An Argentine fan describes his first trip to the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, and how he found much more than he was hoping for.
I’ll admit it right off the bat: I am a “new fan” of the Spurs, of basketball and of Manu Ginobili. Maybe that partly explains the 10-hour plane ride and 4-hour car ride I made to watch them play live: that kind of pilgrimage requires the faith of the recently converted. In any case, the much-anticipated trip proved to be so much more than what I expected that I decided to write about it, especially after reading this post by “SgtinManusArmy” at a Spurs fan blog called “Pounding the Rock.”
The Birth of a Fan
Born in soccer-crazed Argentina, I have been a soccer fan my whole life. Some of my happiest boyhood memories involve pestering my father to take me to games on Sundays to see Ricardo Bochini and the great 1980’s Independiente teams. Years later, I started watching some NBA basketball in my teens, rooting mainly for Patrick Ewing and the Knicks and always against Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
The year 2002 was one of crisis and rebirth. The 2002 soccer World Cup, held in Japan and Korea, was a disaster for the Argentine team. For me, it was more than that – it was a crisis of faith. The Argentine team, my team, the team that played soccer the way I believed the game should be played, was unable to make it past the first round. Since then, I have been less and less captivated by the game.
That same year, the Argentine basketball team at the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis became the first team in history to beat a US team with NBA players. Argentina finished second. Starring on that team was a skinny guy from Bahía Blanca who would make his debut in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs later in 2002, and who would play a significant role in the 2002-2003 NBA title run. A new faith helped me find a new road, and I learned the game of basketball watching Gregg Popovich’s Spurs and Rubén Magnano’s Argentine national teams. These are teams that were, and still are, all about “playing the right way.” And they’re teams that get rewarded for doing it.
So I’ve been watching and learning and enjoying basketball since 2002. The gods of basketball have blessed my change of faith: my national team placed second in the 2002 World Championships, fourth in 2006 and fifth in 2010. They were Olympic champions in 2004 and won the bronze in 2008.
Meanwhile, my Spurs were champs in 2003, 2005 and 2007. What sacrifice had I made for these gods? Not much more than watching late games ending at about 1 or 2 am local time (even while already sleep-deprived because of the birth of my two beautiful daughters during this period). I also followed games on play-by-play text threads on nba.com. But I thought a bigger sacrifice was called for, and that’s how the idea of doing a pilgrimage came to mind.
I’m pretty sure my wife expected me to reject her proposal to spend our Southern hemisphere summer holidays visiting friends who live in Houston. Our friends have two kids the same ages as ours, she said, so it could be fun. Sure, I said, why not, let’s go to Houston for our holidays. Secretly, though, I thought: here’s the chance. Houston can’t be far from San Antonio. The pilgrimage was in the making. As soon as I had the plane tickets, I bought tickets for a New Year’s Day Oklahoma City Thunder game for me and my Argentine-Houstonian friend.
So on New Year’s Day, 2011, we made the four-hour car ride from The Woodlands, Texas, to the AT&T Center in San Antonio. As the Texan plains – not so different from the Pampas of Manu’s birth – rolled away, my friend and I caught up after years of living in different countries. As we got closer to San Antonio, my anticipation grew. Once parked at the AT&T Center, I found it impossible to stop smiling, and I paid attention to every detail as if I were in the 2000-year-old Coliseum in Rome.
After finding our places (1 and 2 in Section 109, Row 30) I walked all around the building, taking photos of landmarks such as the Baseline Bums.
As soon as the initial jump ball was caught, I understood it all: the passion, the fans, the play, the strategies. It all made sense. I soon realized that the difference between watching a game on TV and experiencing it in person is like the difference between talking via Skype with my friend and talking with him face-to-face on the road. The small fear of disappointment I had carried inside – of finding that the game isn’t all that fluid with so many timeouts – quickly disappeared.
I was flabbergasted by the NBA’s capacity to entertain and do marketing at the same time. During one timeout, for example, the players emptied the court and some fans were invited on to engage in a competition to see who could toss enormous Styrofoam “French fries” into containers painted with advertisements for a fast-food chain. In another example, a local gas station company showed an animated film of a car race on the center’s giant screens.
But I really understood what the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan are all about. Needless to say, I went mostly to watch Emanuel David Ginobili, and I had been afraid that he might skip the game because of flu-like symptoms I’d read about in the San Antonio Express (which I’ve been reading online for the last nine years). Manu had a good game but he didn’t reach his per-game average: 9 points and 7 assists.
Still, he displayed a lot of those famous “intangibles” (he took at least two charges, created plays, deflected passes, etc.) I also got to see Kevin Durant and I understood the meaning of the expression “sweet shot.”
But what really mattered was seeing a vintage Tim Duncan. He scored 21 points, was 10/15 from the field, had nine boards, a blocked shot, good all round positioning in defense, and was 1/3 at the foul line. I understood Tim Duncan’s greatness, even if he is at the end of his career; and I understood what Spurs defense is all about. After the game, we had another four-hour drive and we stopped for a burger in Flatonia, Texas.
I remember telling my friend how happy I was to have had the opportunity to watch No. 21 at his best, even if it meant not having No. 20 at the top of his game. So exactly a month after that day, when I read SgtinManusArmy’s post on “The Final Stand of the Big Fundamental,” I knew I had to go about writing this.
I had hoped that 2011 would be the year we went back to winning championships on odd years. But win or lose, I’ll be a Spurs fan. I have already pledged that should the Spurs get to the NBA Finals, I’ll be there, even if I have to beg, borrow or steal a ticket.
Whatever happens, I know that someday, years from now, I’ll tell a son or a grandson: “I saw the best power forward that ever played the game. His name was Tim Duncan and he was a San Antonio Spur.”
*Fernando Santillan holds a bachelors degree in Political Science and a Masters degree in History; he works in communications and blogs at: http://www.750aretiro.blogspot.com.