San Antonia Express-News – Jun 17, 2007 – Richard Oliver – So the Spurs weren’t watched in Wichita. So their act didn’t play well in Peoria. So they didn’t register in Rancho Cucamonga.
“Every one of those who are criticizing this franchise wish they were boring enough to hold a victory parade on Sunday,” former City Councilman Chip Haass said.
Indeed, where love is lost on Madison Avenue, it flows through San Antonio like the city’s celebrated river.
“We are respected,” Spurs owner Peter Holt told ESPN last week. “We are respected by the people we want to be respected by.”
The evidence was on display again in the television ratings for Game 3. Against an underwhelming 7.8 Nielsen number nationwide, San Antonio drew an eye-popping 43.3 local rating Ã¢â‚¬â€? well above the 32.9 posted by Cleveland, playing in its inaugural NBA Finals and bidding for its first professional crown of any kind since 1964.
Those figures also illustrated the gap between San Antonio’s passion for the Spurs and that of the rest of the country.
The franchise is the most successful in the league over the past nine seasons, a track record that has prompted a debate as to whether the staggered-year championship runs constitute a dynasty. As of Friday evening, just more than 60 percent of respondents to an ESPN.com poll agreed it did.
Former Spurs great Sean Elliott said the same accomplishment would have had greater resonance had the San Antonio players been wearing the jerseys of the storied New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers. Then, he said, there would be no dynasty debate.
This year’s Finals, though popular among the younger demographic favored by advertisers, was the least-watched of any in the league’s history. The Spurs’ fundamentally sound, defense-oriented style, while paying off on the scoreboard, had a tough time sparking the interest of a national audience looking for rim-rattling electricity.
“You know what the Spurs are? They’re Pete Sampras,” said Seattle SuperSonics supporter Kevin Walters, a pharmaceutical executive. The retired tennis star, known for his reticent personality, “would win and win and win, and then one day Sampras isn’t in a tournament and everyone asks, ‘Where’s Pete? Oh, he retired?’ No one noticed.”
Walters, a former South Texas resident who now lives in Gig Harbor, Wash., added: “My son is 14. You talk about Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan to him, and he shrugs his shoulders. It’s (an ESPN) SportsCenter-highlight kind of deal, and the Spurs aren’t that.”
The peripheral impact plays out in more than viewer apathy. The taciturn Duncan, arguably the finest player of his generation, ranks only 15th in jersey sales among NBA players. At No. 1? The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who has hogged headlines during his career for explosive scoring on the court and notorious troubles off it.
One national columnist, Mike Freeman of CBS Sportsline.com, saw the dismissal of the Spurs as disturbing.
“You constantly scream about wanting to root for a true team, a selfless team, a team with players who do not chest bump or commit grand larceny,” he wrote this month of uninterested NBA fans. “You go into apoplectic shock crowing about how the media focuses on the negative. You whine and lament the absence of good guys in sports.
“Then come the San Antonio Spurs and you phonies yawn.”
As a result, noted sports psychologist John Murray said it’s no surprise that San Antonio fans, resurrecting a familiar Alamo theme, would take on an us-against-them mentality.
“I think San Antonians have every right to close ranks and say, ‘To heck with you, we’re going to keep winning,'” Murray said from Palm Beach, Fla. “San Antonio is just not going to inspire any great media attention, I think. It’s not that it’s not a great community, but for some reason it hasn’t gathered a whole lot of attention for what it’s accomplished.”
But, he added, “It may be that the Miamis, New Yorks and L.A.’s are jealous of what San Antonio has.”
Not long after the Spurs’ win at Cleveland late Thursday, one reporter in the post-game news conference brought up the lone negative in the team’s recent success: It hasn’t captured back-to-back titles.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, when asked about it, leaned toward the microphone and, using colorful language, indicated he didn’t care.
“I don’t give a shit,” he said.
After a heartbeat, he added, “I apologize.”
San Antonio fans didn’t need it. They know exactly how he feels.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.