Let’s start with the name, Hemisfair Arena. Built for the 1968 Hemis Fair or World’s Fair (do we even have those anymore?) and home to both the San Antonio Spurs and yes, the Houston Rockets for a brief period. I assume at the 1968 Hemis Fair it housed rocket cars, jet packs, and offered entire meals in pill form. I bet Tang was the drink of choice. I grew up thinking nothing about the name; now my spell check gives me a red line when I type it. (Shouldn’t it be Hemisphere? No red line there) As a kid, I never thought twice about the name because it hosted the only professional sports franchise near our home south of San Antonio.
It was the home of provincial legends. The Celtics had Larry Bird. The Spurs had George the Ice Man Gervin. LA had Kareem. We had Artis Gilmore. Isaiah Thomas? Meet our man Johnny Moore. The rest of the names...well let's just say they could have passed for a rec league squad, but they were ours. Marc Iavarone, John Paxson, Jon Sundvold, Ty Corbin, Ed Nealy, and holy shit Ed Nealy! The 6’7” inch swingman who to my recollection invented the heat check. Dean Smith said Ed was a great player because he “caught” rebounds with his "hands." Revolutionary. And he played for our Spurs from ’86 to ’88 when I’m sure we had to make room for Frank Brickowski or Dallas Comegys.
The Spurs' coaches? A who's who of who's that? Remember Bob Weiss? I do. He was bald. (My mind is a steel trap) John Lucas coached the squad in the early 90's. I went early to a game once and marveled at what appeared to be our new point guard's shooting touch during the team's shootaround. It was John Lucas, still spry, still fit, still able to fill it up. Then there was Cotton Fitzsimmons. He gave us two playoff births and two quick first-round exits. You don't want to linger too long in the playoffs get in, get out and let everyone get on with the rest of their lives.
I met Gervin once. My dad arranged for our little dribbler's basketball team to watch a Spurs game. Before tip-off we were led down courtside where the Ice Man was in street clothes with a bandaged hand, he’d burned while cooking. We all shook the Ice Man’s hand, and he told us never to cook. I take that to my grave. We then repaired up to the nosebleed section to watch the Gervinless Spurs dispatch the Kansas City Kings.
The NBA was fan-tastic
The mid 80's to the mid 90's was a great time watch the NBA. The Lakers/Celtics rivalry was red hot. Jordan was beginning to be Jordan. If you liked great basketball, this was your era. Great teams inhabited the penthouse level of the Association. But if your tastes skewed more to the average, the campy, the unathletic, all served with lousy popcorn and flat soda; there was a wonderful world for you to explore. Sure Hemisfair hosted the Lake show, the Doctor, Larry Legend, Michael, and Jordanaires but I most often found myself watching Stormin Norman Nixon and the Clippers or Jeff Malone and the Bullets. (The Bullets were a professional team out of Washington DC, they changed their name to the Wizards because Bullets had violent undertones. Now DC is the safest city in America. Look it up.)
Reggie Theus and the Kansas City Kings made a stop in the Alamo City that I caught. Reggie had an incredible and not so rare for the day Jheri Curl and deft shooting touch. Somehow I remember the Spurs beating Dan Issel and the Nuggets. Dan Issel was 74 years old. This is all very fuzzy.
They had a band. A real live, horns, drums, guitars, female singer band! They were called the Sound of the Spurs or the Spurs Band; I don’t remember. In those days if you wanted music, they supplied it. I vividly remember their swinging rendition of the Phil Collins/Phillip Bailey standard “Easy Lover.” Poetry. They had a horn section or guy or accordion player (as I said, fuzzy) who would toot out Rose of San Antone and the Charge riff when the Spurs needed some juice.
Hemisfair had a real-life pep squad called the Baseline Bums. George Valle, a guy that ran a hardware store in town, was a member. He and the bums hung Larry Brown in effigy after Brown made some crack about guacamole. They also drank. Heavily. I once saw George offer a beer to a startled sports reporter doing a live shot for the ten o'clock news. When the guy turned him down, George went ahead and polished it off himself. The Baseline Bums plied their craft before getting plowed and banging on the Suns backup center was in vogue. Simpler times.
Then we played the Lakers. I saw the Spurs/Lakers in a playoff game in 1986. By the way, I went back and looked, the Spurs finished 35-47 or something ridiculous and drew the Lakers in the first round. Gas prices and playoff spots were cheaper in the 80's. I long for it. We lost. Bad. Swept in three. I saw the deciding game. Before the game, one of the guys selling programs on the concourse kept yelling “Jabbar’s a Freak!” at the top of his lungs. Was he a freak? A seven-foot-tall bald guy with goggles and a sky hook? Yes. Yes, he was.
Charles Bleeping Barkley
Charles Barkley put it in David Robinson’s eye. In the last game ever at Hemisfair in game 6 of the 1993 Western Conference Semi-Finals Charles Barkley broke our hearts. Somehow he was isolated with David Robinson. He spun the ball and waited. Dribble. Head fake. Step back. Dagger. Watch the video. The place goes silent. It was also the night of the last Cheers episode, which I taped on a VCR. (Life was hard back then kids) I remember they played a Cheers clip at halftime and everyone went nuts.
And then Charles Barkley stole our lunch money, gave us a wedgie, and said our mom’s cooking sucked.
The Spurs moved across the interstate to the Alamodome. It was an awful place to watch a game and now, were it not for UTSA football, would host an assortment of Disney on Ice events and Monster Truck Rallies. They demolished Hemisfair a couple of years later. Apparently, the city needed more convention space. (Cities never need outdated, obstructed view, multipurpose, former sports venues, Astrodome I'm looking at you.)
I miss the old barn. It wasn’t comfortable or aesthetically pleasing, but George Gervin gave me life wisdom there; Ed Nealy rebounded with his hands; Easy Lover was on a loop.