Size does matter in the NBA, but it isn’t necessarily the size of the market.
When the San Antonio Spurs entered the NBA as part of the absorption of the ABA in 1976, they were at the time the second-smallest TV market in pro basketball (behind only New Orleans, which already had had some success in the NFL and draws from a larger swath of neighboring cities and states). They did have some early success, making the playoffs many times, but never becoming a true threat or attraction until they won the 1987 draft lottery and drafted their first dominant big man, “The Admiral”, David Robinson, with that year’s top pick. Ten years later, a second lottery was won that produced perhaps the defining team player of recent vintage, Tim Duncan. And finally, these two were joined by an artful playmaker from France, Tony Parker. They won the franchise’s first of five titles in 1999 and the latter two joined forces to produce championships clear through to 2014.
Along the way the team grew in popularity, so much so that their home games were moved to a new stadium built in the hopes of attracting an NFL franchise, the aptly-named Alamodome. Between 1992 and 2001, as Wikipedia reminds, the Spurs’ fan base and relevance exploded:
The Alamodome’s ability to easily accommodate basketball made it attractive to then-Spurs owner Red McCombs, who had been looking for some time for a larger arena to replace their longtime home, HemisFair Arena. The Spurs moved to the Alamodome after the 1992–93 NBA season. They played nine seasons in the Alamodome from 1993 to 2002, including their first NBA championship season, which was played against the New York Knicks in 1999.
During the regular season, most of the upper level was curtained off. However, on certain weekends and when popular opponents came to town, the Spurs expanded the Alamodome’s capacity to 35,000 by opening three portions of the upper level. More sections of the upper level were opened for the playoffs, expanding capacity to 39,500. Attendance was 39,514 for Game 1 of the 1999 NBA Finals and 39,554 for Game 2.
Midway through this season’s 50th anniversary season for the Spurs, who relocated from Dallas after five mediocre seasons as the Chapparalls, first of Dallas and then of several other Texas cites, they played their only nationally televised game of 2022-23 back in the Alamodome, still never a full-time home for an NFL team save for the 2005 Katrina-impacted New Orleans Saints. They hosted the defending champion Warriors that night before an NBA record crowd of 68,323.
But after the results of last night’s NBA Draft Lottery, that record is likely to be in jeopardy, as THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Sopan Deb reported:
The San Antonio Spurs won the 2023 N.B.A. draft lottery on Tuesday, giving them the No. 1 pick in June’s draft and the right to select the most anticipated prospect since LeBron James: the 19-year-old French star Victor Wembanyama.
Peter J. Holt, the chairman of the Spurs, jumped up to celebrate the moment it became apparent the Spurs had obtained the top pick. The lottery was held in Chicago, and the draft order was revealed during an ESPN broadcast.
“I might faint,” Holt said on the broadcast. “I’m so excited. The city of San Antonio, our fans, man — we just have so many people that love the Spurs so we’re pumped.”
All of a sudden, the Spurs vaulted back into relevance. Although they finished last season with 60 losses, they began to show signs of competency as the year droned on, with a fledgling wingman named Keldon Johnson making progress. Fresh off breaking the all-time record for victories by an NBA coach, 74-year-old legend Gregg Popovich now gets a chance to coach a transcendiary talent one more time, and to build out a team and a supporting staff that will likely be drawn to the opportunity to be directly involved with something magical. Wembanyama will, in all likelihood, be dominating this league long after Popovich hangs it up, and possibly even when he leaves this mortal soil.
And you better believe that despite their market size, there will be a whole lot more national exposure for the Spurs next year and beyond than they saw this past season.
And by being blessed with the delicious irony of an even more dominant and imposing center than the ones that preceded Wembanyama, who happened to play on a Paris-based team partially owned by Parker, they have potentially received a reinfusion and reminder of what went into making them the most successful team outside of the 50s and 60s Celtics over any fifteen-year span.
I know I’ll be watching. Regardless of market size or team loyalty. Because I want to see something unprecedented. And I’m pretty sure at some point 70.000 equally passionate and more financially secure fans will follow my lead and remember the Alamodome.
And now you know what today’s headline translates to. De rien.