I have a friend who loves the San Antonio Spurs as much as I do. A month ago, I texted her that the Spurs won the 2023 NBA Lottery, which she then said, “I already saw some Wemby memes but had no idea what was going on.” After I called her a bad Spurs fan, I spammed her phone with pictures, videos, and sports articles about Victor Wembanyama.
My friend went (and suffered through) Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals when the air conditioning went out at the AT&T Center in the Spurs’ win over the Miami Heat. That Game 1 victory set the stage for their fifth overall and last NBA title of The Big Three era. For this reason, I do not doubt her fandom because anyone willing to sit through the South Texas humidity in a metal box filled with 19,000 sweaty fans watching Juwan Howard carry LeBron James off the floor due to leg cramps is a true Spurs fan.
Of course, when you’ve known nothing but winning basketball your whole life (we’re both Millennials, but I’m the older kind, the kind that knows what “Dukakis in a tank” means), it’s hard to see your favorite team fall from the heights of constant success. San Antonio and the Spurs go together like my mom and Bubba Gump Shrimp (the restaurant chain, my mom won’t eat anywhere else if we’re traveling in the continental U.S.). It’s not difficult to say that the city of San Antonio and her fans are spoiled with success.
The Spurs are indeed lucky as they come. Landing two number one picks in David Robinson and Tim Duncan brought championships and a unique NBA culture to San Antonio. Both players were a sure thing as sure as things can be when you have to get the number one overall pick right, or it can derail a basketball team as well as a city. Sports franchises and its host city share an economic symbiosis. The Spurs are especially tied to San Antonio, and the team’s success is San Antonio’s success.
Perhaps it’s not fair to Wembanyama to heap this much pressure before he even plays a minute in a Spurs jersey. Nevertheless, by all public accounts, he prepared himself, his body, his game, and his mind to be a generational basketball prospect. He comes to San Antonio fully aware of the high expectations in the house that Robinson and Duncan built, the floor graced by the likes of Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili, Boris Diaw, Malik Rose, Sean Elliott, Kevin Willis, and the painting of Boris Diaw.
By the grace of the basketball gods both old and new, the Spurs have to go three for three in number one overall picks. Their margin for error is thinner than other NBA franchises. The Cleveland Cavaliers have had six number one overall picks in NBA history: Andrew Wiggins (2014), Anthony Bennett (2013), Kyrie Irving (2011), LeBron James (2003), Brad Daughterty (1986), and Austin Carr (1971). Their only title came with James’s second stint with the team, teamed up with fellow number one pick Irving (who the Cavaliers drafted because their team was so bad the season after “The Decision”).
Despite that lone (albeit exciting) NBA title in 2016, the Cavaliers were not able to capitalize on James’s generational, all-time talent paired with a great player in Irving. And that was on the court. Off the court, however, Cleveland thrived whenever LeBron James suited up for the Cavaliers. But as a proud sports city, its local economy suffered when James left town for South Beach.
Entertainment drives tourism, which drives more dollars into the local economy. Sometimes a singular force of nature such as a person (James) or even a television show could mean millions of dollars pumped into a city that needs it. The same thing happened when “Breaking Bad” wrapped up filming in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The local economy dipped until “Better Call Saul” brought the BrBa universe back to the land of enchantment.
The same thing could happen to San Antonio without the familiar rings of victory that the Spurs are known for, that they built a longstanding tradition of–stone by stone. That 22 consecutive playoff appearance record is no small feat. It was painstakingly built on the broad shoulders of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Head Coach Gregg Popovich would be the first person to tell anyone that.
Even the Lakers could go 0 for 10 in number one overall picks, and LeBron’s great grandson would still sign as a free agent because it’s Hollywood, and there’s so much space out in L.A. — the Spurs do not quite have that luxury. That being said, the Spurs do not skip steps, and Wembanyama’s short professional history also shows that he is a player not willing to skip steps either. Many have called this pairing a fortunate stroke of serendipity, I call it John Cusack’s second best romantic comedy behind “High Fidelity.” But really, it’s definitely serendipitous and a match made in analytics.
That’s why last week’s draft mattered so much. The right player can lift both a team and a city. I love applying nature vs. nurture to anything because it’s a great thought exercise. Was Tim Duncan great because he was already great or was it because he played for the right team with the right coach? Duncan was already a sensational college player everyone deemed NBA ready as soon as he declared for the draft. If the Boston Celtics infamously got that pick instead of the Spurs, then maybe Duncan brings multiple championships to Boston. But would a Celtics coach sit him when he injured his knee to preserve his career for the long term rather than push him to come back early and play because of the short-term pressures of winning now?
Certainly it’s a rabbit hole of what-ifs to play scenarios with NBA history. But based on the Spurs actual history alone, they have the structure and the reputation of fostering the best out of their players without sacrificing development and their tight-knit culture. The same team that cultivated and brought out the best in number ones Robinson and Duncan is best suited to hopefully do the same for one Victor Wembanyama.
It takes both aspects of self (nature) and your environment (nurture) melded together perfectly to create something truly special. That’s why Eddie Murphy was a gifted economist, but the world would have never known that if the Duke Brothers hadn’t taken a chance on him by trading Dan Aykroyd’s place for Murphy. Odds are that the Spurs’ environment will do wonders for Wembanyama’s self-cultivated basketball pedigree.
I tease my friend for being a fair weather fan, but the nice thing about sports is that it’s still entertainment at the end of the day. Sometimes life, family, and a Godfather movie marathon gets in the way. While high school and college me could watch all 82 games and break down every Duncan backboard shot or Ginóbili euro-step, 2023 me could theoretically watch all 82 games and break down every recovery block by Wembanyama or Jeremy Sochan Twitter trolling because my wife doesn’t care if I’m that obsessed about the Spurs as long as I water her canna lilies in the front yard while letting our daughter throw water balloons at my face.
I prefer not to gate-keep casual fans because that’s what NBA Twitter is for, but life gets busy, and the few hours of free time we get is precious. Streaming television shows, movies, and playing Diablo IV might be of a higher priority if your favorite NBA team is not living up to its usual high standards because they don’t have a franchise star. Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Jeremy Sochan will be great players, but Wembanyama’s potential is already heralded as generational (not seen since LeBron). All Spurs fans can hope for is that he can be just as impactful on the court and off the court as the Hall-of-Famers who came before him.