The Sweetest Celebration
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.
Through the eye of her camera lens, Jane Ann Craig followed the rain of confetti, the moving sea of jubilation, a scene she had been chasing since 2008, the year she became a season ticket holder.
From her spot behind the Spurs basket, section 101, row 9, she zoomed in on Tim Duncan, climbing the podium, one child in each arm. She found Kawhi Leonard embracing his mother. And then, as the music played and the people swayed, she saw something that gave her pause: players wrapping themselves in flags from around the world. Argentina. France. Brazil. Canada. Australia. Italy.
Craig blinked and the image began to blur. Her beloved Spurs were an international brotherhood, a melting pot of hermanos, as she called them, champions who moved her like she did not expect to be moved. “I was crying,” she said.
Sitting nearby were three fans who flew in from Newfoundland for Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Then there was the friend in section 200 who arrived from Buenos Aires, and another friend, a few seats away, who relocated to San Antonio from India.
From Craig’s point of view, the people cheering around her looked a lot like the players celebrating on the AT&T Center court: a wonderful kaleidoscope of culture and color. “It was very emotional,” she said.
Emotion is a good word. When Game 5 of the NBA Finals ended, the AT&T Center erupted. After the Spurs vanquished the Miami Heat, 104-87, and players and TV cameras spilled onto the court, the arena crackled with electricity and joy.
“This is awesome,” shouted one fan, five rows behind the Spurs bench, holding up his camera phone to capture the moment.
Strangers hugged and slapped high fives. People whooped and hollered. Many danced. Some wiped away tears. Isabel Contreras, 50, did not know if she would see this day. She had to overcome breast cancer. “I’ve been a fan,” Contreras said, “since the Spurs moved here in 1973.”
The gentleman who brought her, Alfredo Castillo, struggled to find words. He started and stopped, made gestures with his hands, all in an attempt to explain why it was important for Contreras to be at Game 5. Two words sufficed. Cancer survivor. They sat, side by side, hands on the railing in front of them, then up in the air, watching and reveling in wondrous disbelief. Is this really happening?
Sisters Margie and Jennifer Staiger asked fans to take their picture as players celebrated. The Staigers are season ticket holders who drive in from Corpus Christi for every home game. “Oh my God,” Margie began. “I am so proud of the Spurs.” Jennifer described the feeling simply: “It’s incredible.”
A replica gold championship trophy rose behind the Staigers. It was held and waved by a liquor store owner, Ajit Singh, who does not drink and says he never has. The businessman, bedecked in black boots, black pants and a silver and black Spurs t-shirt, pumped his free fist. His arms, spread wide like an eagle, were telling. “Right now,” Singh said, “ I’m just flying.”
The Spurs’ fifth NBA championship lifted an entire city, perhaps no one higher than Jane Ann Craig. Over the years, she has flown to Memphis, Portland and Miami to watch playoff games. She has driven to Dallas and Houston. No city is too far for Craig, a retired school teacher. She never misses a home game and that requires a 150-mile roundtrip from her house in Austin.
Craig befriends Spurs fans from all over the world. Once, when a Facebook friend flew into San Antonio from China, Craig chauffeured her around town. She is an unofficial international ambassador for the silver and black.
When Craig peered through her camera lens after Game 5, she saw a rainbow of reds and blues, yellows and greens, a rich and unique tapestry. No championship team in NBA history has produced more foreign-born players than the Spurs. Fittingly, fans in 215 countries and territories watched the game, which was broadcast in 47 languages.
As the players locked arms and sound exploded, six years of chasing one picture came into sharp focus. To her surprise, the image became a fog, a watercolor of tears. “I didn’t realize,” she said, “how emotionally involved I was with this team.”
All she wanted was to see the Spurs win a championship. In the end, Craig got more than that. A snapshot of joy that reached around the world.