Andrew Unterberger is all up in Texas, eating Mexican food. Here’s his report…
My Texas sojourn was definitely one of the stretches of the trip I was looking forward to the most. Having spent three or four weeks a year visiting my grandparents there in Fort Worth during my youth, it’s certainly a state I’ve always felt an affection for — even if I had forgotten that yes, it does in fact drop below 80 degrees on occasion during December. From Houston I headed back north to FW to meet up with my grandparents and head to my all-time favorite restaurant, Uncle Julio’s. As a kid, I was contented with their basic tortillas (and I was utterly enraptured by the workings of their tortilla-making machine, always out on display), but I’ve since graduated to the Plato Gordo, a behemoth of ribs, fajitas and bacon-wrapped shrimp. Highly recommended if you’re in the area, and probably if you’re not, as well.
After a couple days off in FW — which also included a tour of the new Cowboys stadium in Dallas, which my grandfather had raved about with religious fervor just about every time I’ve seen him over the last few years — I headed back south to San Antonio to catch the Spurs play the Hawks at the AT&T Center. Along the way I picked up my newly-Lone Star-arrived cousin Brian in Austin, and we read over a half-decade’s worth of Tim Duncan-related Onion headlines during the ride down.
The Stadium: Not exactly located in the heart of the San Antonio area, the AT&T Center — it actually looks a lot more like the suburbs, and not particularly nice suburbs, either. “There is nothing around the AT&T Center to do before or after the game,” Andrew McNeil of 48 Minutes of Hell told me before the game. “I think I read a story in the newspaper a couple of years ago that said the only business in the area thriving since the AT&T Center was built was a tattoo parlor.” (I actually passed that tattoo parlor on the way out, and it looked healthy enough, if not particularly bustling.) Still, it didn’t seem to hurt excitement around the arena itself — the isolation of the stadium, combined with the excellent and highly-varied attendance, made it feel like some sort of community center or church-type gathering rather than your average Friday Night Out sporting event.
The interiors were kind of crazy, at least by NBA stadium standards. The walls were painted in wildly contrasting, almost garish-looking colors from one stretch of the arena to the next, like they were trying to keep the building color-coded. (“It’s like a mall, or some kind of convention center,” Brian aptly commented.) I kinda liked it, actually — maybe just because it was so different, and because it at least denoted some kind of personality, even if it probably made the high percentage of interior decorators in attendance cringe. I heard some complaints from fans (and from Andrew) that the seats were cramped, and while they were kind of run-down, the seats the Spurs PR guy hooked me and Brian up with — about six rows back from the baseline — were good enough that I didn’t really care enough to notice.
The Game: This was one of the better matchups I had on paper going into this trip, and it was still less lopsided than most of the games I’d been to the last week or two, even though by Friday the Spurs had the best record in the West and the Hawks were missing their $793 million man in Joe Johnson. Things were fairly close throughout, as none of the Spurs were really firing on all cylinders and Josh Smith and Al Horford were filling up the box score just enough to keep the Hawks in the game. I ignored all my better instincts and tried to root the Spurs on to victory in their time of crisis, despite being a Hawks supporter since the Celtics series in ’08, and a Spurs hater up until the Suns finally beat them in the Western semis last year.
Despite the surfeit of potentially-electric talents on display between them, nobody on either team had a particularly impressive game — even ol’ reliable Tim Duncan, after hitting a couple signature bankers early, sputtered to an unremarkable 5-11 for 12 points with four boards. Ironically, the most impressive thing I saw on display over the course of the game was the passing of Manu Ginobili, who ended up with 6 TOs and 0 assists. His whip-passes arrived with a Nash-like speed and accuracy that I’d never really noticed before on TV. Unfortunately, none of Manu’s teammates seemed willing to cash in on his potential dimes, as a succession of fumbles, missed jumpers and blown layups rendered every one of them moot. Bummer for the balding one, though he still ended with a team-high 18 points.
Eventually, the Spurs began to separate — they were clearly the better team all along, but they finally landed enough of their jumpers and finished around the basket enough to reflect it on the scoreboard. A pair of late Richard Jefferson threes put things officially out of reach, leading the PA guy to break out DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win” for the Spurs’ final possession. Gary Neal hit a long two just as T-Pain got to the “Everybody’s hands go UP!…” part of the hook, and then the crowd kicked in in celebration as he returned with “…AND THEY STAY THERE!!” Probably the best semi-accidental piece of Jock Jam synergy of the trip thus far.
The Fans: Though the Spurs writers I talked to said that the crowds weren’t great at AT&T Center right now (“San Antonio really doesn’t turn it up until playoff time anyway,” said Andrew. “That’s how it goes when your team has made the playoffs 38 times out of 44 seasons”), I gotta say, I was digging ‘em. It certainly looked pretty full where I was sitting — no empty sections up top, only scattered empty seats down low. And the fans there were certainly top-notch — I told Brian that I don’t think I’ve seen such a high concentration of fans jumping out of their seats at just about every late made basket at any game of my trip thus far. One guy in a Rangers hat a few rows in front of us even turned around and gave the “three” and “and-one” signals to the rest of the section when necessary, as if he was translating for the hard-of-hearing.
Even the opposing fans were highly respectable. Well, one of them, anyway — there was a woman a section over who was either a Hawks fan, or a Spurs hater, or someone who just hated the sight of made free throws, but at every trip the Spurs took to the charity stripe in the second half, she started yelling in the shrillest voice imaginable: “MIIIIIIIISSSSSS IIIITTTT!!!! MISS IT MISS IT MISS IT MISS IT MIIIIISSSS IIIIIITTTT!!!” Eventually, she infected others in the section, who either started yelling “MIIISSS IIIITTT!!!” when the Hawks were up for reciprocity’s sake, or tried to counter her effect by yelling “DON’T LISTEN TO HER!! MAKE IT! MAKE IT!” at the Spurs guys. I dug it — had yet to encounter a really solid, unapologetically obnoxious fan heckler yet this trip.
Unsurprisingly for a 19-3 team, the fans were pretty high on the Spurs, and attributed most of it to familiarity. “I just think it’s the chemistry they have in place,” a fan named Brian (no relation) told me. “Tim, Tony, Manu, RJ … Jefferson’s finally coming into the mix, he seems to get it this year.” Allen, sitting behind me, answered my question about the reason behind the team’s hot start similarly: “Health, and the fact that everyone here’s confident with the system, the fact that they didn’t add any more players in the offseason.” Depth was also the reason Allen picked the team over the Mavs currently, despite living in Dallas. “The Mavs can win without Dirk playing lights out, but mostly it’s a one-man show,” he told me. “The Spurs have seven guys who can win the game for you.”
The party line on Tim Duncan was that he was looking as good as ever, but simply didn’t need to do as much this year. “I like the fact that he’s not tasked as much as he was in the past,” fan Brian told me. “That’s the key … we’ve got to limit his minutes.” Andrew wasn’t as convinced, though. “Tim Duncan looks old,” he said. “It’s depressing for a guy like me who has watched him and idolized him for his entire career … I would be surprised if Duncan plays past next season. I get the feeling he’ll retire after next season, if there is one, and hang around San Antonio the same way David Robinson does now.” As for what the team needed to contend with the Lakers and company, answers tended toward the young bigs. “It’ll take DeJuan or Tiago to really step up,” answered Allen. “Tiago Splitter will have to improve,” Andrew concurred. “Tiago is behind the curve. If he can get to where everyone expects him to be, San Antonio might have an outside shot of taking down the Lakers.”
Most Popular Jerseys: Timmy and Manu, with the iconic Duncan No. 21 getting the edge. Not too many retros in attendance, and surprisingly few Robinsons. Was glad to see someone rocking the No. 44 Gervin, though.
Also Worth Noting: Coyote, the Spurs’ much-beloved mascot, is a total fucking freak. “His eyes are going to haunt my dreams,” Brian noted, and indeed they were frightening, like Jake Morgendorffer’s bloodshot peepers after a bad freakout on “Daria,” except green. Even more disconcerting was the fact that he wasn’t wearing any pants — not so weird by mascot standards perhaps, but his ass and crotch areas were just a little too well-defined (there were outlines, at the least) to go so free and easy down south. And that’s not getting started on his generally spazzed-out, crackhead-type arena antics. Far be it from me to be ragging on a Hall of Famer, but the AT&T Center is supposed to be a family establishment, dammit. I wouldn’t let my kids within 500 feet of that thing.
Swag Acquired: Seconds before giving up on finding quality goods and settling on another shot glass or something, I spotted a Spurs hammer on the wall for $25 — darkly appropriate, somehow. “This way if your imaginary feuds on the road ever turn into real feuds, you’ll be prepared,” Brian noted. (By the way, don’t look at me so cross-eyed and suspicious, gift-shop-counter-lady. You guys are the ones selling the fuckin’ thing.)
Hurts – “Wonderful Life (Arthur Baker Remix)” First Holy Ghost’s “I Will Come Back” video, and now this. Hey, it only took a quarter-century for the Arthur Baker revival to officially get under way, but you’d be foolish to say it wasn’t worth the wait.
One day left in Texas — back up to Big D for the Mavs and Jazz in a rematch of the 2001 Calvin Booth Classic. More barbecue, I say.