Arriving in San Antonio after sweeping Denver in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Spurs were greeted by something extremely unusual: A welcome-home party of 1,200 fans at the airport.
Then again, San Antonians have taken to the Spurs these days with the excitement normally reserved for the annual Fiesta celebration.Rookie of the year David Robinson can't walk down the Riverwalk without being mobbed by autograph-seekers. With Robinson the top attraction on one of the hottest young teams in the NBA, the Spurs sold 9,500 season tickets, up 1,300 from last year. They drew an average home crowd of 14,700, almost doubling their attendance from three years ago.
"We had some really good fan support back in the George Gervin years," said Bob Bass, the Spurs assistant to the chairman who goes back with the franchise since it moved from Dallas in 1974. "But you really can't compare that to this. It's gone far beyond what we expected.
"After we played Phoenix in one of our last home games, we had about 12,000 fans stay in their seats 45 minutes after the game. They wouldn't leave. You know how in some cities the arena gets full in the second quarter? Believe it or not, our fans hear the national anthem."
What is even more difficult to believe is that in this revived basketball hotbed, the rumor persists that the Spurs will be dribbling out of the Alamo City in the next two years and heading to Orange County, Calif.; San Diego; Kansas City; St. Louis; or Cincinnati.
Fueling the speculation is the fact that owner Red McCombs has made loud noises about how the team's revenue from ticket sales ranks among the worst in the league. Tickets range from $5 to $18. The $18 ceiling is one of the cheapest in the league. Additionally, the team is said to be concerned about the lack of a corporate base among its season-ticket holders, who often are willing and able to support higher-priced tickets.
"Two years ago, we were in a situation where revenues were nowhere near they needed to be," said team executive vice president Russ Bookbinder, who oversees all aspects of the business end of the franchise.
"But in the last two years we've gotten closer to the league average in most of our revenue areas. That's our benchmark for making it. It's been a combination of increasing our marketing, creating new sources of revenue, and getting a player like David in here.
"As much as you market, you still have to have the product to sell. Now, the franchise is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
Still, the rumor persists. An automobile dealer with more than 50 national distributorships, McCombs purchased the team for $47 million in May 1988. In some quarters, the prevailing theory is that McCombs' salesman instincts will take over, and that he will try to sell the team while he can still ring up a healthy profit. The figure of $90 million is tossed around in association with the Spurs about as much a pinata during Fiesta time.
"My gut feeling is this: San Antonio is Mr. McCombs' home," Bass said. "So as long as the team can hold its own at the gate and meet all of its financial obligations, he'll keep the team here and make it work. I could be wrong, but I think he's enjoying what's happening in his hometown."
In fact, McCombs and the Spurs already have presented a list of needs to the planners of the proposed Alamo Dome. Although land still hasn't been cleared on the downtown site, two blocks from the HemisFair Arena, the Spurs are targeting the fall of 1992 to move into the facility.
McCombs recently flew a group of civic leaders at his own expense to Charlotte to show them how the Hornets have an annual $1 leasing arrangement with that city for the use of the two-year-old Charlotte Coliseum. The Spurs are thought to be angling for a similar arrangement when they leave the 22-year-old, 15,861-seat HemisFair.