Tales From 10 Years With The Spurs
Ever since I was a little kid in Philadelphia pulling for Wilt Chamberlain and the 76ers I have loved basketball, so the chance to work for class organizations like the Spurs and ClearChannel was too good to pass up. Now in my 11th season, I have had the good fortune of calling all games for three NBA championship teams. I was recently asked to reflect on some of my finest memories of the past decade, and maybe share a story or two. Keeping this article shorter than "War and Peace" proved to be a challenge!
When in New York, the Spurs sometimes will conduct a shootaround at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. After one particular session, a couple of players and I were going to take the elevator back to the first floor so we could hop on the team bus and go back to the hotel. The elevators were running slow so we opted for a back staircase. When we got to the exit door on the first floor, there was a huge sign (located next to a video camera) warning that if that exit was used, an alarm would sound. We just wanted to get on the bus and didn't want to create any problems, so one player (who hails from Argentina) shrugged his shoulders, looked directly into the camera and said, "Hello, my name is Manu Ginobili and I play for the San Antonio Spurs. We are planning on leaving the building now..we are not breaking in. We are leaving..through this door. I am sorry." Then we opened the exit door and yes, alarms sounded. When we got outside, there was no team bus. The driver had moved it to another side of the building. So I have this clear recollection of walking up 10th Avenue in midtown Manhattan with Manu and Bruce Bowen in their practice gear looking for the team bus, while hearing the alarms going off. We finally did find the bus. If they did want to prosecute, we wouldn't have to go far. We were already there at the Criminal Justice Building.
During the 2002-2003 season, the Spurs had signed a player from Mongolia named Mengke Bateer, who spoke no English. To help Bateer learn the plays and communicate with everyone, an interpreter named Jimmy Chang was hired. Chang was a friendly, outgoing guy from California who soaked up life in the NBA. He loved the food, the travel, the food, the hotels, the food, and the games. To put it nicely, Jimmy used up all of his per diem. Anyway, we have an off day in Boston and before we take off for the next game, Pop holds a practice at a local college. I am told that there had been a buzz about a possible one on one basketball challenge featuring Jimmy Chang and....me! Now other than a few games of HORSE here and there, I hadn't played basketball in years. Even though I was far from "game shape" at the time, I accepted the challenge. Big mistake! Many of the players circled around the court and Pop sat in a folding chair near midcourt. We were supposed to play until someone hit five baskets, but it never got that far. Jimmy knew how to use his weight advantage. If I had any quickness, I would have used it to get around this guy, but quickness and "Schoening" have never been used in the same sentence. After a defensive struggle (to use that term very kindly) Jimmy and I were tied at 2. On what turned out to be the final play of this epic heavyweight battle, Chang drives the lane and throws up a shot while literally falling into me. (both of my feet were planted firmly, I was set to take the charge) The ball goes through the hoop, but I never saw it...the Great Wall of China fell on top of me in a heap. From my horizontal position on the floor (and with all 290 pounds of Chang still lying on top of me) I see Steve Kerr signaling a charge, while Danny Ferry insists it is a block. (Apparently they had a friendly wager on the proceedings) Then I see Gregg Popovich literally fall out of his folding chair, laughing. I slowly got up while holding the growing knot on the back of my head. Jimmy and I shook hands, secure in the knowledge that we had set the game of basketball back 100 years. This is not what Dr. Naismith had in mind when he invented this game.
One of my favorite characters affiliated with the Spurs during my tenure was assistant coach PJ Carlesimo, now with the New Jersey Nets. Since PJ is a native of Scranton, PA he knew a lot of players, coaches, and officials from Philadelphia, my hometown. He immediately tagged me "Philly Billy" and the name stuck. I don't believe Tim Duncan has ever called me "Bill", just "Philly". There are many endearing things about PJ, and one is that he has a nickname for everyone. When Hedo Turkoglu was with us during the '03-04 season, Carlesimo got tired of hearing people butcher Hedo's name, so he just called him "Mike". He's the only person I've heard call Manu Ginobili by his given name of "Emmanuel". Fellow assistant Mike Budenholzer was "Bud Light". PJ also knows EVERYBODY. When we would visit Portland (one of his head coaching stops) he knew the ushers, ballboys, the security police and the popcorn vendors. In 2003 The Spurs went to Paris for training camp and a preseason game with Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv. Since PJ was a good Catholic, he asked me if I wanted to join him and attend a
Mass in English at a Church called St. Roch's. I am a big fan of old churches and cathedrals and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to St. Roch's, and the Sunday morning Mass. One of the priests who celebrated the Mass was visiting from Pennsylvania. PJ waited for me while I introduced myself to the priest, whose name was Father Connor. When Father Connor told me was from Scranton, I informed him that I was with a guy from Scranton. His eyes lit up when he looked around and saw it was PJ. It turned out that Father Connor had been a parish priest for many folks in PJ's family. Even though we were in the middle of Paris, somebody knew PJ Carlesimo.
There are many more stories related to my years with the Spurs. Who knows, maybe I'll write a book someday. In the meantime, I'll be thankful that WOAI and the Spurs have extended their relationship for years to come. That will likely mean even more fun anecdotes and tales. I just hope we don't need any more interpreters!