Silas could draw a foul as well as anybody who ever played."

Friendman interviewed Gervin during an ABA reunion, and this is was the Iceman had to say:

"James Silas was a guy who we really went to at the end of the game. James Silas never missed free throws. They don’t give him enough credit and I’m disappointed in that, but we (the ABA players) give it to him because we played with him and respect him and a lot of us idolize his play."

The Spurs built a lot of their offense around Silas’ ability to break down opposing defenses, particularly in late game situations:

"I was real fortunate to have coaches like Bob Bass and Doug Moe who really saw the ability that I had. I don’t know if Bob Bass was the first guy to come up with this play, but it was called a 1-4 play. The other four guys lined up on the baseline in the positions that they were good at and I went to work out front. I went to work from the top of the circle to wherever I wanted to go to get whatever shot was best for me. If I was double teamed I could always find the open guy. It was an almost unstoppable play that Bob and Doug let me run when the game was on the line or for the last second shot at the end of a quarter."

Hmm. Never missed free throws in the fourth quarter, isolation plays at the end of a quarter, a guard with the ability to finish strong at the basket and a knack for passing... Who does that remind me of?

Notice the contrast

Silly comparisons aside, Silas was one heckuva player. He improved his stats every season, and in 1975-76 he ranked sixth in the ABA in scoring (23.8 ppg), fourth in field goal percentage (.519), fourth in free throw percentage (.872), fifth in assists (5.4 apg), fifth in minutes played (3,112) and ninth in steals (1.8 spg). He made the All-ABA First Team ahead of Gervin (who averaged 21.8 ppg and 2.2 apg) and didn't win MVP honor only because of the existance of Dr. J. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, he broke his ankle landing on the foot of Nets' Brian Taylor after shooting a jump shot during the first game of the postseason.

That Summer the NBA and ABA merged, and Silas completely recovered in time for the preseason. However, the Spurs' chances for an NBA title were crushed when Silas suffered a serious cartilage tear in his knee after colliding with another player. He'd only play in 59 of 164 games in the next two regular seasons, and unfortunately he was never the same for the rest of his career, even though he was able to stay healthy after the 1979-1980 season.

In one of the many travesties I've read about spurred by the mythical need to "rebuild" after a heartbreaking loss we'll cover in future posts, Silas was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for his 10th and final season as a professional basketball player. The first of many star Spurs that couldn't retire in San Antonio. On April 15th, 1983 James Silas was selected to the Spurs’ All-Decade Team, along with George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Mike Mitchell and Mark Olberding. The Spurs retired Silas’ number 13 on February 28, 1984. He was the first Spur to have his number retired (lucky #13).

One final gem from this player, in which he explains his view on how to play on offense:

"I always felt—and what guys need to understand today—you don’t take the shot that people give you. You take the shot that you want. I was good at being able to go where I wanted to go on the floor and take the shot that I wanted, not the shot that the defensive player expected me to take. Today a defender could give a guy a shot and if the person thinks it’s a good shot, he’ll take it, but I didn’t like that. If you give me a shot, even if I’m comfortable with it, I’m still going to go where I want to go to take the shot."

Showing Them How To Party

On January 28th, 1975, the city of San Antonio hosted the 1975 ABA All-Star Game. On the West squad were three Spurs: Gervin, Silas and Nater. Gervin scored 23 points and Silas 21 to lead the West, but the East dominated the game, winning 151-124 in front of 10,449 spectators in the HemisFair Arena. The coaches? Kevin Loughery and none other than Larry Brown, then coach of the Denver Nuggets. Both were among the youngest coaches in professional basketball, and reports indicate that they had long hair. Yup, Brown too. There's some history between young, feisty Brown and the Spurs fan, but I'll come back to that later.

So much 70s in just one picture

You should read more about the details of the game in Remember the ABA's throwback article, because it's really priceless. FSM's in the details: they gave the visitors so many presents from locals shops that they also had to include a big suitcase, to help with the trip home. Gervin still has his.

An extra gift for the MVP? A horse, of course. Freddie Lewis, an ABA veteran playing in St. Louis, wore a cowboy hat perched atop his six-inch-high afro while accepting the MVP award, and sold the horse to avoid shipping the horse (despite owning horses near his Phoenix home).

Terry Stembridge, the original radio voice of the team, said:

"That was probably the best all-star game they ever had in the ABA. It might be one of the best in the history of either league."

Fred Elias, a Spurs fan, shares his memories of that night:

"I remember going to see the 1975 ABA All-Star Game held at the now-demolished HemisFair Arena. I could not believe San Antonio was hosting a pro basketball All-Star Game, period. The thing I remember most was that after the game, the players were not rushed to leave the floor and go to their locker rooms. There was such a relaxed attitude between the fans and the players, that the fans were allowed to walk out onto the floor to greet and meet the players. I was one of the lucky fans to be sitting within a few rows of the court and recall just walking onto the floor shaking hands and getting a few autographs from the All-Stars. The police, arena personnel, and PA announcer never said a word."

They Loved This Game

Karl with the airball

It's important to realize how much we owe to the initial popularity of the Spurs in San Antonio, especially considering that was probably the reason it was later selected to join the NBA. The Spurs guard Joe Hamilton, when asked about the home crowd, said:

"It's just great to play for these people. They're rooting for us all the time. Last year at Dallas we'd have 600 or 700 people at our games, and if we got something going, maybe a dozen of them would start yelling. The rest of them just sat there."

That's Dallas for you. Over the course of its first season, San Antonio's attendance figures were consistently among the best in the entire league. In only 18 home games, the Spurs managed to draw more fans than the Chaparrals had during their entire 42-game home schedule in 1972-73. The Spurs ended up averaging 6,303 fans per game, which far surpassed the 1973-74 average attendance of the nearby NBA Houston Rockets, whose top crowd that season barely exceeded 6,000.

"San Antonio had a love affair with the Spurs," explains Terry Stembridge. "We had incredible support from the fans we had here," said George Gervin. "I came here from Virginia, where the support had been honorable, but it was nothing like it was in San Antonio. These people were really behind the Spurs. Nobody in the league liked to come here to play."

How important was our own version of 7 Second or Less in the creation of a fanbase? Many credit the flashy, exciting style for solifying it during those first seasons, especially considering that Gervin thrived in it. "We were blessed to play in the Arena because of its closeness. The fans being so close made it more exciting," he said. "Our fans were like a sixth man on the floor, with guys like Big George (Valle) and the Baseline Bums. People were scared to come in here and play us during the ABA days. If Big George and the Baseline Bums didn't get 'em, we'd run 'em to death on the floor. I've never seen anything like it."

There's an anecdote in Remember the ABA that simply incredible, especially considering Larry Brown's stint as a coach for our team in the late 80s, early 90s:

Because the Spurs kept breaking Denver's home winning streaks, and because of several on-court fights between the teams during the 1974-75 season, a strong rivalry developed between the Nuggets and the Spurs. Nuggets' coach Larry Brown called the Spurs a "dirty team" and yelled at George Gervin during a 1976 Denver loss at HemisFair Arena. Bob Bass got up from the Spurs bench, told Brown to shut up, and offered to fight him. After the game, the Nuggets' boss said "I don't like anything about San Antonio, their coaching staff, their franchise or their city. The only thing I like about San Antonio is guacamole salad." Naturally, the Spurs' rowdy group of fans, the "Baseline Bums," caught wind of Brown's quote. The next time the Nuggets visited HemisFair Arena, the Baseline Bums were ready. Nuggets' forward Gus Gerard remembers that: "The next time we came down there the people were throwing avocados out on the floor and dumping guacamole salad on the players. When Larry (Brown) went to the locker room, they had something like dime beer night that night, so they were pouring beer over Larry's head. That was pretty wild."

Sure sounds like the Spurs fans.

Bye bye, ABAby, Bye Bye (Okay, That Was Bad, Sorry, It's Late)

Pop stealing the show

For the teams that survived the ABA, joining through the merger was far less expensive that starting a new NBA franchise was in those days. That had been part of the plan all along, in fact. Despite this, the day the ABA dissolved was a sad one for many people. "Angelo always said it was a merger between the leagues," LaReau said of the man given a big part of the credit for the ABA's marriage with the NBA. "Never that we were absorbed or the league was dissolved. It was always that we merged with them."

"A lot of these young guys coming up don't know what we did for them," Gervin said. "They're downright disrespectful. We built things up for them; we did all the work. And I know they don't appreciate the things we did in the ABA ."

The Spurs were one of four teams selected to join the NBA along with the Nets, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers. Good ol' NBA. The Spurs were moving up in the world, and Gervin was ready to shine on a national playground.