"Any seats left?" he asked.
"We can seat about 10,000," Begzos replied. "And we still have 11,000 tickets to sell."
Now Begzos can look back and laugh. "But it wasn't funny then," he says. "This man told me I had to fill the place. We could have opened the doors and forced people in with a gun and still not filled it. I gave away tickets in 100-seat blocks. And at game time there we were, all freezing to death. The building people set the temperature at 60 degrees during the day of an event. They figure the body heat will warm the place. But with the people we had, we couldn't have warmed a men's room."
About then Begzos organized his Baseline Bums, a group of beer-swilling enthusiasts who are basketball's loudest and frequently most profane cheerleaders. The Bums had actually started with the Brewers when two high school seniors, Larry Braun and David Boyle, worked out a ticket discount deal with Begzos. They patterned their group after the Bleacher Bums of Chicago's Wrigley Field. But both left San Antonio to attend college, and Begzos lost track of them until the day the two wandered into his office and asked him if he could work another deal with the Brewers for them. Instead, Begzos pointed to section 20 of the arena and told them it was theirs: $4 seats at $1 a pop. The pair put an ad in the paper, asking only loud beer drinkers to reply, and the Bums were re-formed.
"Then we made a few deals, won some games, and suddenly we were drawing people. The most surprised bunch of people in town was management," says Begzos.
The deals the new Spurs owners made may have been few, but they were mighty. First they bought Swen Nater, the 6' 11", 250-pound center from the Virginia Squires, for $300,000. At the time Nater had played only 17 ABA games and was best known as that second-string pivotman from UCLA. The Virginia owners were known to be in need of cash, and in New York, Mike Storen, then the ABA commissioner, mumbled something about bumbling amateurs being ripped off.
Nater became the 1974 ABA Rookie of the Year, and this year he is even better. He is leading the league in rebounds, with an average of 18 a game, and he is becoming at least somewhat aggressive. Last season he blocked 63 shots in 79 games. Suddenly, in mid-December, he decided to become more physical, and at the halfway point in the 1974-75 season he had blocked 68.
The Spurs made their second big move when they sent another $250,000 to Virginia for All-Star forward George Gervin. This time Storen said no, mostly out of concern for San Antonio but also because he thought the Virginia franchise had unloaded enough of its top players already. ( Julius Erving had previously been dispatched to New York.) But the Spurs said Virginia had taken the money, and so they took Gervin. At the moment he is the seventh-best scorer in the ABA. At the end of the 1973-74 season the Spurs, full of optimism, exercised their option to purchase the franchise from the Dallas owners and in the summer picked up Donnie Freeman, a former All-Star, from the Indiana Pacers, to go with All-Star guard James Silas. Add veteran Rich Jones as the other forward, and it is little wonder that Jimmy the Greek made the Spurs a 2-1 favorite to win the West. While still feeling its way last season, San Antonio won 45 and lost 39 and then pushed Indiana to seven games before losing in the playoffs. The Spurs had drawn 296,721 spectators, an average of 6,594 a game.
But the Greek doesn't know everything. First there is Denver, which put an early lock on the division lead. Then Nissalke and Angelo Drossos, San Antonio's executive vice president and trustee, got into a power struggle while trying to find the elusive 11th player. The coach lost. With a promising 17-10 record, Nissalke was fired on Friday, Dec. 13. Bob Bass, who had become general manager at Memphis after a year as director of ABA officiating, became the Spurs' coach. Under Nissalke the Spurs played a slow control game. With Bass they are running. It was a tough transition. They went on a 14-day, nine-game road trip and lost seven. Since then they have won 12 of their last 18, which is good enough for second, 11 games behind the Nuggets. And the fans are still pouring in.
"The fans are something else," says Begzos. "We went on that terrible road trip and came home to play on New Year's Eve--and drew 6,195 people. On New Year's Eve! Now, if I could only get those damn Bums to stop swearing so much."