The Spurs locker room is filled with Hall-of-Famers-to-be, men (and a woman now in assistant coach Becky Hammon) who are admired not only in San Antonio but around the world. They're looked upon, whether they want to be or not, as "role models," for generations to follow.
Meanwhile, an enterprising, unassuming fellow covering the Spurs serves as an inspiration for bloggers everywhere.
It's our own Travis Hale, man. He's living the dream.
Travis, who started out as "SARR" (San Antonio Red Raider) around these parts, is branching out and getting noticed in the sportswriting community. He's been featured on NBCSports.com, BBallBreakdown.com and Stakingtheplains.com, a site covering all things Texas. Slowly but surely, he's gaining a following.
And it all started because of his deep admiration for a man who thinks he's a pirate.
"It was January 1, 2010 when I did my first story, it was right after Mike Leach got fired at Texas Tech," Hale recalled, explaining he felt compelled to join SBNation's Texas Tech blog Viva the Matadors to vent. "That was one of those emotional moments... I was really attached to him as a coach. I did a story --it's kind of corny looking back on it now-- kind of tying his career, at that time I had just been laid off from my job and we had another baby, and we had a lot turmoil going on, so I did this story that weaved in and out of that, and it was the first ‘real' thing that I did, that I wrote for mass distribution. The feedback I got on it just encouraged me to keep going."
Travis' first foray in writing actually came in 2006, from an even more personal and emotional event, the death of his grandparents. Describing himself as "introverted," he found the experience of committing his feelings and memories to paper cathartic.
"I always feel like it's easier for me to write things down than verbalize them," he said, but he was still the classic sports blog "lurker" before the Red Raiders made Leach walk the plank. There was still that fear of putting himself out there for public consumption. Even after the positive feedback he received from his Leach story, Hale felt safer behind his pseudonym and found himself hiding his true self behind layers of fiction.
"I used to just do these smart-ass, sarcastic, a lot of times just made-up characters, that was all it was, and every once in a while I would step out, because it was just safe for me, I was hidden before I was anonymous, I was SARR but then I would get behind another layer of invisibility or anonymity where I wasn't even writing as myself but I was writing as some made-up character or something," Hale explained, wincing at the memory.
"But every once in a while I would step out a little bit and I would do something that was honest or serious, and people would encourage me, my friends and Seth, the guy the who runs the Tech site, and say ‘You really should explore that,' you should try to hone that skill a little bit, so I took their advice and tried doing some of that. You look at some of the stuff I did early on at PtR and I know J.R. Wilco was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this guy doing?' because there was just this -- I did some Aron Baynes-Rocky Balboa punching thing early on, but I just kind of evolved from that."
Indeed, Pounding the Rock was where Hale chose to dip his toes in a new proverbial pond, away from whatever comfort and familiarity he'd developed covering his beloved Red Raiders. He responded to a tweet from Wilco, looking for writers in early 2014, and quickly a relationship formed.
"It was really eye-opening for me when I started out at PtR," Hale said. "I remember telling JRW, ‘Shit man, these guys are good.' I'd already written some good stories and he told me, ‘Yeah, you have to step it up.'"
Not only were there established writers at PtR for Hale to prove himself against, but, surprisingly, a learning curve as well, about the NBA in general and the Spurs in particular.
"I'll be honest, it's a little known secret, I wasn't the biggest NBA fan... and I didn't even know too terribly much about the Spurs,' Hale admitted. "I was... more of a casual fan more than anything. Like everybody else I got really involved in 2013. So taking that leap when he sent that out, I sent JRW several stories of what I had written and we met and talked about it, but just the challenge of that, of writing consistently when you didn't have that something that was triggering it... it really helped me grow and as the playoffs came, that was really a huge jump for me, it was every day... that was something I'd never done before. But it's an exercise, it's challenging your mind, ‘Can I find this angle?' There's so much competition, there's so many guys out there that I have to find that hook, I have to find a different way to tell the story, and that goes back to my first job at PtR was the rehashes and I think that really helped me because the challenge of the rehash is... somebody is going to be writing a recap of the game, a rehash is to write about the things that are not as common, that maybe somebody didn't see, and so going through the season like that, that really helped to train me ... to look for those things that maybe not everyone else is writing about.
There was an adjustment period, as with any new experience, and after some trial and error, Hale quickly found his sea legs in our little corner of the world. People started noticing him, not just because of his absurd predictions or his quality writing, like this story on Kawhi Leonard after Game 2 of the Finals, but also because he wasn't afraid to challenge famous people in an intelligent way when he thought it was warranted. He took on the late Stuart Scott after feeling the former SportsCenter anchor wasn't being fair with a fan who got into a verbal altercation with Marcus Smart during an Oklahoma State game. He called out Charles Barkley for being disrespectful to the women of San Antonio. These famous people responded to him, and in Scott's case an unlikely, and tragically brief, friendship was formed.
"I stayed up late, wrote that story, published it and the next day, I went home for lunch and I get this message, ‘Stuart Scott is now following you on Twitter,' and it was like ‘Oh shit,'" Hale exclaimed, still dumbstruck more than a year after. "It wasn't a minute later that I get a (direct) message from him, ‘Hey, if you're man enough send me your number and we'll talk this out.' So I sent him my number and he called me that night and he was on set at SportsCenter and we went back and forth and he was not happy with me at first, he was really mad at me, but we talked for 30, 40 minutes and he told me ‘Your words mean something,' and that really stuck with me. Here was this iconic figure, and he reached out to me."
Scott was certainly no stranger to criticism from all corners of the internet. What was it about Hale's story that struck a nerve with him? How alarming did it feel to be singled out by a celebrity who spent a career seemingly ignoring so many of his detractors?
"That's totally it. It really impacted me that we built that relationship. From there we kept in touch, I sent him pictures of my kids and we'd talk about his daughters, and we got together in the Finals and had breakfast with he and his girlfriend, just like normal. And we didn't talk a lot about sports, we just talked about kids and movies and the shows that we were watching, and in the moment I was just trying to swallow it all in, but looking back it was really pivotal because just knowing that [your words] do mean something. Sometimes you get in these communities like PtR and even The Matador, and it seems like there's only a handful of people seeing these, but that's not necessarily the case, and you have to keep that in mind, and that goes back to Scott, for him to befriend me, that really impacted me."
Scott inspired Hale to take his writing more seriously than ever and also emboldened him to reach out to anyone and everyone. He found Barkley in the tunnel outside of the Spurs locker room hours after the Hall-of-Famer referred to him as "an idiot blogger," on national television and they made up.
("I remember he smelled really good," Hale recalled.)
He sought out Craig Sager Jr., the son of Gregg Popovich's favorite sideline nemesis and Jimmy Goldstein, who's perhaps the NBA's most hardcore fan. As Hale explained, sometimes the easiest way to score an exclusive interview is to just stick your hand out, introduce yourself, and ask for one.
"It's part naivete/stupidity and part 15 years in sales," he chuckled. "I always figure the worst thing that can happen is someone will tell me no. So, with Goldstein, I just walked up to him in the media room after the press conferences were over, shook his hand and asked if I could call him for an interview. He gave me one of his cards and his cell phone number (which I stupidly wrote on the front of the card, thereby ruining it) and I called him the next morning. I found (Sager) Jr.'s email address somewhere --his Twitter profile maybe?-- and sent him an email asking if he'd be interested in an interview. We were on the phone 15 minutes later and he sent me a ton of great pictures later that evening."
Hale's batting average with celebrity interviews is far closer to the Mendoza Line (20 percent for you non-baseball fans) than a perfect 1.000. He says he's been turned down by the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Tommy Lee Jones, Jonah Hill and even the guy who played "Jerry" on Parks and Recreation. (C'mon, Jerry!)
Of course, the goal for any aspiring professional writer is not necessarily to track down celebrities but rather to have a steady gig with a reputable platform. And doing that, Hale explained, involves the same philosophy as seeking those interviews. To borrow a term from Pop, you need "stick-to-it-ive-ness."
You need to keep pounding that rock, only in his case your hammer is the left button on your mouse and the rock is the "send" icon on your email provider.
"Be ready to be rejected a lot," Hale cautioned. "I've sent stories ... 99 percent of them I never hear back from. But you have to use that as fuel whether it's something dumb as ‘I'll teach these guys,' but you can't give up. There's so much talent out there, so many good writers, that you have to believe in yourself and find a niche that somebody is going to buy into. And that's how I got that NBC story done. I sent that to Grantland, Texas Monthly, Spirit Magazine, every sports site, and never heard anything back form anybody, until NBC."
Hale struck gold with, naturally, a story about the Spurs and the unique position they hold as the only major professional sports team --and a wildly successful one-- in a relatively small-market city. San Antonio may be the seventh most populous city in America, but in many ways the city has a small town feel and it's rather remarkable that it's home to the best basketball franchise on the planet. The people here are far more diverse than outsiders may suspect and they've embraced a roster from all corners of the globe. Hale captured the symbiotic relationship beautifully, over 5,800 words, and the surprising thing is not that an editor at NBC saw the potential in it but that so many others passed.
"The comfort of feeling small," was Hale's big break, but it was just the beginning. He's gotten a couple more stories at NBCSports.com published and parlayed that into other opportunities. By no means can he yet afford to quit his day job to make a living as a writer, but that's the dream.
"It's still ongoing," Hale said with a sigh. "I'm not anywhere yet. I'm still sending stories and I'm still not hearing back from a lot of people, and I get turned down from several stories from NBC, but it's still never giving up. I've submitted stories to Texas Monthly, Spirit Magazine, Rolling Stone, San Antonio Magazine, with no luck, but I'll keep trying. That's all any of us can do really."
Travis Hale is more of a gung-ho swashbuckler than anyone I've met in San Antonio. I think he and Leach would've gotten along famously. I know we'll find out, sooner or later.