It’s difficult to imagine a San Antonio without the Spurs. They are the NBA’s proverbial diamond in the rough. The organization has redefined domination through sixteen consecutive playoff appearances and postseason berths in twenty-five of the last twenty-six years. Not only have they enjoyed unprecedented organizational success, the Spurs have also meant an incalculable amount to the city of San Antonio. The ways in which the Spurs have helped create exposure and grow San Antonio’s brand will be felt in perpetuity. Basketball’s current popularity in San Antonio is clearly related to the establishment and growth of the Spurs. It’s difficult to truly appreciate the team’s significant on-court successes without noting the incredible odds the Spurs defied in order to achieve them.
In 1999, the Spurs became the first team out of the American Basketball Association (ABA) to win an NBA title, twenty-three years after the NBA-ABA merger. The path the Spurs took from likely death to champion is a great American success story.
But the story of the San Antonio Spurs begins with American football in Mexico.
A group of investors, led by Red McCombs, were interested in helping to grow the city’s footprint through sports. San Antonio had gotten its first taste of national exposure through the 1968 World’s Fair and was now looking to become a major player in the national sports landscape.
In helping to put on the 1968 World’s Fair, McCombs identified a great cultural change taking place in America – a change that involved the proliferation of professional sports on television.
“The easiest way for any city to get national recognition is through a sports team on television,” said McCombs. “The Fortune 500 companies didn’t know about San Antonio. They knew about Atlanta, San Diego and some of these other smaller markets, strictly because of their professional sports teams, who appeared regularly on national television.”
In an effort to help San Antonio reach the national consciousness, McCombs set his sights on a professional sports team, with his eye on the NFL. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle understood the importance of television to his product, as the NFL was an emerging national brand, and television was the reason.
Rozelle told McCombs that the NFL had no interest in San Antonio. However, he was potentially interested in expanding the NFL into Mexico. At the behest of Pete Rozelle, McCombs established the Monterey Golden Aztecs. The goal, according to the NFL, was to gauge Mexico’s interest in American football, although Rozelle and McCombs soon learned that there was none.
The NFL was a much more attractive option for professional sports in San Antonio, because the NBA was struggling, especially in Texas. “The guys in Houston could not draw flies,” according to McCombs. The Dallas Chaparrals, a charter member of the ABA, were hemorrhaging money.
The guys in Dallas were familiar with McCombs and knew of his desire to procure a professional team for San Antonio, so they made an offer. McCombs was a savvy businessman, and he knew the Chaparrals were losing around $750,000 per year. McCombs knew that the owners were willing to dump . . . and dump cheap.
The idea of lean years in sports from an economic standpoint is laughable by today’s standards. Professional sports are as lucrative of a business as there is in the current economic climate. The average value of an NBA franchise has increased by almost 90 percent since 2000. The average net worth of an NBA team is between $600 and $700 million, with three teams, the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers all valued at over $1 billion. However, teams in the ABA struggled financially in the 1970’s, and the ownership group in Dallas was ready to move on from its bad investment. Red’s group saw an opportunity to pounce. Instead of purchasing the team outright for $800,000, McCombs negotiated a lease, with an option to buy down the road.
McCombs’ vision had become a reality, and through that vision the San Antonio Spurs were born. There was no honeymoon period for the city of San Antonio and the Spurs. There was no interest for basketball in Texas. The problems creating excitement for the sport in Dallas carried over into San Antonio.
The initial apathy toward basketball in San Antonio and throughout Texas in the 70’s is best summed up by one of the Spurs’ prominent initial investors. He agreed to help fund the team as long as he wasn’t expected to attend any games: “Basketball is dumber than watching water drop from a faucet.”
McCombs had to be creative in order to drive people to his product. Football was, and continues to be, king in Texas. Basketball was a major unknown. McCombs established the “Baseline Bums,” an enlisted group of super fans, a concept he admittedly stole from a San Antonio baseball team. “They [Baseline Bums] got into the games for free and they were able to purchase beer for half price.”
It was a full civic effort to ensure the long term viability of professional basketball in San Antonio. Most of the teams in the ABA were struggling to make ends meet, and many in San Antonio didn’t want to see the Spurs fall to the same fate. “In that first year, in the middle of the season, we were struggling, but the media was very friendly,” said McCombs, who also worked out a deal with the Army and Air Force to increase attendance at games. “The armed forced helped the Spurs a ton in the early years, by putting a lot of guys in the stands. They would bus them in from the base and we would give them free vouchers for food with the purchase of a ticket.”
McCombs believed that the only thing more important than winning was creating a marketable product that was exciting. In that vein, McCombs encouraged his team to be scrappy and seek out fights. “We wanted the rowdy, and eventually we had to stop selling beer for ten cents because there wound up being too many fistfights in the stands.”
Though they lacked for fan excitement initially, they never drew a deficit like the Dallas ownership group had experienced. The effort throughout the city had paid off and the Spurs found profitability from day one. Paramount to their earning potential and therefore long term viability was their ability to get star players. Enter: the Virginia Squires, who were blessed with a combination of Julius Erving (“Dr. J”) and a young George Gervin. The Squires were going out of business, and in doing so had to unload all of their assets. “Dr. J” was sold to the New York Nets in ’73, and then during the 1974 ABA All-Star Weekend, McCombs was able to buy Gervin for the Spurs. “The first time I saw George Gervin he was as big around as a fountain pen,” said McCombs. “You could see through him. But he was smooth, and he could run that floor and fingeroll the ball unlike I’ve ever seen before in my life.”
McCombs’ acquisition of Gervin did not jive well with the ABA offices. At the time, ABA Commissioner Mike Storen was trying to sell the Squires and he knew they wouldn’t have a product to sell without star players. Storen tried to block the sale of Gervin to the Spurs and prohibit teams from trading with them. Storen threatened that teams would forfeit any games they played with a purchased Virginia player. McCombs had to literally hide George Gervin in a six dollar per day motel while he went to federal court to get an injunction against the league. The judge eventually ruled in favor of the Spurs, even though they had run afoul of the league’s bylaws, citing the Constitution, which affirms an individual’s ability to work.
McCombs had to borrow the money to pay for Gervin from a bank, and he had to pay cash. He says the owner of the Squires “needed undocumented funds from the slew of mounting judgments against him.”
The Spurs were in their infancy and trying to grow their popularity within San Antonio when, only three years after relocation, the ABA began talks to merge with the NBA. San Antonio was initially on the outside looking in when it came to joining the NBA. McCombs had been told by Los Angeles Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke that San Antonio was not going to be one of the four cities merged into the league. (Think the Lakers and Spurs rivalry began with Kobe and Shaq? It actually began when Cooke told McCombs that they would not be welcomed into the NBA because the Spurs weren’t as good as the Lakers and Cooke “couldn’t market a Los Angeles team losing to one from San Antonio.”) Despite Cooke’s efforts, the Spurs were eventually able to push their way into the NBA. How poetic: the Spurs were able to force their way into a league that didn’t want them, and eventually dominate it for more than a decade.
In 1976, the Spurs played their first ever NBA game against a familiar foe, Julius Irving and the Philadelphia 76ers. It had been only three years since they took the court for their first time, bringing professional basketball to San Antonio. Now they were on the game’s biggest stage. A week before the Spurs were set to the play their first ever NBA game against the Philadelphia, the 76ers purchased the contract of “Dr. J” from the Nets. The Spurs won their inaugural NBA game 121-118, and a hoard of media members crowded the Spurs locker room – only to ask questions about Julius Irving. For the Spurs, some things remain unchanged.
People all over the globe recognize the Spurs synonymously with the city of San Antonio. That association and national cognition has created the base for an emerging market. Success in sports translates to much more than just exposure. The foundation for success for the Spurs remains unchanged. In that regard, the Spurs one major strategic advantage over fledgling small market professional teams has been luck. McCombs brought Gervin to San Antonio. Years later, when it was time for a new star to market to the city, the Spurs drafted David Robinson. And one injury-plagued year led the Spurs to Tim Duncan. The Spurs have been around for four decades and at least one of the aforementioned players has been on the team for each one of the 40 seasons. “We’ve always had a big time star here,” said McCombs. “You build a team around them and it works.”
In life, we’re constantly reminded to look forward, not behind. In the case of the San Antonio Spurs however, it is the past that continues to pave the way for the future.