Pine time for an NBA nostalgist
Of course your overly sentimental correspondent had to be in San Antonio alongside a record crowd of 68,323 for the Spurs' return to the Alamodome ... but please allow me to explain all the reasons
SAN ANTONIO — Back in the mid-1990s, for those of us traveling with the Los Angeles Lakers, it was known as the Alamodoom.
This was hardly a nickname that needed much explaining, either. By the time I moved on to the Laker beat for The Los Angeles Daily News starting with the 1995-96 season, San Antonio had won six of the teams' seven meetings in the cavernous football stadium that became the Spurs' new home in 1993-94. Two more losses in my first two trips to the Alamodome dropped the Lakers to 1-8 there heading into the 1996 offseason, when the purple and gold acquired the rights to a teenager named Kobe Bryant on draft night and signed a free agent named Shaquille O'Neal shortly thereafter.
Tensions between the Lakers and Spurs only intensified from there.
In the lockout-shortened 1999 season, San Antonio completed a four-game sweep of the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in Round 2 of the playoffs en route to the Spurs' first championship — with Games 3 and 4 representing the last two games that the humbled Lakers ever played at the famed Fabulous Forum.
Then in 2001 and 2002, Shaq and Kobe led the Lakers to back-to-back playoff dismantlings of Tim Duncan and Co. that took Gregg Popovich's approval rating with the locals to unimaginable lows given the stature Pop holds in San Antonio now with a fistful of five championship rings.
The last game that the Spurs played at the Alamodome? Until Friday night, it was a Game 4 Lakers playoff win in 2002, sealed by Kobe Bryant to put L.A. up 3-1 in an eventual 4-1 series triumph.
Consider these history lessons about how frosty it was between these two franchises my long-winded justification for the irresistible pull I felt to attend the Spurs' utterly noncompetitive return-for-a-night to the Alamodoom last week.
As part of the Spurs' 50th anniversary season celebrations, they scheduled a game at the dome against mighty Golden State not only to pay homage to the stadium that housed them for nine seasons after HemisFair Arena but also to try to set an NBA single-game attendance record. Then it all unfolded as planned on Friday The Thirteenth.
Nearly 70,000 fans filled the football stadium, which reaffirmed both the Spurs' stature as an Alamo City institution on par with The Alamo itself as well as the Stephen Curry-led Warriors' boundless drawing power. And this incurable nostalgist was indeed courtside to see every dribble, because there was no way I could stay away ... even though the matchup between the 13-29 rebuilding hosts and the NBA’s defending champions added up to an unsightly 144-113 rout.
Yet I would argue that my ever-present inability to let go of the past was actually defensible in this case. The Spurs' first season at the dome was the same season I became a full-time NBA beat writer. My fourth road game as the Clippers' correspondent for the LADN starting in February 1994 took me to San Antonio.
I fell in love with the city instantly.
I had no idea in that spring of ’94, having been assigned to the Clipper beat just 10 days before the trade deadline, that frequent trips to San Antonio would soon become part of my life once I moved to Texas just a few years later to join The Dallas Morning News. All I remember from that first visit, walking through the streets and along the Riverwalk, is that the Tex-Mex vibe felt incredibly welcoming and comfortable.
But I also believe it was the fierce rivalry that the Lakers and Spurs eventually worked up to, from the depths of the Lakers' early hopelessness at the dome, that left me with such fond memories of an otherwise unimpressive building that was always way too big for basketball for fans and even players. The dome, to this day, is regarded as so unkind to shooters that the Warriors felt compelled to fly into town a few hours earlier than originally planned to make time for a shooting session the night before the game.
After Shaq was traded to Miami and Phil Jackson walked away from coaching following L.A.’s 2004 NBA Finals defeat to Detroit, leaving the Lakers all to Kobe, Popovich likened their breakup to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe Pop would have chosen a different analogy had he not majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy, but he has gone to it many times over the years. And it frankly says a lot about the depths of the animus between the Lakers and Spurs at its peak.
That's what I think, deep down, I missed most about the Alamodoom. I suspect that’s really why I wanted to go back one more time and see if I could picture those glorious days from my press-row seat.
We just don't have rivalries like that in today's NBA and I'm not ashamed to say I pine for one.
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Something else about San Antonio
There are few cities on the NBA map that can build up my dining anticipation like the presence of a looming ticket to SAT in my American Airlines app.
The surprising part when I share the full explanation is that my restaurant excursions there never include Tex-Mex or barbecue.
I typically do not seek out Italian fare, not even in the cities that specialize in it, but my favorite Italian restaurant in the entire league (when it comes to road cities) really is in San Antonio, Texas.
Something tells me I've covered this ground previously on this Substack, but who would really object to fresh pics of pizza and trout this scrumptious?
My go-to pizza at Jason Dady's Tre Trattoria:
And the crispy-skin trout:
The same trout after I flipped it:
Home teams are clearly getting adjusted to those baseball-style series that I have lobbied against since their inception. Portland’s wins over Dallas on Saturday and Sunday accounted for the 17th two-game sweep by the home team this season. Visiting teams have posted only five sweeps in this season’s two-game series to date and there have been 10 splits.
Vintage Tim Reynolds tweet from The Associated Press’ man after San Antonio drew a crowd of 68,323 to the Alamodome on Friday night for the Spurs' return to their former home against Golden State as part of the club's 50th-anniversary celebrations.
My own compilation of the various record crowds in NBA history:
Dallas' Luka Dončić logged nearly 53 minutes in last week's double-overtime road victory over the Lakers to register this season's highest single-game minute total. His teammate Spencer Dinwiddie played 51 minutes and 13 seconds in the game to move ahead of three players who have logged 50 minutes and change in a game this season: Miami's Kyle Lowry (50:54), Atlanta's Dejounte Murray (50:42) and New York's Immanuel Quickley (50:38).
After every team in the league had played at least 41 games this season, 17 players were averaging at least 25 points per game. That ties the 2020-21 season for the league record according to my fellow Substacker Justin Kubatko, whose research indicates that no other NBA season had more than 12 players averaging at least 25 points at the 41-game midpoint.
Only the Padres are still in San Diego, but the Clippers and the Chargers are right there with them on a list no franchise wants to find itself on: None of those three teams with 619 DNA has ever won a championship. In the Clippers' case, that includes their eight-season run in Buffalo.
Gleeful does not begin to describe your ridiculously nostalgic correspondent when his favorite basketball magazine from Spain — GIGANTES — arrived in the mail with an entire January issue devoted to 1990s basketball (in both the NBA and Europe).
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San Antonio is a great town. I’ve been there twice in my lifetime and enjoyed it immensely. I also had Italian food when I was there and it didn’t disappoint. Thanks for sharing the food pics. I need to get back there. 👍🏽🍕
Please don’t think this is my lone takeaway from the fantastic storytelling and nostalgia of this entire piece … but how does one get a subscription to GIGANTES here in the States?