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.
Jurgen Aspers and David Robinson
Across the Atlantic, 5,100 miles from San Antonio, 33-year-old Jurgen Aspers tools around the city of Weert, Holland with a Spurs decal on the rear windshield of a red sports car. He bares a Spurs tattoo on his left arm, wears a Spurs wristband and owns enough Spurs memorabilia to open a museum.
During the postseason, Aspers sets his alarm for 3:30 a.m. to watch Spurs playoff games. If they're not televised, he listens to them on Internet radio. Then he writes recaps and posts videos on a Dutch fansite of the Spurs. "I am the Webmaster," he says in an e-mail.
Aspers is more than a Webmaster. He is, perhaps, the Spurs greatest ambassador in Europe, a one-man, volunteer marketing operation who delivers Spurs news and solicits online contributions for the The Carver Academy, the private school founded by David Robinson.
Aspers' passion runs so deep he once quit his bank job, flew to San Antonio and followed the Spurs through the 2003 playoffs so he could watch Robinson retire. He's planning another trip for next spring. "Got to be there as it's that uneven number (year) again," he writes. "And the last three times I was there for the playoffs, we won it all!"
I met Aspers seven years ago when I wrote a sports column for the San Antonio Express-News. We sat together during a flight to Los Angeles for a Spurs-Lakers game. At the time, Spurs fans had been e-mailing me from around the world -- Australia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Argentina, France, Germany. Aspers was the only one I knew who'd made a cross-continental trek to watch the Silver and Black. But there may have been others.
If the Dallas Cowboys were America's Team, it seemed the Spurs were contenders for Planet Earth's Team. Four years after he retired, Robinson penned a column for Sports Illustrated in which he noted the team's distinct global look.
"Timmy (Duncan) was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands; Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto hail from Argentina; Tony Parker was raised in France; Beno Udrih comes from Slovenia; and Francisco Elson is a native of the Netherlands," Robinson wrote. "People from around the world may have heard about the Alamo, but they definitely know about the NBA world champion Spurs."
If the team's international fan base was growing quickly, it has since exploded. Some 1.7 million fans from more than 190 countries visited Spurs.com this past season. More than 297,000 visitors came from Argentina, more than 266,000 from the Philippines. Canada and France each sent more than 115,000 visitors to the Web site. Another 22 countries each counted more than 10,000 visitors to Spurs.com.
One devoted fan, Perla Manapol, follows the Spurs from remote villages in the Philippines. Her emotional connection to the team is so strong it showed up during a physical this past spring when the Spurs -- pronounced "Espars" in Filipino -- and Mavericks were locked in a tight playoff game.
She writes, "My physician warned me not to keep track of the game (as if he could, hah!) because each time Dirk (Nowitzki) got free for a layup, my blood pressure went through the hemisphere, or, as the attending nurse said, 'Wow, the needle almost broke the glass (in the sphygmomanometer)! Ultimately, my doctor decided to postpone the rest of the exam; cost me a lot more, but hey, what're we Espars fanatics for?"
Manapol's fanaticism gives new meaning to the term "over the top." During one Spurs' playoff run, she handed her cell phone to a farmer in the Palawan jungle and paid him to climb a coconut tree and look for a signal. In an e-mail Manapol sent me three years ago, she described a promise to the farmer: In the event you fall, I'll pay your family death or disability benefits.
The farmer called down scores to Manapol for more than an hour. And when he announced that her Espars had prevailed? She wrote the following, which appeared in a 2007 Express-News column: "You can imagine the yelps and yahoos that reverberated throughout the jungle on that day most possibly contributing to ecological disturbance."
This past season, Manapol expanded her Spurs tracking team. When her job took her to rural communities, she hired two office workers to keep up with the Spurs on the Internet. "In the Philippines, games are broadcast during office hours," she writes. "I've assured them that I'll help pay for unemployment benefits in case they get fired. Fortunately, their lady boss has a crush on Tony Longoria."
If it seems Manapol follows the Silver and Black with religious zeal, well, she did join a prayer group that makes special mention of the Spurs.
Aspers hasn't mentioned any prayer groups, but during one visit to San Antonio he attended a Bible class that Robinson led. In Weert, Aspers set up a Pinkdingo account for fans who wish to make small, online donations to The Carver Academy.
A few dollars here. A little spare change there. Aspers does what he can to support his favorite player of all-time. Once, he helped a fan in Belgium who needed assistance making an online donation.
Yes, he's developed quite a reputation in Europe. Just ask fans of a certain NBA All-Star in neighboring Germany. After San Antonio eliminated Dallas in Round 1, Aspers climbed into his car and drove East into the homeland of Dirk Nowitzki, wearing thick layers of Silver and Black.
"The Spurs logo on the rear windshield of my car," he writes, "did the rest."