Death. Taxes. Spurs. The inevitability of the Spurs being in contention for a championship throughout the Pop and Duncan Era made that statement more than hyperbole. The Spurs had ups and downs, but they were very minor when compared to most of the league.
It started at the top with a solid, steady ownership group that wrote the checks and let the basketball guys make the basketball decisions.
R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich captained the ship and, for the most part, made very good decisions. There was stability on the basketball operations side of things.
Winning the Tim Duncan lottery and surrounding him with players like Ginobili and Parker and later Leonard steadied things on the court.
Death. Taxes. Spurs. From the boardroom to bench to the hardwood, this stability and order and shared core values made the Spurs unbelievable twenty-year run possible.
The fans have come to expect nothing less than that certitude which is one of the reasons the Spurs very strange season was particularly tumultuous for this city. The mysteries and drama and strange rumors were things that happened on other teams.
Only winning 47 games? What’s up with that?
Death. Taxes. Uncertainty and Change. That may be a new mantra Spurs fans should come to terms with and embrace.
There are uncertainties in the boardroom, unknowns and changes on the coaching staff, mysteries concerning the best player on the team, and a lot of roster decisions to make this off-season as well.
Tim Duncan is long gone, Parker’s best days are as well, and Manu Ginobili may or may not retire. Pop? That is an unknown because he is facing a very significant personal loss.
We are entering uncharted waters, uncharted at least for most of this current fan base. The best case scenario could unfold and the Spurs could be back. Spurs gonna Spur could be a truism for another five, six years. Or, things could go south and sideways and the real inevitable arrives: rebuilding.
Rebuilding happens. It’s normal. The question is, not ‘if’ but ‘when’ that time comes, and when it does, how will the fans respond? Are we the type of fans that will support a team no matter what? Or, if times get tough is the AT &T center half full? And if half-full for two, three seasons? Well, let’s not go there.
Spurs fans have a fairly good history before this championship era. There were times of uncertainty but names like Gervin, Robinson and Duncan along with building the Alamo Dome and then the AT&T Center played significant roles in the franchise staying in San Antonio.
But I submit, over the years, the most important thing about the Spurs has been the fan support.
Before there were championships, before there was an Alamo Dome, or an AT&T Center, there was the HemisFair Arena, located downtown, home of the San Antonio Spurs.
From October 10, 1973, when the Spurs played their first ABA home game through May 20, 1993, when the Spurs played their final NBA game in that arena, the fans of San Antonio had a reputation for being one of, if not, the noisiest arenas in professional sports.
That arena was raucous, night in, night out. I remember well the antics of the Baseline Bums before they were domesticated, the Cotton-Eyed Joe thundering through the arena while fans stomped and clapped and screamed at the top of their lungs. From the cheap seats to courtside, Spurs fans were very much engaged. We had no championships, and we had some huge let downs, like blowing a 3-1 Eastern Conference Finals lead in 1979 to the then Washington Bullets.
Still, there was a special bond between the city and the team.
That bond may be difficult, for many reasons, to recapture, but for the sake of the city and the team, it must be, especially if and when we enter that uncertain era of ‘rebuilding.’
The nature of being a fan has changed in general over the years. Fans are typically more fickle. The rabid Spurs fan of 2014 may well be a rabid Warriors fan now and perhaps a rabid Celtics fan in 2020. There are reasons for this shift.
Brand loyalty is a thing of the past in our culture. Most everything is viewed as disposable or temporary. That perfectly functioning smart phone is no longer relevant once the latest incarnation hits the market. A growing segment of today’s fans are consumers. If the local ‘product’ isn’t trending upward, they’ll simply go to the one that is.
If you ask the San Antonio kid why he’s wearing the Lonzo Ball jersey, it’s likely because Ball is new and has the potential to be special. It’s also fashion statement because it cuts against the boring grain of being a fan of the home team.
Migration is another factor. As people move from one city to another, one state to another, with greater frequency, they bring their old sports loyalties with them. For some, the answer to ‘Why are you wearing a Lonzo Ball jersey?’ is now, ‘We moved here from L.A. Laker for life, baby.’
People are moving to San Antonio from all over: East coast, West coast, Rust Belt, and the Midwest to search for better jobs and to enjoy a lower cost of living. San Antonio is no longer comprised of a largely monolithic population born and raised here. That is an important development.
And, let’s be honest: The nature of what it means to be a fan in San Antonio has also changed because we are spoiled. Five NBA Championships, only missing the playoffs 4 times since entering the NBA and 18 consecutive seasons with 50+ wins will do that. Our city and team have enjoyed an incredible and very rare run.
Reality: there is now an entire segment of San Antonio fans who have never known the Spurs as anything other than a champion or championship contending team. How will they respond when the Spurs go through a rebuilding process?
The corporate and expensive seats in the lower level of the AT&T center are a visual warning of what the city might be facing when that inevitable time arrives. In the regular season, the optics, post Duncan, are sometimes pretty bad. Those quality seats are half-filled and those who show up often arrive late and leave early. Ennui and quiet observation have replaced the rowdy excitement and noise of the HemisFair Era.
It’s especially telling when, in those seats, you see a fair number of people representing the visiting team. Either a lot of Warrior fans fly to away games or a lot of the locals are rolling with the trending team.
In this age of super friends forming super teams, many fans get frustrated with players who jump from one team to the next, like mercenaries, with the irony being of course, a lot of basketball fans are now just as mercenary as the players that frustrate them.
I’m old school. Even though we have only known four losing seasons, those of us who bleed Silver and Black can say with a straight face, ‘I’ve always been a Spur fan and always will be.’ That was our fan base in the early days. I wonder if that is who we are now? We won’t know until those difficult times come.
I have an appreciation for Cleveland Browns fans. They have endured more bizarre, bad seasons and dashed hopes than any fan base in any sport. They have continually found new ways to implode. The team is, after all, The Factory of Sadness (you can Google Factory of Sadness). Still, fans show up. They hope. It can’t get worse. It has to get better.
One day, however, that ‘curse’ will be broken and the Factory of Sadness will stop churning out tragic seasons and those fans will experience a happiness and vindication that fair-weathered T-shirt fans could never know. That is one of the payoffs of being a die-hard.
Whether it is this year or five to ten years from now, the Spurs will go through a rebuilding period. We are long overdue. We might even become, for a period, basketball’s version of The Factory of Sadness. What then, Spurs fans?
Once, we were the noisiest arena in the league. We were having fun coming together as a city to support our team, and it was more cause for celebration if we won a division title. Now? Well, we haven’t won a championship since 2014 which to some is ‘absolutely unacceptable,’ thus explaining why anyone jumped ship to Golden State in 2015.
We Old School Fans, don’t think that way. We’ll wear our Spurs T shirt proudly even if we finished the season with 20 wins. Why? Because we are fans, not mercenaries. It’s our team. Our city. Things will get better in time, and when they do, we’ll enjoy it all the more.
The only question that remains, when that time of testing comes, is, ‘how many of us are actually left?’
We’ll find out soon enough.