The beginning of the Spurs’ run of success that has made them the most successful professional sports franchise of the past three decades can be traced to their good fortune in the 1987 NBA draft lottery. In a drawing that took place at the Equitable Center in New York City, the Spurs won the right to make David Robinson the No. 1 overall selection in the 1987 draft.

The worst season in franchise history, 28-54 in 1986-87, had put the team in the draft lottery. It was a fourth consecutive losing season, accompanied by sagging attendance at HemisFair Arena: an average of only 8,320 per game, 22nd in what was then a 23-team league.

The team’s viability in San Antonio was in question.

Everything changed with the luck of the lottery because Robinson, a true franchise changer, was available. He was a can’t-miss prospect, a 7-foot-1 center from the U.S. Naval Academy who had averaged 28 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks per game as a senior for the Navy team.

But there was a catch: Robinson was committed to serving in the Navy for two years, and NBA rules at the time only allowed him to become a free agent if the Spurs had not signed him to a contract within two seasons.

After the lottery drawing, CBS-TV host James Brown asked Spurs General Manager Bob Bass about the sign-him-or-lose him contingency.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Bass said. “We’ll get Angelo after him. That’s all.”

Angelo was Angelo Drossos, the exuberant Spurs president. He had been hired by majority owner Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, who had employed him as a car salesman. Drossos also had been a boxing promoter, a dance instructor, and a Wall Street stock broker, hence his reputation as a great negotiator.

But convincing Robinson to commit his pro basketball career to a struggling team in one of the NBA’s smallest TV markets required more than just a golden-tongued pitch man. Drossos knew he had to sell Robinson not only on the Spurs as a potential powerhouse team, but also on San Antonio as a great place to work and live. To that end, he knew exactly where to turn for help: the four African-Americans among the team’s ownership group.

Dr. Robert Hilliard, Dr. Joseph Pierce, Dr. James Hadnott, and Janis Hadnott had been among the early investors in the team when McCombs and Drossos bought a struggling Dallas Chaparrals American Basketball Association franchise in 1973, moved it to San Antonio, and changed the team name to the San Antonio Spurs.

So, when Robinson and his family paid the city a three-day visit in mid-September 1987, the team’s black owners were instrumental in convincing him that San Antonio could be a place he would be happy to call his home. While Robinson and his father, Ambrose, spent the bulk of their time talking contract with Drossos, Joe Pierce’s wife, San Antonio art maven Aaronetta Pierce, and Jim Hadnott’s wife, Gwen, introduced Robinson’s mother, Freda, to the city.

Robinson recalls the impact they made.

“They were wonderful and we all became great friends, and, of course, Dr. [Jim] Hadnott eventually delivered our children,” Robinson said last week. “So, yeah, we got to be good friends with them over the years. It feels like a big family and it always has, right from the beginning.”

David Robinson stands for the pledge of allegiance during the IDEA Public Schools luncheon. Photo by Scott Ball.
David Robinson stands for the pledge of allegiance with his son Corey during the IDEA Public Schools luncheon in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Earlier in 1987, Aaronetta Pierce had served as founding chair of the commission for San Antonio’s inaugural celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and she remains active in annual DreamWeek activities. She remembers the September day she and Gwen Hadnott spent taking Freda Robinson around the city in a limousine.

“We showed her Jim’s house in Elm Creek and gave her a feeling that black people did okay in San Antonio and could find their roots,” Aaronetta Pierce said. “Jim and Gwen lived in an integrated neighborhood and we did as well, and still retained a huge part of our collection of African-American art on our walls. So, it was clear we cared a lot about our own culture and we found an opportunity to express that in San Antonio.

“I think she felt very much at home.”

“It wasn’t like being in the South,” Joe Pierce added.

Not long after Robinson’s visit, he agreed to a unique deal with the Spurs, an eight-year contract that paid him $1 million during each of his two years in the Navy and guaranteed he would be paid at least as much as the second-highest paid player in the league after the deal’s fifth year.

Money had talked, loudly. But, so had the Pierces and the Hadnotts, who remain close with Robinson and his family.

That the Spurs were among the first franchises in the four so-called major sports leagues in North America with black owners is a little known fact. Few now in the Spurs organization are even aware of the history that was made in 1975, when Drossos went looking for investors to help McCombs fund the purchase of the Chaparrals. McCombs had brought them to San Antonio in 1973, leasing them for $1, with an option to buy the team for $800,000. He put up about a third of the purchase price in 1974. Drossos earned an ownership stake by working as club president for no pay, with much of his time spent recruiting investors. To that end, he enlisted Maury Holden, a San Antonio banker who also was Spurs secretary-treasurer.

Holden’s banking connections led him to the four black investors.

“We came in to the investor group at the end of 1974,” said Joe Pierce, a retired anesthesiologist and an avid collector of books, beer steins, and sports memorabilia. “Dr. [Jim] Hadnott, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist, was a partner of Dr. Robert Hilliard. Bob Hilliard was on the board of Texas Bank. The president of Texas Bank was Maury Holden.

“This was the second year the team was here, when they decided they would buy the team and they needed some money. Maury went to Bob Hilliard and asked if he wanted to invest. Jim [Hadnott] was [Hilliard’s] partner and Jim’s brother [William Hadnott] was an anesthesiologist. He and I did the anesthesia for most of their surgeries. And we were all old friends and we all decided to get in.”

It did not take much convincing to get the four physicians to join the fledgling Spurs ownership group. All four shared a love of sports, especially basketball.

“We were all avid basketball fans,” Jim Hadnott recalled. “All of us had gone to all the Houston Rockets games when they played here. You know, the Rockets played about nine games here in 1971 – Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy, that bunch. We bought season passes to that. It was $8 a seat, and we didn’t miss a game.”

Dr. William Hadnott, who served as chief of anesthesiology of both the Baptist Memorial Hospital System and Nix Memorial Hospital, opted to put his family’s ownership in the name of his wife, Janis, who engaged fully in the process

“My husband worked all day,” Janis Hadnott said. “He became a great anesthesiologist in San Antonio and he worked all the time. So, I made the [ownership] meetings, which was wonderful, because I am the personality kid. So, I am the one who met Angelo Drossos, and it was quite a neat experience for me.”

Joe Pierce recalled the timing of committing to the investments, which were around $15,000.

“In those days, tax laws were such that if you committed to an investment on the 31st of December, you could write off the investment for the whole year,” Pierce said. “So, Dec. 31 was when we had to commit, and the money we committed could be paid out over three years. But I could write off the entire commitment I had subscribed to. So, I got a very, very nice refund for having signed my name on that one day.”

“That was very attractive to all of us,” Jim Hadnott said. “I think Angelo arranged that loan for me. I don’t remember going to the bank. He brought me the papers. He got it from Frost. I believe Tom Frost was in on it, too. They made it real painless for us.”

As unusual as their ownership status was, the black investors hardly felt like pioneers.

“I dug up that article where they put all of the investors’ names in the [San Antonio Express-News], and it was without any kind of fanfare,” said Jim Hadnott, rifling through a sheaf of papers to produce a yellowed clip from a Nov. 2, 1975 paper. “It was just a routine article, with nothing special about that. Nobody jumped up and down. There was no mention of the African-American investors. It did have Bob Hilliard’s picture, but there was no other mention.”

Notoriety, clearly, was not the goal.

“We were just basketball fans,” Joe Pierce said. “We didn’t do it to be pioneers. But we recognized that, in fact, we were.”

“We knew,” said Jim Hadnott, “but I never thought it was anything special. We liked the team from the very beginning – James Silas and that bunch. And then, when they brought in George Gervin, that was a slam dunk.”

A highlight in their 13 years as owners: helping Drossos celebrate the Spurs entry into the NBA, on June 17, 1976.

Drossos had taken a lead role in marathon talks in Hyannis Port, Mass., that got the Spurs and three other ABA teams into the older, more financially sound NBA.

“The night that Angelo got back from the merger meetings, Jim and Aaronetta and I went to his home,” Joe Pierce recalled. “Angelo had been up all night for several nights, and he looked bad. But he was so excited and so happy, so he invited us to celebrate with him and his wife, Lillian.”

The party went well into the night.

“Without Angelo, I don’t think the Spurs would have been part of it,” Jim Hadnott said. “The NBA really wanted the New York [Nets] and they wanted Doc [Julius Erving] and George [Gervin] and [Denver’s] David Thompson.”

The Spurs’ early years in the NBA were successful, but they also produced a painful memory. Losing Game 7 of the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals after leading the series 3-1, was difficult for Spurs coaches, players, and fans.

Jim Hadnott remembers Game 7 as if it had been played yesterday. The Spurs had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, but lost the game when Washington Bullets forward Bobby Dandridge made a mid-range jump shot in the waning seconds.

A moving screen call against Spurs center Billy “The Whopper” Paultz that wiped out a basket by Silas still rankles.

“Oh, that Billy Paultz moving pick,” Jim Hadnott said, rolling his eyes. “And I think they could have won it if they’d got to that Finals. They should have won the whole thing that year and that would have been real cool. They hadn’t been in the NBA but three years.

“That Bobby Dandridge shot was about like that shot Ray Allen hit down in Miami. We could have had another championship.”

The four African-Americans remained in the ownership group until 1988, when McCombs, who had sold his 35% stake in the Spurs earlier in the decade, bought the Spurs for $47 million in 1988.

It was an offer almost all of the investors found too good to refuse, including Hilliard, Pierce, and the Hadnotts. Pierce pointed out that the $32.5 million expansion fees the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Orlando Magic had paid to join the league in 1987 and 1988 already had brought significant, proportionate payouts to all members of the Spurs ownership.

“It was a very good business deal if you didn’t realize what happened later,” Jim Hadnott said. “But I was glad to get it because my kids were just getting to that point [where] I had to spend money on their schools, and whatever. And that was a nice check in 1988, a nice piece of money that was unexpected. I thought it was a good deal; one of the best deals I ever made.”

Joe Pierce put it in perspective.

“I like to say it was the best deal I ever made and it was the worst deal I ever made,” he said. “The best, because I made a good piece of money; and the worst because it doesn’t compare to what it would be now.”

Now, the Spurs are valued at $1.15 billion, according to Forbes Magazine’s 2016 estimate of pro sports franchise worth.

Nevertheless, Janis Hadnott and the others reject seller’s remorse.

“It wasn’t a difficult decision at all,” said Janis Hadnott, whose husband died in 2010. “You had to make a decision on whether or not you wanted to invest further or not. So, it wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t difficult for my husband, either. At least, he didn’t complain about it at the time.

“Of course, if we knew now what we didn’t know then, well … ”

And with that, Janis Hadnott erupted into prolonged laughter.

Early Spurs investor Janis Hadnott.

“But, those were the good days,” she said. “And I know the new arena is wonderful, but there was nothing like HemisFair Arena. The space and the camaraderie. And, of course, part of that is because the Spurs are the one major pro team in the city. And when you would walk into that HemisFair Arena the spirit of the Spurs would lift you up and carry you to your seats.”

The Pierces and Hadnotts don’t often attend games these days, but they remain faithful fans. They are proud that Robinson carries on their legacy as a minority owner of the Spurs, having bought a stake following his retirement from playing after the 2002-03 championship season.

Robinson, too, feels a kinship with his black predecessors in ownership.

“It’s always been a pretty diverse group of owners here,” he said. “And, even now, I get a chance to go to the owners’ meetings and it’s still a pretty diverse group. It kind of goes along with the community ownership of this thing.”

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning sports journalist who has covered the NBA for the San Antonio Express-News and other publications.