Trophy Tour: The Visit Down Under

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 column will appear every Wednesday.

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Trophy Tour

The line spilled out of the Culture Kings clothing store and stretched around the block for hundreds of yards. Thousands of Spurs fans, most of them young and dressed in Silver and Black apparel, waited eagerly for a live glimpse of two national treasures and a trophy.

At the front of the line, arriving at 10 a.m. for an event that started at 4 p.m., stood Andrew Mitchell, 34, a finance manager for Ford Motor Co. in Melbourne, Australia. Mitchell began following the Spurs in the late 90s and became the team’s first Australian season ticket-holder in 2010.

Game 5 of the NBA Finals started on a Monday morning in Melbourne. Mitchell followed a running score on his computer at the office. He caught the final five minutes of Bill Schoening’s call during his lunch break.

“Even in the days of big screen televisions and watch parties, somewhere in the world some of us still rely on old school radio during moments of sporting history,” Mitchell says. “Having said that, as soon as I got home, I watched the highlights, a replay of the fourth quarter, the trophy presentation, press conferences, you name it.”

Mitchell has made three trips to San Antonio. He’s traveled more than 8,000 miles to watch his Spurs. He never imagined the Spurs would visit him. In mid-July, they did. The third leg of the team’s international Trophy Tour brought Australian natives Patty Mills and Aron Baynes to Melbourne, Michell’s hometown.

The Australian tour included long days -- most from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. -- and multiple stops. The players visited Canberra, Mills’ hometown; Cairns, Baynes’ hometown; Sydney; Brisbane and the Torres Strait Islands. Fans snapped photos at iconic landmarks. The players displayed the Larry O’Brien Trophy during numerous interviews, including Australia’s version of “Good Morning America.” Mills and Baynes took the trophy to a Children’s Hospital in Brisbane to lift the spirits of boys and girls.

When the tour came to Melbourne, Mitchell took no chances. He arrived six hours early and organizers rewarded him with a VIP pass. The pass allowed him to leave and hold onto his spot in front. Mitchell mingled with fans. They talked favorite players, discussed baseball website and swapped stories.

“There was some disbelief amongst the fans, as they were still trying to convince themselves that the Spurs had actually come to Australia with the trophy,” Mitchell says. “It was an unprecedented event.”

The trophy glistened. Mills and Baynes stood beside it, two Australian sports giants framing the centerpiece. The moment was spellbinding.

“It was like we had just won the championship!” Mitchell says. “The trophy looked so shiny compared to the photos I had seen. I had been lucky enough to see our other four NBA championship trophies during my San Antonio visits. But this was extra special because it was brand new.”

The tour itself is brand new. The Spurs are the first team to take the NBA championship trophy to the home cities and countries of its players. The tour began on July 3 in Argentina. Manu Ginobili brought the trophy to an international team press conference and a family gathering. After six days, the 17-pound trophy flew to New Hampshire, Matt Bonner’s home state, where Bonner took it to basketball courts in Concord and to his annual “Sneakers and Speakers” music festival.

“Larry,” as the trophy is known, has been to New York (for Danny Green), Brazil (Tiago Splitter) and San Diego (Kawhi Leonard). The tour will continue in France (Boris Diaw), Toronto (Cory Joseph), Italy (Marco Belinelli) and conclude with a second stop in France (Tony Parker) in late September.

In Melbourne, Mitchell was careful to shake Mill’s left hand, remembering the Spurs guard was recovering from rotator surgery on his right shoulder. Mitchell greeted Baynes. The players recalled meeting Mitchell at a game in San Antonio. They thanked him for his support, for giving so much to the franchise from so far away. Mitchell donates most of his season tickets to the Warrior and Family Support Center, which allows wounded soldiers to attend games.

“I felt proud to meet Patty and Aron,” Mitchell says. “I felt so happy that after over 20 years of being a Spurs fan, that Spurs players finally came to Melbourne for a Spurs event and that the players representing the team on the tour shared my characteristics of being both Australian and a Spur.

“I also felt happy for them as Australian athletes. Because they had not only excelled at their chosen sport, but their talent and determination had taken them to the best league in the world where they had won the championship.”

The meet-and-greet capped a whirlwind journey of emotion. In June, Mitchell followed the Spurs’ through the NBA playoffs to the finals. After Game 5, he read every word in the Australian media.

“Here in Melbourne, the leading online news website went with the headline, ‘Patty Mills plays key role as San Antonio Spurs defeat the Heat to claim NBA title,’” MItchell says. “What I appreciated about the Australian coverage was that it really highlighted Patty's vital plays, which, as we know, were crucial for the Spurs. This really helped the average Australian, who doesn't know much about the NBA, get a true understanding of how an Aussie triumphed on basketball's biggest stage. Aron Baynes was also mentioned in the articles, along with the stars of each team, but there's no doubting that Patty was the star of the Australian media coverage -- even more so than Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James.”

One month later, to his astonishment, Mitchell was posing with Mills and Baynes beside the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Photographers snapped pictures. Mitchell secured autographs. He blinked in disbelief. From the other side of the world, the Spurs had come to gift him with their glory.