SAN ANTONIO SPURS
SAN ANTONIO SPURS. The San Antonio Spurs, a professional basketball team in the Southwest Division of the National Basketball Association's Western Conference, began play as the Dallas Chaparrals, a charter team of the American Basketball Association, in 1967. The franchise played in Dallas for six seasons, moved to San Antonio before the 1973–74 season, then joined the NBA after the ABA folded in 1976. During their six seasons in Dallas, the Chaparrals enjoyed moderate success on the court, twice finishing second in the ABA Western Division, but repeatedly stumbled in the postseason playoffs. In five tries, the Chaps made it past the first round of the playoffs only once, in their first season, but lost in the second round. For the 1970–71 season the team changed its name to Texas Chaparrals in an attempt to gain a wider regional following, but abandoned the experiment after one season. Lack of fan support remained an insurmountable problem. In the team's final game at the Dallas Convention Center, the paid attendance was reported to be only 134.
At this low point in franchise history, a group of San Antonio businessmen, including Angelo Drossos, John Schaefer, Art Burdick, and B. J. "Red" McCombs, bought the team and moved it to San Antonio, renaming it the Spurs. Initially, at least, the changes did not seem to help much. The Spurs got off to a 1–6 start, and only 1,799 people showed up for the Spurs' first win at the HemisFair Arena. But during the season the Spurs made what later proved to be the most significant trade in team history, acquiring the virtually unknown George Gervin from the struggling Virginia Squires. The high-scoring Gervin, nicknamed "Iceman" for his unflappable demeanor, almost immediately established himself as one of the most popular players in the team's history. In the ABA's last three seasons the Spurs finished third, second, and third, but again lost in the first round of the playoffs each time. The ABA officially folded in June 1976, and four of its surviving teams—the Spurs, the Indiana Pacers, the New York Nets, and the Denver Nuggets—joined the NBA for the 1976–77 season.
The importance of Angelo Drossos both to the Spurs organization and the NBA in general cannot be overstated. Drossos (a “brilliant negotiator”) with McCombs brokered the deal to buy the team and set out to find additional investors. He hired the first general manager and was instrumental in choosing the team’s new name and in signing Gervin. Drossos was at the forefront in securing the Spurs as one of the ABA teams to join the NBA, and he also helped bring the three-point shot, a popular feature in the ABA, to the NBA. He was awarded the NBA Executive of the Year in 1978.
The Spurs almost immediately established themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA, winning five divisional titles in their first seven years in the league. Gervin, a virtually unstoppable offensive force, led the NBA in scoring four times in five seasons. But the Spurs' playoff jinx continued, as they lost in the first round four times and in the second round three times. In 1983–84, hampered by injuries and coaching changes, the team fell to fifth place in its division and missed the playoffs. That was the first in a string of six mediocre seasons that saw the Spurs finish higher than fifth only once, miss the playoffs three times, and lose three first-round playoff series.
But the 1986–87 season, when the Spurs finished with a dismal 28–54 record and missed the playoffs, proved to be a blessing in disguise. After it, the Spurs won a lottery to determine which team would pick first in the NBA's annual draft of college players and used the top pick for center David Robinson of the United States Naval Academy. Robinson, nicknamed "the Admiral," still had to fulfill a two-year service commitment, during which the Spurs staggered to 31–51 and 21–61 records, but he quickly developed into one of the NBA's dominant players after finally joining the team for the 1989–90 season. The Spurs' improvement was immediate and dramatic, as they finished with a 56–26 record, and their thirty-five-game improvement over the previous season set an NBA record. Robinson made the NBA All-Star Team and was named the league's Rookie of the Year. Nevertheless, the team lost in the second round of the playoffs. The Spurs finished first or second in each of the next six years. Robinson led the NBA in scoring in the 1993–94 season and was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the NBA the following year. Still the team advanced only once beyond the second round of the playoffs.
In March 1993 McCombs sold his interest in the team to a consortium of up to twenty investors for $75 million, and following the 1992–93 season the team moved from the HemisFair Arena to the new Alamodome. During the 1994–95 season the team secured the best record (62–20) in its history. Robinson was named league MVP, and the team made it to the Western Conference Finals but lost to the Houston Rockets. The following season they reached the conference finals again but lost to the Utah Jazz. In 1996, as part of the league's fiftieth anniversary celebration, Gervin and Robinson were chosen among the top fifty NBA players of all time. That same year, local businessman Peter Holt bought into the consortium of investors and eventually became the chairman and public face of the ownership. The 1996–97 season, however, was a disaster for the Spurs, as Robinson missed all but nine games with a broken foot and the team plunged to a 20–62 record and last place in the division. In December 1996 Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich took over as head coach. Once again a silver lining appeared after the tough season. The team again won the draft lottery and chose the power forward Tim Duncan, a native of the U. S. Virgin Islands who played at Wake Forest University.
With Robinson and Duncan, dubbed the “Twin Towers,” playing together, the Spurs bounced back to post a 56–26 record in 1997–98, breaking their own record for the biggest one-season turnaround in NBA history. Duncan was named Rookie of the Year, but the Spurs lost in the second round of the playoffs again. The NBA's 1998–99 season was shortened to only fifty games due to a labor dispute, but the Spurs rolled to a 37–13 record and tied for first in their division. With a starting lineup of Robinson, Duncan, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, and Mario Elie, the team finally broke through in the playoffs to win their first NBA championship in a 4–1 series over the New York Knicks. The Spurs were the first former ABA team to make the Finals and the first to win. Duncan was named Finals MVP. With Duncan replacing Robinson as the focal point of the team's offense, the Spurs remained at or near the top of their division in subsequent seasons, and Duncan was named to the All-NBA First Team in each of his first four years in the league.
In 2000 the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame bestowed its Pro Team Community Award to the Spurs for the charitable activities of the Spurs Foundation, which had given some $5 million to the children of South Texas. The Spurs earned more accolades after the 2000–01 season, when they compiled the league's best record at 58–24 and Gregg Popovich became the winningest coach in team history. The following season Robinson became the team's all-time scoring leader, surpassing Gervin, and Duncan received his first league MVP award. The Spurs played their 2002–03 home opener at a new venue, the SBC Center (later renamed the AT&T Center). Compiling a stellar record of 60–22, Popovich was named the NBA's Coach of the Year, and Duncan earned his second league MVP award. The Spurs won the Western Conference Finals and went on to capture their second world championship by beating the New Jersey Nets 4–2 in the Finals, following which Robinson retired. Duncan was named MVP of the series.
The early 2000s saw the emergence of the “Big Three”—Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker—as the driving force of the Spurs. Emanuel David “Manu” Ginobili of Argentina had previous years of experience playing for Argentina and in Europe and was selected by the Spurs as the 57th overall pick in the 1999 draft. William Anthony “Tony” Parker was a nineteen-year-old point guard from France and was drafted as the 28th pick in the 2001 draft. He was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie Team for 2001–02 and was the first foreign-born guard to receive that honor. Both Ginobili and Parker played for the 2003 championship, and, with Duncan, established themselves as consistent high-level competitors and the recognizable trio of the team. Ginobili and Parker were also representative of the concerted effort of the Spurs coaching and scouting staff to search for talent abroad. By 2004 the roster included five international players.
Over the next decade the San Antonio Spurs exhibited consistent excellence under Coach Gregg Popovich. Their victories were most often achieved with defensive clamp-down clinics over opposing teams and led by Duncan’s solid defense as well as the lock-down play of small forward Bruce Bowen. Bowen, with the Big Three, helped the Spurs win their third championship in 2005 in a hard-fought seven-game series win against the Detroit Pistons. Duncan earned his third MVP series award. The team was a game away from another Finals appearance in 2006 but lost in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. In 2007 the Spurs made it back to the NBA Finals and faced the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Spurs swept the series with Bowen’s superior defense and overall team execution. Tony Parker won the MVP Award and became the first foreign-born player to achieve that honor. With four championships, the San Antonio Spurs became the winningest sports franchise in the new millennium, and the coaching staff was often mined by other teams looking to emulate the success of the Spurs.
The team continued to play at a high level led by the Big Three of Tim, Tony, and Manu, and the Spurs consistently achieved 50+ wins each season. Duncan (nicknamed “The Big Fundamental” and, in later years, “Old Man River Walk”) made twelve consecutive All-Star Game appearances. Parker had established himself as one of the best point guards in the league and as a superstar back home in France. Manu Ginobili reigned as a perennial favorite among Spurs fans with his dynamic acrobatic plays and wild passes and won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2008. In spite of excellence on the court as well as a large international following, due to the team’s “unflashy” demeanor (epitomized by the stoic Duncan), national sports media often characterized the small-market team as boring. Consequently, the Spurs’ success often flew under the radar.
They made the Western Conference Finals once again in 2008 but fell to the Los Angeles Lakers. The following three seasons, the Spurs made the playoffs, including an astounding 2010–11 season of 61–21. The Spurs claimed the best record in the league, but they fell in the first round to eighth-seed Memphis.
Some of the national media, which had already been grumbling about the team’s perceived aging roster for several years, speculated on the retirement of Tim Duncan. Instead Duncan remade himself during the offseason by losing weight and adopting a regimen focusing on nutrition and training. He emerged a rejuvenated player. During the 2011 draft, the San Antonio Spurs made a last-minute trade with the Indiana Pacers to acquire nineteen-year-old Kawhi Leonard, a small forward from San Diego State, the 15th overall pick. Popovich would eventually call him the future face of the Spurs.
After steamrolling through the early rounds of the playoffs for the 2011–12 season, the team hit the wall in the form of a young and rising team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and lost the conference finals series 4–2.
With an astute awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of his players, Coach Pop, who had won his second Coach of the Year Award in 2012, and his staff evolved their game into faster-paced offensive play with an emphasis on ball movement and embracing a philosophy of passing up a good shot for a great shot. Analysts lauded the team for its unselfish character, while still adhering to the importance of team defense. The Spurs racked up an impressive record of 58–24 for the 2012–13 season and fought their way to win the Western Conference and back to their first Finals appearance in six years. In a hotly-contested series against the Miami Heat, the Spurs, up 3–2 in the series, suffered heartbreaking losses in Games 6 and 7 to lose the series. Some national sports media pundits called for Ginobili’s retirement, while many others opined that the loss spelled the end of the Big Three era. Both Parker and Duncan had two years left on their contracts, while Ginobili signed a new two-year deal. During the offseason, management kept the team intact with only a couple of trades in the effort to upgrade the roster.
Driven by their close loss in 2013 and a desire to claim a fifth championship, the Spurs sliced through the regular season and clinched the best record in the NBA with 62–20. This was despite a rash of injuries during the winter that at one time saw four of the team’s six top players sitting on the bench and a staggering thirty different starting lineups. In the effort to keep his older players fresh for the postseason, Coach Pop relied on a deep bench to rest the Big Three. The result—the San Antonio Spurs became the first No. 1 seed in the league with a roster where no one averaged playing time over thirty minutes per game. Popovich won his third Coach of the Year Award, and longtime Spurs scout (since 1994) and general manager (since 2002) R. C. Buford won the NBA’s Executive of the Year. Manu Ginobili was nominated for (but did not win) another Sixth Man award. Heading the team for more than seventeen years, Pop was the longest-tenured coach in any of the major North American sports.
The 2014 playoffs saw a number of milestones. The Big Three achieved the most playoff wins of any trio in NBA history. Duncan secured the most double-doubles in NBA playoff history as well as the most playoff minutes. In their third straight conference finals appearance, the Spurs exorcised some playoff demons by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 4–2 and subsequently made their first back-to-back Finals appearance in franchise history—a rematch with the Miami Heat. The Spurs were at the forefront of previous NBA commissioner David Stern’s concerted effort to expand basketball to international markets. The team claimed the largest number of international players on their roster, including Ginobili (Argentina), Parker (France), Boris Diaw (France), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), Marco Belinelli (Italy; first Italian-born player in the Finals), Patty Mills (Australia; first Indigenous Australian in the Finals), Aron Baynes (Australia), Cory Joseph (Canada), and Duncan (U. S. Virgin Islands).
The San Antonio Spurs clinched their fifth NBA championship with a definitive 4–1 in the series over Miami and achieved the highest field goal percentage (52.8) in the shot clock era as well as the largest points differential. Kawhi Leonard was named series MVP. At age twenty-two, he was the youngest player to earn that honor since Duncan had received it in 1999 and thus affirmed Pop’s earlier declaration of Leonard’s importance to the franchise. As was the case with the previous four titles, the Spurs and their fans celebrated the team’s fifth championship in uniquely San Antonian fashion—with a river parade. During the summer of 2014 the Spurs organization allowed individual players to take the Larry O'Brien Trophy on an unprecedented "Trophy Tour" (much like the Stanley Cup in the National Hockey League). The trophy embarked on a journey of more than 67,000 miles involving visits to seven countries on four continents.
The San Antonio Spurs organization is very active in the community with its nonprofit organization Silver & Black Give Back, which offers both youth sports and youth service programs. Additionally Spurs Sports & Entertainment owned the Austin Toros (which changed its name to the Austin Spurs in 2014), a NBA Development League team purchased in 2007, and the San Antonio Rampage, a hockey team in the American Hockey League (AHL). Peter Holt also owned the San Antonio Stars of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), but Spurs Sports & Entertainment sold the Stars to MGM Resorts International after the 2017 season, and the team moved to Las Vegas..
The Spurs brought back all fourteen members of the 2014 championship team for the 2014–15 season. The organization also made historic additions to its coaching staff with the hiring of assistant coaches Ettore Messina and Becky Hammon. Italian-born Messina had won multiple championships coaching in Europe and was a two-time Euroleague Coach of the Year. Becky Hammon, a retiring WNBA All-Star with the San Antonio Stars, became the first female full-time assistant coach in NBA history (as well as in any of the four North American major professional sports.)
After the 2014–15 regular season, in the highly competitive Western Conference, the Spurs, seeded sixth in the playoffs, ultimately fell short and lost in a hard-fought seven-game series to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. The season produced several significant milestones. Coach Pop won his 1000th game in a 95–93 victory over the Indiana Pacers during the rodeo road trip. Tim Duncan, who turned thirty-nine in 2015, had an outstanding season. He became a fifteen-time All Star, was named a member of the NBA’s All Defensive Second Team and All NBA Third Team, and was honored with the 2014–15 Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award by a vote of almost 300 fellow NBA players. His remarkable longevity nudged him higher on a number of NBA record lists. Duncan and Parker became the winningest duo in NBA history. Kawhi Leonard earned NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Shooting guard Danny Green achieved the franchise record for most three-pointers in a season. With a regular season record of 55–27, the San Antonio Spurs extended their streak of 50 or more wins in a season to sixteen seasons.
With the offseason came a number of questions about the team’s roster moving forward. The Spurs, in a rare chase for a high-profile free agent, signed All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a Texas native who had spent nine seasons with the Portland Trailblazers. They also signed veteran player David West, who opted out of more than $12 million to sign a minimum deal with the team. The Spurs secured contracts with both Leonard and Green, and Duncan and Ginobili (both free agents) signed two-year deals (with player options for year two), thus securing at least one more season of the Big Three.
Assistant Coach Becky Hammon was named head coach of the Spurs NBA Summer League team in Las Vegas in July 2015, thus making history as the first female to ever head a Summer League team. She continued her historic run and coached the team to a record of 6–1 and the Summer League championship. Second-year player Kyle Anderson was named tournament MVP, while newly-signed Jonathan Simmons earned MVP of the championship game.
Members of the Spurs organization also participated in the NBA’s first-ever basketball game in Africa. NBA Africa Game 2015 took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 1, 2015. Gregg Popovich was named head coach of Team Africa, which included Spurs player Boris Diaw (whose father was born in Senegal), and R. C. Buford was named Team World general manager.
On November 1, 2015, with their 541st regular season win (in a victory of 95–87 over the Boston Celtics), the Big Three of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili became the winningest trio in NBA history.
The 2015–16 season increasingly saw a transition from the Big Three to what some local sportswriters referred to as the “New Two” of Leonard and Aldridge. Both made the All-Star game; it was Leonard’s first appearance. Parker, as starting point guard, became much more of a facilitator, and, while Duncan’s offensive numbers were down, he, with Leonard, anchored the team as the top defense in the NBA. Ginobili, meanwhile, still served as a field general for the second unit.
On March 9, 2016, Peter Holt retired as chairman and CEO of the Spurs, and his wife Julianna Hawn Holt assumed that role. Spurs Sports & Entertainment president of business operations Rick Pych was named co-CEO, as requested by Julianna Holt. Peter Holt remained on the Spurs board of managers.
The overall team effort produced a historic season as the San Antonio Spurs achieved a franchise record of 67–15, and they tied the best home record at 40–1 (matching a previous best by the Boston Celtics). Leonard’s ascent continued as he repeated his honor as Defensive Player of the Year and garnered enough votes to place second in League MVP voting. General Manager R. C. Buford was honored with Executive of the Year. Despite their remarkable season, which still flew under the radar to the Golden State Warriors’ record-breaking 73–9 season, the Spurs fell to Oklahoma City (4–2) in the second round of the playoffs. Following the season, Coach Pop commented on the organization’s intent to get younger and more athletic.
On July 11, 2016, Tim Duncan quietly announced his retirement through a Spurs press release. His amazing run of nineteen seasons included numerous records, five championships, fifteen All-Star appearances, fifteen All-NBA selections, fifteen All-Defense teams, three Finals MVPs, and two League MVPs. During the Popovich–Duncan era, the team posted a record of 1,071–438—the “highest winning percentage in professional sports over that span” (1997–98 through 2015–16 seasons). Following the retirement announcement, Pop commented that Duncan was “irreplaceable.” San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor declared July 21, 2016, to be “Tim Duncan Day.”
As the Spurs entered a new era, Ginobili returned for at least one more season and, with Parker, provided veteran leadership for the team. David West opted out of his contract and moved on. Ten-year Spurs veteran and fan favorite Matt Bonner, was a casualty of the team’s push to get younger. The Spurs organization signed All-Star center/forward and two-time champion Pau Gasol and also added a number of younger players, including 2016 draft pick Dejounte Murray and “draft and stash” Latvian player Davis Bertans. The team achieved a back-to-back 60-plus winning season with a record of 61–21 for 2016–17. Popovich was nominated for Coach of the Year, and once again, Leonard received nominations for both Defensive Player of the Year and League MVP. Major injuries to Parker and Leonard during the playoffs, however, derailed their potential championship run, and the Spurs were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The team largely stood pat with their core lineup during the offseason, which saw blockbuster trades and signings between other NBA teams. Forward Rudy Gay signed a two-year contract. Ginobili also signed on for another season.
The injury-marred season of 2017–18 presented tough challenges for the team, as Parker and Rudy Gay missed significant stretches, and Leonard missed all but nine games due to a quadriceps injury. With twenty-four different starting lineups during the regular season, the team struggled offensively but still ranked near the top defensively. LaMarcus Aldridge had an All-Star season and led the team in scoring. Their 47–35 record earned only the seventh seed in the competitive Western Conference, and the Spurs fell to the Golden State Warriors 4–1 in the opening round of the playoffs. Nevertheless, the team kept their playoff streak alive at a staggering twenty-one consecutive appearances.
The summer of 2018 brought about the most dramatic change to the team in the Popovich era. Leonard, reportedly disgruntled over the handling of his injury, asked to be traded. Ultimately the Spurs traded him, along with Danny Green, to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for their fourt-time All Star guard DeMar DeRozan and Austrian center Jakob Poeltl (along with a first-round draft pick). Tony Parker signed a two-year deal with the Charlotte Hornet. Manu Ginobili announced his retirement on August 27, 2018, and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared August 30, 2018, to be “Manu Ginobili Day.” It was the end of the Big Three era and the Leonard era. In total, the team began the 2018–19 season with eight new players on the roster.
The Official Site of Your San Antonio Spurs (http://www.nba.com/spurs/), accessed November 14, 2018. San Antonio Express-News, June 4–19, 2014; February 20, 2015; July 5, 10, 17, 21, 2015; November 2, 2015; March 10, 2016; April 4, 2016; July 12, 13, 2016; August 28, 2018. Sports Illustrated, June 10, 2013; June 23, 2014. Sports Illustrated Presents: Tim Duncan, Special Retirement Tribute Issue, 2016.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Laurie E. Jasinski and Martin Donell Kohout, "SAN ANTONIO SPURS," accessed May 29, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xos01.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on November 14, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.