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.
(D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images)
Steve Novak took the most important phone call of his career at a blackjack table. It was the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest gambling day of the year, and Novak was killing time.
Fresh from the road, the Reno Bighorns of the NBA’s Development League were home and putting their newest acquisition up in a hotel casino, but Novak’s room wasn’t ready. Through a haze of smoke -- “It was killing me,” he says -- Novak wandered to over to a table to wait. His cell phone rang.
Over the sound of casino chatter and slot machins, Novak heard a familiar voice. “Steve,” his agent began, “I’ve got good news.”
It was better than hitting “21.” Better than hitting the lottery. After two games in the D-League, Novak had hit the NBA jackpot. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
One moment a Bighorn, the next a San Antonio Spur. “I think,” Novak says, “I definitely won that day.” His wife, Christina, would agree. Now Christina and their 7-month-old son, Mack, are preparing to move from Milwaukee to San Antonio.
Back home in Brown Deer, Wis., Steve’s parents were returning from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church -- where they’d prayed for the Green Bay Packers to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers -- along with the rest of their children. The phone rang. When mom and dad hung up, hallelujahs broke loose. “We were jumping around and screaming,” Mike Novak says, “because that looked like a Super Bowl win right there.”
Steve’s oldest sister -- pregnant with twins -- couldn’t jump. But Andrea celebrated with the rest of the family and got ready for the big game. “The babies were due in mid-February,” Mike says. “The doctor said if she got through the Super Bowl, they would induce and have them the next day.”
The Novak family leaped again that afternoon. The Packers won and Andrea got to enjoy every minute. “She had twin boys the next morning,” Mike says. “That was a pretty exciting 48 hours.”
Steve, meanwhile, couldn’t fathom his good fortune. A masterful three-point shooter, he’d now hit the longest shot of his life, a trifecta: Spurs. Packers. Twin nephews. Remarkably, life got even sweeter. The Spurs extended Steve’s first 10-day contract another 10 days. Then they signed him for the rest of the season.
At 6-10, Novak looks like a sweet addition. He’s got Matt Bonner’s long range accuracy-- having hit 12 of 22 three-point attempts through Tuesday -- and he’s got a good story. The son of a high school basketball coach, Steve grew up shooting at a 5-foot hoop in the family basement.
Mike remembers Steve, at age 5, saying, “I’m gonna make 2,000 shots.” Then Steve would mark each shot that fell through the net on a chalkboard. “And he’d make 2,000,” Mike says. “We figured it was also good for his math skills.”
As he got older, Steve became the water boy for his father’s high school team. He also became the videographer. And when nobody needed water or video, Steve would step behind the arc and start launching. “I don’t remember my first lesson,” he says. “But my dad was my first teacher.”
The Novaks were the first family of basketball in Brown Deer. Dad coached. All four siblings played on a halfcourt in the backyard. Mom drove the kids from game to game. During his first year of high school, Steve received a huge carton of mail from USC coach Henry Bibby. “There were 2,500 letters,” Steve says. “That’s a lot of postage.”
Bibby flew out to Brown Deer the next season. He told Steve, then 16: “The way you shoot the ball, you’ll be in the NBA.”
The kid was flattered but wanted to stay close to home. Steve signed with Marquette, played with Dwyane Wade and shot with astonishing accuracy. He made 97 percent of his free throws one season. He made 46 percent of his career three-point attempts. He won the ESPN three-point shooting contest in 2006, defeating former Notre Dame star and current Spur, Chris Quinn.
Steve played with three NBA teams and one D-League club his first four years out of Marquette.
As a Clipper, he sank a corner three to beat the Nets at the buzzer. As a Rocket, he sank a game-winning trey to defeat the Kings. Steve began this season with the Dallas Mavericks, got waived, signed with Reno, then wound up at that blackjack table.
After a few games wearing silver and black, Steve called Mike to rave about San Antonio. The friendly people. The incredible fans. The crowd that arrived at the airport to cheer as the Spurs departed for Memphis.
Then Mike watched a game on television. He couldn’t help but notice the cutaway shots of the Riverwalk: the leaves on the trees, the people in short sleeves, so much warmth in February.
Mike called Steve’s wife, Christina. “If you need any help moving,” he said, “let me know. San Antonio looks like a nice city.”
For Steve, it’s been better than nice. A three-point shot artist has found a spot on the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooting team, a team with the best record in the league.
What are the odds?
They may be impossible to calculate. But this much is clear: On the high holy day of football, in a room full of high rollers, Steve Novak caught his big basketball break.