Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
Dr. Paul Saenz
Paul Saenz claims a love for the Spurs that pre-dates his tenure as a team doctor, a relationship that goes back to the days of finger rolls and a legend named Ice.
On Valentine’s Day 1982, Saenz proposed to his girlfriend. After securing a "yes," he drove his fiancé to a Spurs game. "That’s how we celebrated," he recalls.
Sixteen years later, Saenz and his wife were entering Fiesta Texas when his cell phone rang. The caller, orthopedic surgeon David Schmidt, made a proposal: Would you consider joining the Spurs as a team doctor?
"Hold on a sec," Saenz said. Then, turning to his wife, he calmly explained: "I have an opportunity to become a team doctor for the Spurs."
She offered no words. Only a look, an expression that spoke so clearly a discussion never took place.
"I'll take it," Saenz told Schmidt.
Twelve years and four NBA championships later, their partnership ranks among the league's best. In a little-known NBA statistic that measures team health -- fewest games and practices missed by players -- the Spurs consistently score well. "We've been in the top five the past several years," Schmidt says. "We want to be No. 1 -- the team with the least number of game days lost."
Dr. David Schmidt
No one is more competitive in sports science than Schmidt. Since joining the team in 1993, he's become a leader in injury prevention -- "team health and championships go hand in hand," Schmidt says -- and he loves to tout its value.
"Ankle injuries are the No. 1 injury in the NBA," he says. "And there's clear scientific evidence, that if you do an ankle strengthening program, get on the medicine ball and work the ankle, you will decrease risk."
Schmidt boasts a world-class resume. He's been a physician at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the World University games in Japan and the NBA All-Star game. He treats athletes at UTSA, Trinity and several high schools. In 2004, he was named NBA team doctor of the year.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in Harper (pop: 1,006), played high school football in Fredericksburg (pop: 10,432) and wanted to be a veterinarian. His ambition changed when a chemistry professor at the University of Texas re-directed him to medicine.
Now Schmidt believes he's got the best job around. He gets paid to watch games, hopes nobody gets seriously hurt, and hardly anyone does. "No more than five or six times a year do I have to go onto the court to attend to anyone," he says. "It's pretty rare."
If Schmidt is the country boy, Saenz is the home boy. He graduated from Central Catholic High School, completed his undergraduate work at St. Mary's University and decided to become a dentist. But after two years of dental school, he, like Schmidt, changed plans.
A long-time Yankees fan, Saenz stepped into sports medicine with a fellowship with the Seattle Mariners. Once, when the Oakland A's were visiting the old Kingdome, Saenz entered their dugout and found one of his favorite players sitting alone, Reggie Jackson.
"Would you mind autographing a ball," Saenz asked.
"Would you mind taking a look at my foot," Reggie replied.
Reggie removed his shoe and sock and Saenz made an instant diagnosis. Ingrown toenail. Next thing you know, Reggie is talking about his career, Saenz is getting an autographed ball, and the two are connecting like old friends. Then Mr. October interrupted. "Could you pick me up at my hotel tomorrow and take me to your clinic?"
Saenz couldn't believe his luck. He also couldn't believe his predicament. "If I had given Reggie a ride in my truck," he says, "I would have never been able to sell it."
Reggie got another ride to the clinic and Saenz got a story for his kids.
The story on Saenz sings. He was on the medical staff at the 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympics and the 1998 Goodwill Games. He's team physician for the San Antonio Missions and USA boxing while serving on the medical staff for the Silver Stars and University of Incarnate Word.
Saenz can rattle off all kinds of stories about his career -- none funnier than an incident that occurred in his first season with the Spurs.
Before a playoff game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1999, Schmidt was attending to a Spurs player in the locker room. A few people gathered around to observe, including Saenz and a shoeless Tim Duncan, who stood silently behind the new team doc.
"Then I take a step back," Saenz says, "and land on his bare right foot with the heel of my dress shoe." Duncan began hopping around in pain, and Saenz imagined the worst. Team doc knocks Duncan out of the playoffs.
Fortunately, Duncan wasn’t injured and the Spurs went on to win their first championship.
The team docs never expected a ride like this. One was going to be a vet, the other a dentist and now look at 'em. They sit on the cutting edge of injury prevention, tend to a four-time NBA champion and enjoy the view from one of the best seats in the house.