San Antonio fans welcome city's first champions
Posted: Saturday June 26, 1999 11:37 PM
SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- The San Antonio Spurs came home Saturday to share their NBA championship trophy with a city that was starved for a winner.
The Spurs won their first NBA title in the franchise's 26-year history, beating the Knicks four games to one in the finals. San Antonio clinched the series with a 78-77 victory Friday night that touched off a downtown celebration fans had ached for.
That the Spurs won the series in New York's Madison Square Garden instead of the Alamodome mattered little to the thousands of fans who greeted the team's arrival by plane in San Antonio International Airport just before 3:30 p.m.
Nor did it matter that the championship capped a lockout-shortened season in which the league was often criticized for sloppy play.
"It's about showing that nice guys do finish first. Hopefully, this is the start of a dynasty. There's a lot of pride with this. It's as important as the Alamo," said fan Frank Cassiano. "Remember the Alamo! Remember the Spurs!"
City merchants could not agree more. Downtown stores were fully stocked with Spurs championship T-shirts and congratulatory banners hung in shop windows.
The Spurs returned the appreciation with a full-page ad in the San Antonio Express-News thanking the fans for their support.
Police measured some of that support at more than 12,000 fans strong when the team arrived Saturday.
The crowd alternated between chanting "Go, Spurs, Go!" and singing Queen's "We Are The Champions" as the plane taxied onto the runway and pulled up to the gate.
Guard Avery Johnson, who hit the winning shot, was the first to emerge from the plane holding the gold NBA Championship trophy over his head.
Center David Robinson was right behind, and carried the trophy to a makeshift stage and thrust it over his head before passing it down so that fans could touch it.
"It's good to be home. You deserve this championship, San Antonio, you deserve this!" Robinson exclaimed. "We worked so hard to get here. I waited 10 years, the city waited 26."
Johnson said he has yet to settle down from his championship-winning shot with 47 seconds left in the game.
"My heart is beating a thousand times a minute," he told the crowd, who greeted him with chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!"
"This is for people who make $12,000 a year and have been Spurs fans forever. This is about everybody in San Antonio, it's not just about us," Johnson said.
Just as he had immediately after the game Friday, Tim Duncan recorded the celebration on a video camera. Guard Steve Kerr, who won three championships with the Chicago Bulls, said the post-game celebration are becoming old hat.
"This is getting old for me," Kerr joked. "Thank you. This is a thrill for me. I feel like it just landed in my lap."
The team made only a 15-minute appearance before leaving in three team buses.
About two hours before the team's arrival, 3,000 fans were already waiting to greet the team on the tarmac. The throng happily withstood a slight drizzle, cheering and mugging for the TV cameras long before the Spurs touched down. Later, fire trucks sprayed the crowd with water to take a little edge off the 88-degree heat that was up near 100 on the heat index.
Marla Hargrave said she dropped her season tickets in part because of the lockout. But by season's end, Ms. Hargrave was back on the bandwagon she got to the airport three hours early for the celebration.
"As soon as the season started, we were back with them," said Ms. Hargrave, who arrived at the airport three hours early. "Everybody knew the lockout was about business. We love the Spurs."
The postgame victory celebration lasted into the early hours Saturday as thousands of fans poured onto downtown streets. Unlike other cities where sports celebrations have turned violent, San Antonio police reported no major incidents.
In a decade of repeat champions -- the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets won eight titles between them in the 1990s -- talk of a repeat had already started among the Spurs and their fans.
"We've talked about it already... We'll be back in it again," Johnson said.
"[Winning] shuts up the critics who said they were too soft and could not win the championship. We're going to do it again," fan Mike Moreno said.
The Spurs moved to the city in 1973 from Dallas as part of the American Basketball Association. The team merged into the NBA in 1976 and had never before advanced to the championship round.
The city's celebrations were scheduled to continue Sunday with a downtown parade and a pep rally at the Alamodome.The San Antonio Fire Department treated about 500 people for heat-related illnesses, but none of the cases were considered serious.
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