The Baseline Bums never had it better. It was one of those soft Saturday nights in historic San Antonio, warm enough for lovers to be out strolling the picturesque paths that follow the windings of the gentle river through downtown, and inside the splendid HemisFair Arena just off South Alamo Street the cups of beer were flowing smoothly to the Bums, almost as smoothly as the floor work of their beloved Spurs. For the Spurs it was their third game in as many nights, and although they had their bad moments, in the end they overcame St. Louis 115-104. Up in section 20, far from the floor, a Bum stood up and shouted to the crowd at large, "Lord, just think what we could do if we had 11 players."
Eleven men. That is how many the ABA permits on each roster. The Spurs have reached that number just once this season. Their plenitude lasted for less than 24 hours, and did not even coincide with a game. But since their arrival in San Antonio last season as a lend-lease team from Dallas, much of what the Spurs have done has defied convention. Amazingly, the club has been successful, which is to say that the Spurs are not losing as much money as most of the other teams in both pro basketball leagues. At the moment, after 25 home games, the Spurs are averaging 7,840 fans a game. That puts them fourth in the 10-team ABA, behind New York, Kentucky and Indiana, and would put them 10th in the 18-team NBA.
Says Spurs General Manager John Begzos, "If you put a gun to my head right now and asked, 'Why are you drawing 8,000 people a game?' I'd have to tell you to pull the trigger because I sure don't know."
To locate the answer it might be useful to drop back a bit, to two years ago when the franchise was up in Dallas, and dying. The Chaparrals, as the Spurs were called then, were announcing attendance figures of 2,000 a game, but the actual count was more like 500. Dallas was about to finish last in the Western Division with a 28-56 record.
"I got a call from Bob Briner, the Dallas general manager," says Red McCombs, now the Spurs' president and one of the two principal owners. "He asked me if I was interested in an ABA franchise. I told him no way."
Still, Briner made a trip to San Antonio, and became convinced that it was the perfect place to relocate. A year earlier Houston of the NBA had played 13 games in San Antonio, drawn well and had made plans to play at least as many games there the following season. Briner talked to a number of people in San Antonio—the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and the local sports editors—looking for the right person to run a franchise. Everyone mentioned Red McCombs, who had once owned stock in a minor league baseball team in Corpus Christi. McCombs had a variety of successful business interests, including an agency that for the past 16 years had sold more Fords than any other in Texas.
"I kept saying no," says McCombs. "I had never even seen an ABA game. Finally Briner told me to see if I could come up with a deal. A deal." The big redhead laughs. "That changed my mind. Deals have always interested me."
And so McCombs put together what must be one of the most inventive contracts in sports history. He agreed, along with construction magnate John Schaefer and 33 lesser investors, to lease the Dallas franchise for three years. Lease, not buy.
"We agreed to operate their franchise in San Antonio. We would have operational control. We would absorb up to $600,000 in losses for the first two years. And we had an option to buy. To our surprise they agreed."
In came the new Spurs, with the same old cast of players. Begzos moved in as sales manager, coming over from the San Antonio Brewers where, as president and general manager, he had been named baseball's Class AA minor league executive of the year. Tom Nissalke, former coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, was named to run the team.