Few teams in sports – to say nothing of just basketball – have the kind of connection with their fans that the San Antonio Spurs do.
As a kid growing up on the city’s South Side, Gene Morales remembers his part of town basically shutting down during big games.
“It was like a neighborhood event. I remember going outside during the playoffs, and it was like every single game that was a playoff game, you just heard the ups and downs of the neighborhood going around. People cheering, people getting mad,” he said.
Morales is a history professor at El Paso Community College who grew up during the Spurs’ glory years. This season is one that most fans would just as soon forget. The team is well out of the playoffs, with a record of just 21-59.
A high draft pick will be their consolation prize. But there’s something that some fans fear even more than another losing season: a possible move out of San Antonio.
The Spurs scheduled two games in Austin this season, at the brand new Moody Center. They beat the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, and will play the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday in what the franchise is calling the “I-35 Austin Series.”
“It’s kind of scary, because they’re so intertwined in the community itself. Any ups and downs that the Spurs feel, you feel it in the city,” Morales said.
According to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, these won’t be the last games in the capital city, either.
“I think the Spurs organization wants to expand the territory,” Popovich said in a press conference before the games in Austin. “You know we live here in this region, from Mexico all the way up to [Austin]. And to do that, we’ve gotta make the effort to be seen. To get up here and play some games. We’ll do that every year now I think. I don’t think, I know.”
That is concerning to some fans of the city’s only major league sports team.
“Being that they are the only one, there’s always that concern about whether we might lose them,” said Gilbert Garcia, a metro columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. “There’s always been some nervousness in San Antonio about Austin. People see the economic growth and there’s concern that the Spurs might be lured away, and some people thought of this as the Spurs testing the waters.”
San Antonio has tried and failed many times to garner interest from other major sports leagues. But it’s been passed over for other, often wealthier markets. Whether the city’s business community has enough juice to keep the Spurs satisfied is a common Alamo City anxiety.
For their part, though, the Spurs insist that they are staying put. The team’s principal owner, Peter Holt, wrote a statement last season when news of the Austin games broke that the Spurs are in San Antonio to stay. The games in Austin and another in Mexico City were just to expand the team’s market.
Bobby Perez, chief legal counsel for the Spurs, repeated that message last May in front of the Bexar County Commissioners Court. The Spurs needed the court’s permission to play the two games in Austin, and another in Mexico City.
The team initially asked to play the Austin games for multiple years, but settled on a one-year pilot program after some pushback from commissioners, like Justin Rodriguez.
“I think you’ve already picked up on that a lot of the angst is always about are the Spurs committed to San Antonio,” Rodriguez said to Perez. “That angst is amplified when you start talking about our friends up [Interstate] 35 in Austin. We know what kind of a boomtown Austin is, and the corporate resources that are there.”
The commissioners gave the Spurs the go-ahead by a 3-2 vote. In all likelihood, this scene will play out again, with the Spurs asking those representing the public for the right to play a few games somewhere other than San Antonio. But they’ll be closely watched.
Even in Congress, folks are keeping close tabs on the situation. Last year U.S. Representative Tony Gonzales, whose district includes part of San Antonio, filed a bill to make it harder for professional sports teams to leave their home communities. It’s called the Strengthening Public Undertaking for Retaining Sports Act – better known as the SPURS Act.