POSTED: Jun 11, 2013 6:48 PM ET
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Back in the 1970s, when Red McCombs bought a basketball team to uproot and turn into the San Antonio Spurs, one agent balked that his player wasn't coming because they couldn't find the small market on a map.
Now the city is practically the capital of NBA success.
The NBA Finals returned to San Antonio on Tuesday for the first time since 2007 - hardly a drought by any measure. Yet it still feels overdue to many in this self-proclaimed "Military City USA," where the Spurs are the only game in town and fans proudly tick off connections they insist run deeper than broad characterizations often used to link a city's identity with its sports team.
There's Spurs coach and Air Force graduate Gregg Popovich in a city where every American airman reports for basic training. There are the nine-foreign born players on the Spurs, more than any team in the NBA, who during the season call home a booming and diverse city demographers say the rest of the U.S. will eventually resemble - a prediction that Mayor Julian Castro often mentions as his political stardom rises nationally.
Castro, who delivered the keynote speech at last year's Democratic National Convention, is relentless about raising small-market San Antonio's profile beyond the River Walk and the Alamo, the biggest tourist attraction in Texas and a destination for families every summer.
For McCombs, the former owner who brought pro basketball to South Texas when he offered $800,000 for the Dallas Chaparrals in 1973, the team remains the city's most valuable presence.
That San Antonio is the nation's largest city without two professional sports teams doesn't bother McCombs, the former Minnesota Vikings owner who believes that will still happen despite a failed effort to bring the NFL here in the 1990s. He also says Dallas and Houston are watching the Spurs' success with envy. San Antonio has won four titles.
"We're in the newspapers seven or eight months a year. We're on television seven or eight months a year. We're identified with winning," McCombs said. "All of the ingredients are there. It's the greatest asset our city has."
Maybe it's a perfect fit, this marriage of a no-nonsense coach in Popovich and a no-nonsense city.
That's how Larry Coker sees it. Coker is the football coach at Texas-San Antonio, and he's rooting for the Spurs to win the title - which shouldn't be a surprise, even when stopping to consider that he's the former head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, the team he led to the 2001 national championship.
"I think it's totally tailor-made for San Antonio," Coker said. "I think it's a perfect fit. And I think Gregg Popovich would be great anywhere, but the L.A. market, Showtime and all that stuff, that's not his style. I think this is perfect. He's so direct. That's the kind of guy he is."
San Antonio's style certainly isn't glamour. Tony Parker's night club Nueve Lounge isn't in some chic and stylish downtown district, but along the interstate and far out in the city's wealthy exurbs, sharing a shopping plaza with a Subway and a family dental practice.
Stuff like that just fits here.
"We love them because they hardly get any recognition," said Sara Camargo, 71, a retired custodian who painted her once-pink house silver and white and turned her front yard into a shrine of Spurs memorabilia that passers-by often stop to photograph. "The Spurs never do. We seem to be the oddballs or something."
Dan Gereau left San Antonio several years ago, after his time at Randolph Air Force Base about 15 miles outside of the city was complete.
"I never really paid any attention to the Spurs before we lived down there," said Gereau, a standout basketball player in upstate New York during his high school days. "But we got to quite a few games and that's when I picked up on their attitude. They just run to the other end, they don't throw their arms up, don't get in your face and I really respected that about them."
Gereau would go to games with tickets that his wife Karrah could obtain through her work. It was a big deal to them - and, Gereau recalled, to anyone else lucky enough to get a chance to watch the Spurs play.
"Every home game, you'd think it was the Super Bowl," Gereau said. "Everyone had backyard barbecues, you were invited everywhere, the game was on, it was a party. It was amazing to see the support. You could go to some grandmother's knit shop and there would be Spurs apparel in there. It's so cool. Go to some gas station, stop and strike up a conversation with anyone. They'll talk to you for 30 minutes about Spurs basketball."