SACRAMENTO – Spurs fans euphoric about the team’s stunning domination of the Golden State Warriors in Tuesday’s 129-100 win in its 2016-17 season opener at Oracle Arena in Oakland have another compelling reason to tune in to Thursday’s telecast of their game against the Sacrament Kings on Fox Sports Southwest: The reveal of three of the team’s new H-E-B commercials that feature the team’s players in humorous skits pitching some of the grocery chain’s top products.

For a preview and behind the scenes footage of this year’s commercials, click here. 

Three more of the commercials will be revealed on the giant video screens at the AT&T Center during Saturday’s home opener against the New Orleans Pelicans.

And coming in January, a commercial will feature recently retired Spurs icon Tim Duncan, who will be included in a spot with other retired Spurs legends George Gervin, David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Bruce Bowen.

There is no overstating the impact the commercial spots have had, both in South Texas and around the world. They have become a phenomenon beyond the wildest imaginings of H-E-B executives. They are eagerly anticipated each season, not just in Texas but worldwide, owing to the team’s mix of players from a diverse set of countries. And just as the Spurs have become the model for how to build a championship pro sports franchise – other NBA teams raid their coaching and basketball operations staffs in an effort to emulate what has come to be known as “the Spurs way” – the NBA now sends tapes of the H-E-B spots to its other 29 teams as examples of how successful a partnership with a local sponsor can be.

“Every year I’m completely amazed by their impact,” said Cory Basso, H-E-B’s group vice-president of marketing and advertising and the man responsible for conceptualizing the creative use of Spurs players to market the grocery chain’s products. “It really is amazing when fans are grabbing phrases from our commercials, like ‘indubitably,’ and putting them on signs at games; and when ESPN does an entire article about Tim retiring and it is about the commercials; and when Danny Green says that when he finally was included (in the commercials) that he felt he had finally made it as a Spur.”

Tim Duncan during an H-E-B commercial shoot.
Tim Duncan during an H-E-B commercial shoot. Credit: Courtesy / H-E-B

All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, whose career high 35 points fueled the Spurs’ amazing win over the vaunted Warriors on Tuesday, became an instant star of the commercials in his inaugural commercial for H-E-B, which ran in 2013. He had only two lines in a spot pitching H-E-B Prime One steaks, the last of which was a one-word response to Tony Parker’s question “Fancy some steak, Kawhi?”

“Indubitably,” Leonard said, becoming an overnight internet sensation.

New Spurs center Pau Gasol, the team’s first Spanish-born player but hardly its first Hispanic, will make his debut in the spots this season. One of those will air in both English and Spanish, a first for the H-E-B commercials. It features Gasol and Manu Ginobili, both native Spanish speakers, as well as New York City native Danny Green and Patty Mills, an indigenous Australian. Neither Green nor Mills are fluent in Spanish, but the commercial spot, for H-E-B barbecue products, turns them into instant Spanish speakers.

“It’s a funny concept,” Basso said. “Pau and Manu are speaking to them in Spanish, telling Danny and Patty to try some barbecue, and when they do, all of a sudden they can speak Spanish.”

The bilingual commercial is one of seven that made the cut from a list of about 50 concepts that came from The Richards Group, a Dallas ad agency that has been involved in the commercials from their beginning. Whittling down the list involves a long process of consultation and approval.

“They start with about 50 ideas,” Basso said, “then get them down to 20, then 10. Then we get Spurs involved, the players involved, their agents involved, and we finally settle on the five or six we’re going to shoot. The NBA must approve them and the Spurs; the players and the agents also must approve them.”

The Tim Duncan commercial that will air in January – Basso calls it a top-secret spot that will feature a former player with the initials ‘TD’ – was added to the final six that were filmed in mid-October and will feature current Spurs players. There is speculation Duncan may even pitch a personalized H-E-B product that will bear his name.

Once the list of commercials is finalized by H-E-B, the ad agency, and all the entities that must approve them, a date for shooting the spots at the team’s practice complex off Huebner Road and Floyd Curl Drive is selected. Through meticulous pre-planning, the commercials are completed in about five hours, a remarkably efficient schedule that minimizes the time commitment of players weary from training camp practice.

“We have this down to a science,” Basso said. “We shoot five commercials in five hours. Generally speaking, that is impossible but we come with everything pre-built. The players walk from one set to another and we have two camera crews and sometimes shoot two spots at once.

“The players have fun doing it. They (take) photos in their funny outfits from the shoots and put them on social media,” Basso said. “Already, there have been hundreds of thousands of views on the teaser commercials.”

Basso arrived in San Antonio in 2003 from New York City, where he worked on large brand ad campaigns. Back then, H-E-B was already an important Spurs sponsor. His goal: Make H-E-B what he called “a fully integrated 360-degree partner, rather than just a sponsor.”

The H-E-B-Spurs commercials began relatively modestly in 2004, with Duncan the first, and only, featured pitch man. Since then, numerous players have been added to the mix, along with the team’s Coyote mascot. Occasionally, Gregg Popovich is coaxed into making a cameo appearance.

(From left) Spurs players Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and Tony Parker all in appearance during the shooting of the most recent H-E-B commercials.
(From left) Spurs players Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and Tony Parker all in appearance during the shooting of the most recent H-E-B commercials. Credit: Courtesy / H-E-B

“Pop would much rather have the focus be on the players,” Basso said.

Ultimately, the commercials have worked amazingly well, both for the Spurs and H-E-B, which has taken the concept to Houston, where it has shot commercials featuring Texans defensive star J.J. Watt and quarterback Brock Osweiler, as well as spots featuring Astros players.

“Most research tells us people believe we are the No. 1 Spurs sponsor, which relates to exploring all the things we can do together that work for both them and us,” Basso said. “The commercials serve two purposes: Obviously, for the products in the commercials and just about H-E-B brands being associated with such an amazing brand like the Spurs.”

Full disclosure: H-E-B and Chairman/CEO Charles Butt are contributors to the Rivard Report. 

Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.