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.
(Ron Turenne/Getty Images)
He is enjoying the view from the Spurs bench, a dignitary during warmups. As the pre-game buzz builds and the AT&T Center fills, a distinguished gentleman in a gray pullover sweater trains his eye on No. 20, his favorite player, and watches him launch a three.
The ball falls through the net. Manu Ginboili spins around and walks over to shake the man’s hand. "Hey coach," Ginobili begins, "how are you?"
Stan Albeck nods and smiles, his ability to speak hindered by a stroke he suffered nine years ago. Ginobili extends his hand to Phyllis Albeck, seated next to her husband. "How are the twins," she asks.
"Just fine," he replies.
Manu and the Mrs. exchange pleasantries until Matt Bonner stops by. "Hey coach," he says, and the greeting puts a smile on the 79-year-old man that could light up the giant scoreboard above.
Over the next several minutes, Stan becomes the Jack Nicholson of the AT&T Center, attracting visitors like an A-list celebrity. Coaches, players, referees, visiting broadcast media – all swing by to shake his hand and offer a greeting that’s as medicinal as it is respectful: "Hey coach!"
"It’s like therapy," Phyllis explains.
Once a Spurs coach in the George Gervin era (1980-83), now a rabid fan, Stan Albeck pulls for the Silver and Black as hard as anyone. He rarely misses a home game. A stroke in the Toronto Raptors locker room – 30 minutes before tip-off in December 2001 – left him partially paralyzed. But the disability also turned his life around.
Two days before Christmas, Phyllis rushed to the emergency room to comfort her husband. "That’s okay, honey," she said. "We’ll just go home to San Antonio."
She is quick to note that the Raptors and their owner treated them well. “They were wonderful to us,” Phyllis says. But the Albecks had kept their Hollywood Park home after Stan left the Spurs in 1983. They knew then they wanted to retire here.
Stan had coached in Cleveland, New Jersey, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Toronto with ABA stops in Denver, San Diego and Kentucky, where the Colonels won the 1975 championship. At the collegiate level, he had coached at Adrian College in Michigan., Northern Michigan and Bradley, his alma mater in Peoria, Ill.
With stops all over North America, and in every conceivable climate, no place matched the warmth and feel of San Antonio. "It was as if that was the magic place to get well," Phyllis says.
So Stan returned home and began rehab. Still partially paralyzed and barely able to speak, Stan made one wish clear. Soon, Phyllis or one of her children were taking Stan to Spurs games, and the old coach found his familiar sweet spot.
Phyllis learned quickly to sit at her husband’s right side. Because when a bad call went against the Spurs, or a player made a mistake, she’d take a reflexive elbow from Stan to her left side. She laughs at the memory, as does Stan. "You can take the coach out of the game," she says, "but you can’t take the game out of the coach. He still cheers. He still gets upset."
Phyllis can rattle off lots of stories about Stan. A favorite occurred soon after he began therapy. A few relatives came to the house for a little black jack. Stan may have been slow of speech, but he wasn’t slow thinking. "He took all our monopoly money," Phyllis says.
A visiting broadcaster interrupts to say "hello." The Albecks return the greeting and the broadcaster quips, "Go easy on the refs, coach!" Phyllis smiles. "This is something Stan looks forward to," she says. "It keeps him young. Believe me, basketball has always been his first love."
True story: The Albecks’ wedding got postponed for a basketball game." Stan’s best man had a college game that conflicted with the ceremony. So bride and groom exchanged vows a day later. “And that was my birthday,” Phyllis says.
Stan laughs at the memory as more visitors approach. He is friendly and tries to engage but struggles to answer questions. Phyllis helps, filling in answers, and sometimes Stan fills in for her. She can’t recall, for example, the outcome of Toronto’s game after Stan suffered a stroke.
“We won,” Stan says, and you can look it up. The Raptors defeated the Heat, 83-76.
The memory remains sharp, the heart tender. Stan has always had a soft spot for San Antonio. It was there when he coached Gervin, Johnny Moore and Mike Mitchell. It was there when he returned at the end of David Robinson’s career. And when Robinson retired a champion in 2003, the Spurs and Coach Gregg Popovich invited Stan and Phyllis to ride along in the river parade.
But that wasn’t all. “Pop introduced him at the Alamodome” to a cheering throng, Phyllis says. “It was very gracious of them to include him.”
The Albecks are grateful for moments then and now, especially those seats on the Spurs bench. “I can’t thank them enough,” Phyllis says.
On Saturday, the Albecks drove up to Katy to spend their 58th wedding anniversary with family. Then they drove home the next day, in time to complete their celebration at a Spurs game.