SAN ANTONIO — A 58-inch tall LEGO replica of the Eiffel Tower assembled from 10,001 parts stood inconspicuously just right of a dais Saturday as a stoic symbol of the serendipitous path trekked to arrive here in this very moment.
The one piece capable of turning the franchise’s fortunes waited inside the West tunnel at the AT&T Center.
“Bonjour,” San Antonio Spurs general manager Brian Wright said, greeting the assembled media seated in chairs on the court, flanked on both sides by a large group of team employees curious to finally meet their new co-worker, 19-year-old French phenom Victor Wembanyama.
“Obviously this day is one of most rewarding parts of the job,” the GM continued, while Keldon Johnson and a purple-haired Jeremy Sochan blended in the background cradling silver basketballs. “Starting with draft night to see the happiness, the joy of the players, the families, the friends, the coaches, everybody that played a part on their journey up to this point, that’s very rewarding to see that affirmation, to see the culmination of this event.”
San Antonio selected Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick of the 2023 NBA Draft just two days prior, kickstarting a journey back to competitiveness for a franchise on a four-year postseason drought while spurring 72 hours of sheer chaos for a young man that flew in from New York, devoured the first breakfast tacos (bean and cheese and bacon and egg) of his life and dined at Bliss restaurant just South of downtown San Antonio with four Hall of Famers, before visiting the arena he hopes to pack full for years to come.
“I’ve got a lot to do, but it’s alright,” a weary Wembanyama said. “It’s all going to fit in.”
Even before the franchise’s third No. 1 overall pick stepped foot into the AT&T Center, he visited the city’s River Walk earlier in the afternoon for an introductory event at the Arneson River Theatre that featured Hall of Fame center David Robinson sitting front row along with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, already wearing a No. 1 jersey.
The affable 19-year-old strolled down the steps of a private jet just the day before wearing dark shades, a t-shirt, sweatpants, and black Nike slides at the Signature North Terminal of San Antonio International Airport on a blistering afternoon in South Texas with several Spurs luminaries waiting. Fans hoisting signs and pictures of the new addition gleefully crammed against a barbwire fence in temperatures inching toward 100 degrees looking to catch a well-timed snapshot or at least a glimpse of the waving Wembanyama.
One excited woman even sprinted a few steps away from her son briefly to hand the big man a brown paper bag filled with unknown contents.
Many anxiously awaited nearly four hours for the Frenchman’s arrival, while more enterprising fans in other parts of the city such as mariachi band Campanas de America crafted the new jam “Wembanyama Go Spurs Go” and shot a full video of the song in front of one of the many Wembanyama murals popping up all over town.
Flanked by security and team officials, the new Spur strolled toward the fence to sign a few autographs, sending fans screaming and scrambling for signatures.
“The fans have been the best at their jobs,” Wembanyama would later say. “I can only hope to be at their level.”
As he left the scene headed toward a van waiting in a hangar, the 7-foot-3 big man circled back to shake hands with each of the policemen perched on motorcycles serving as his escort out of the airport.
“The last 72 hours have been really tiring,” Wembanyama said. “But I’m really enjoying this moment. Everybody is doing a perfect job around me. I have my family and my people around who love me. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been welcomed warmly.”
The experience at Bliss restaurant underscored as much.
Sitting at the 10-seat chef’s table at Bliss with a foursome of champions in Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Robinson, and Manu Ginobili along with Sean Elliott, the incoming rookie said he learned more about the NBA over those two hours than he knew before pulling up a seat that night. Wembanyama’s family and advisors dined at a table in a different room with Spurs CEO R.C. Buford and Wright, while Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich scuttled back and forth between both sites engaged in conversations with everyone present.
The coach made sure to keep his visits to the chef’s table brief, though, enabling Wembanyama to take his time learning from the foursome about the NBA and the Spurs’ way.
The occasion marked the first of many fine dining experiences the rookie will partake in throughout his career in San Antonio.
“Honestly, that was one of the best dinners of my life,” the 19-year-old said. “And not because of the food. The food was good, but the people [were] crazy. In a couple of hours, I learned more about the NBA than I had in my whole life. It’s [so] comforting to see that these people, who are so important to the city of San Antonio and to the franchise are such kind people and generous because they genuinely wanted to share with me their experience. I feel like they’ve already started to take great care of me. It’s just so comforting to be in that position. I think it’s also the position that Tim Duncan was in when he came in because he told me he just had to look up to David Robinson and Sean Elliott to follow their paths. He knew he was in good hands.”
Wembanyama appears to be, too. That’s likely why he looked so at ease floating through a room buzzing with media and hundreds of Spurs employees as well as managing partner Peter J. Holt, while his agent, Bouna Ndiaye, conducted several individual interviews with all the French reporters that made the trip to San Antonio.
Interestingly, Ndiaye, who has advised Wembanyama since he was a 13-year-old, landed his first NBA client (Ian Mahinmi) in San Antonio 18 years ago.
Soon ⌚️ pic.twitter.com/hswWRDLvsO
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) June 24, 2023
Such coincidence only speaks to the serendipity surrounding San Antonio these days.
The organization first targeted the 2023 NBA Draft four years ago as the one that could change everything. A team executive purchased the LEGO Eiffel Tower replica set sitting near the dais on Saturday just last winter, not knowing the club would draft Wembanyama months later, and totally unaware of the prized pick’s love for the plastic construction toys.
Taking in the scene as Wembanyama’s family snapped pictures near the set, Buford sat in the back of the media section and smiled, acknowledging the generosity of the basketball gods to the franchise over the years in blessing it with three NBA Lottery triumphs. The replica Eiffel Tower had been sitting in a box until recently, when a staffer toiled 15 hours assembling it for Wembanyama’s arrival.
At the time, that $629.99 purchase may have seemed frivolous.
On this day, it proved to be something else much bigger.
“Karmic,” Buford said, just before walking away.
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