(Originally published on June 6, 2014.)
“BEAT! THE! HEAT! BEAT! THE! HEAT!” echoed in a dizzying round from opposite sides of the AT&T Center during the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Spurs and the Heat. It was clear that the fans weren’t referring to the much reported air conditioner outage. What struck me most as a first-time Finals attendee was just how overwhelming a force the Spurs fans are to be reckoned with – especially when they win like they did Thursday night. It’s something difficult to appreciate unless you are able to witness it from the arena yourself.
I know, I know. The person I was last week would have wanted to smack the person I am today for talking about a Finals game like it’s an easy thing to just get a ticket and go. After all, if I hadn’t received the outrageous opportunity to cover the opening game of the NBA Finals for the Rivard Report, I would have watched from the couch last night, still having never attended a Finals game in person. My assignment wasn’t to cover the game, per se. My job was cover the fans, the high up fans – the way high up fans.
Remember when the cheap seats at an NBA game were cheap? I don’t. For as long as I can remember, it’s taken $50 to get a midlevel seat against a middle-of-the-pack team during the regular season. Want to get a “cheap seat” for Game 2 this Sunday at the AT&T Center? You’re looking at about $275 minimum. That’s the official price. Scalpers will want more.
Despite the hefty price, however, die-hard Spurs fans—of which there are at least half a city’s worth—are finding the ways and means to support the Silver & Black in person.
San Antonio’s fierce loyalty to its only major league sports franchise team is well noted, although the motivation behind the loyalty is a little bit trickier to pin down.
No group is more symbolic of the league-wide change in the fan attendee demographics and the fierce loyalty of San Antonians for their Spurs than the Baseline Bums, and they were on full display for Game 1. Founded in 1974 when the Spurs were still an ABA franchise and two years before the team moved to the NBA, the Bums began as a rowdy crowd composed of many blue-collar fans that would heckle their hearts out.
When asked whether the Bums ever occupied the upper tiers of the Hemisfair Arena, current Bum Richard Yeargain quipped, “We used to get high, but not like that.”
In fact, they sat right behind the visiting team’s bench. Their claim to infamy was showering the Nuggets and their coach, Larry Brown, with guacamole salad and dime beer in the 1976 season after he said of the rival Spurs, “I don’t like anything about San Antonio, their coaching staff, their franchise or their city. The only thing I like about San Antonio is guacamole salad.”
(Might this be an effective tactic to chasten fellow San Antonio basher, Charles Barkley? Hmm.)
Visit the four sections (101, 102, 127, 128) devoted to the Bums today and you’ll see that, just like the ten-cent beer nights, the rowdy blue-collar hecklers of yore have been replaced, too. This is not to suggest that the new bums are any less passionate; rather they are more committed to the Spurs and just express it in a different way. No guacamole throwing, for example.
“We’re more sophisticated now,” Yergain explained.
In place of vulgar heckling and unruly behavior, the Bums have made a deeper pact with the Spurs by requiring members to complete 15 hours of community service yearly with Spurs-sponsored charities and non-profits. They also have organized chants, rituals, and uniforms – although Game 1 was a “black out” game so the Bums left their standard uniforms at home.
Current president of the Bums, Bonnie Keammerer, said that the group wants its conduct to reflect well on the Spurs—as difficult as this is at times. She is often reminded of San Antonio attorney Wayne Wright’s “Code of Conduct” stadium etiquette video as a guide to action.
So what qualities keep this collection of die-hard fans coming back?
Keammerer, who took the air conditioning outage in stride by shedding her long-sleeve black lace shirt in favor of the cooler Spurs t-shirt, points to the community service aspect as the single quality that makes the Bums unique among the NBA fans and gives her pride in her group.
For Bums like Peggy Dickerson, another major motivation of the experience is the camaraderie. Dickerson, a retired government employee, recalled being taken to a game six years ago by a Bum from her church. After the experience she firmly intimated to her husband, “I want to sit with them. I don’t care what it takes.” She compares the Bums to a big family.
“I take care of my (ill) husband, I go to church, and I come here. This is my social life. Everybody (in the Bums) knows everybody. This is something I never got to do when I was younger,” said Dickerson.
To Dickerson there are three subjects beyond mockery: “Jesus, the president, and the Spurs.”
Dickerson raised another motivation as well: San Antonio’s almost maternal connection to the Spurs: “Every Spurs fan feels like they’ve given birth to each of the players. I love them all.”
When asked about the Miami fans, who in Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals famously left the American Airlines Arena in droves only to pound the doors seconds later, hoping for reentry, Dickerson explained that while Miami may like its team for its success, this city’s Spurs love isn’t rooted in superstars or success; it’s about the hometown connection.
“The team is connected to the city, and the city is connected to the team.”
For Nick Muñoz, who’s had season tickets in the nosebleeds with his daughter this year, the motivation to renew their season tickets was simple—redemption against the Heat.
Despite such unrivaled passion, even some of the die-hard Bums have had to face economic reality and forgo buying playoff tickets (which are not included in the price of season tickets). President Keammerer explained that about 60 percent of the Bums keep their seats, planning their vacations around the playoffs, but that still leaves a significant number of seats available in the die-hard Spurs sections. Available tickets in these sections are currently selling for a minimum $640 on StubHub.
One poor (fortunate?) Miami Heat fan, attending his first NBA game, landed in the Keammerer’s section of Bums. She converted him to a Spurs fan before the tip-off—or at least made him think better of revealing his true stripes.
For those interested in sitting alongside the best fans San Antonio has to offer and experiencing the NBA Finals through the eyes of a Bum, contact the Bums about available tickets in their sections at (210) 444-5050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For all the rest of you sitting high up at the AT&T Center, look for me and photographer Scott Ball. We’ll be back for Game Two. We know there are more good stories up there and we will be looking for them.