There is a comforting familiarity that washes over me whenever I enter the place. The friendly smiles from ticket takers and ushers, the sounds of drums and clapping and barely contained excitement, and the pleasant smells that contradict what the place was built to showcase. This place is for large, fluid men, fine-tuned to jump and sweat and exert physicality that the rest of us can only dream of. Their feats are on display for hours, ten men at a time, running and stopping and then running again. And yet the entire place smells like money and popcorn. It makes no sense. Yet all those things swirl together — the sounds of chirping sneakers and anticipation, the bright lights and banners, the cool forced air, and the pleasant smells — to make the place what it is. It is where the San Antonio Spurs play basketball, and its home to some of my fondest memories.
Ten years ago this month, I was fortunate enough to begin covering the Spurs for Pounding the Rock. My assignment was simple: pay attention to the little things going on in the arena, the things that not everyone will notice, and then describe them in vivid detail. It took me a while, but I learned to do a serviceable enough job. So whether it was writing about Memphis’ plan to hold the Spurs scoreless for an entire game, or Kawhi Leonard’s shoes, I did my best. And while my visits back to that place are less frequent than they were before, I’m taken back to that glorious championship year every time I return.
The Spurs of 2013-14 were a lethal amalgamation of foreign-born stars, dutiful role players, and a shy, budding superstar who were all led by a once-in-a-generation talent more interested in dominating paintball tournaments than being in the NBA’s limelight. So, when my family and I visited the newly minted Frost Bank Center on Friday night to see Victor Wembanyama’s San Antonio debut, I wanted to watch for the little things again, and to see how things in that place have changed.
There were of course present those things that may never change. The sounds and smells; the Coyote and Paul Garcia and Matt Tynan; there was Pop and those lovely banners. But there were a few things that seemed different, a few moments that didn’t jive with the faceless zombie organization that was both ridiculed and praised for its boring excellence over the course of twenty years. For one, my daughter is now working for the Spurs’ media relations team. We watched with great pride while she strode out every time out to hand stat sheets to Reggie Miller or Kevin Harlan. Her handoffs were flawless.
And there were other differences, too.
First, I noticed that Wembanyama was the team captain that met with the referees before the game. For sure this should be considered a small thing. After all, Wembanyama is the most highly touted prospect since LeBron James. It makes sense that he would immediately become the face, and leader, of the franchise. But for an organization where rookies usually spend most of their time in a car on I-35 driving back and forth from the G-league Austin Spurs to the mothership in San Antonio, it seemed notable to me.
Then, late in the 2nd quarter, Wembanyama was called for a foul while attempting to block a shot in the paint from Thomas Bryant. The crowd went absolutely nuts. They lost it even further when Pop challenged the call, and I made sure to make a mental note of the play. In the second preseason game, with a minute to go before halftime, Gregg Popovich, famed wine lover and mortal enemy of unnecessary wasted time, challenged a call. It was almost as if to prove a point to the officials and the rest of the league: Wembanyama is not your ordinary rookie. He will get star treatment. You will not assume what you just saw was worth blowing your whistle over. Victor, destroyer of worlds, is here and you will sit back and watch, or I will make this game last longer than necessary. It was glorious to watch, even more so when the call was overturned.
And in the 2nd half, after about six minutes of playing time to start the 3rd quarter, Pop pulled Wembanyama, Jeremy Sochan and Devin Vassell. But instead of taking their place on the bench, Pop sent the three to the locker room, presumably to shower, dress and relax for the rest of the game. Their night was done. This again struck me as a peculiar move from an organization so versed in mundane routines. Players play, then they rest, then Pop comes down to yell at them on the bench. It’s the natural order of things. But not on this night.
It would be absurd to compare Wembanyama, Sochan and Vassell to the BIG THREE. Blasphemous even. So, I’m not. But maybe if you squint hard enough, you can see the outline of Pop’s thought process: “You three, go ahead and do something outside of routine, together, because things are a little different now. And while team always comes first, its ok to show the other guys on the bench that there is a bit of a new hierarchy here.”
It was so innocuous, so subtle, so guaranteed to not mean anything that I’m almost embarrassed to bring it up. But as was the case ten years ago, it’s my job to notice the little things and tell you about them. And it’s also my job to point out that everything that happens in that place is for a reason. Victor Wembanyama is different than anything any of us have ever seen. Millions of words will be written about just that. And maybe now that he is here, for the Spurs organization, not everything will stay the same.