Sports

The Spurs Return to the Alamodome for a Record-Breaking Anniversary Party

SAN ANTONIO — It did not seem outside the realm of possibility on Friday night that oxygen deprivation could become an issue in Section 343 of the Alamodome. Fans had purchased tickets for seats that felt closer to the mesosphere than to the basketball court, which was far below them.

From that great distance, you could just barely decipher those rare moments when the San Antonio Spurs scored. Or whenever Golden State’s Draymond Green was annoyed about something. At least Donte DiVincenzo, Green’s teammate, did the nosebleed denizens a favor by wearing bright orange sneakers, making him more easily identifiable.

But if there were challenges — seeing the players, hearing the whistle, combating vertigo — few seemed to mind. Because the game, billed as “Back Home in the Dome,” was also a party.

“Once we heard about the game, I said, ‘Let’s go ahead and be a part of it,’” said Cliff Scott, 62, a hospital technician who sat with his daughter, Autumn, 11, in the upper, upper deck.

For nine seasons, from 1993 to 2002, the Spurs played their home games at the Alamodome, a cavernous structure just east of downtown San Antonio. Back then, the court was situated at one end of the building, with a giant curtain blocking about half of the seating.

On Friday, the Spurs celebrated their 50th anniversary by returning to the Alamodome for the first time in decades — and they went big. They plopped the court smack dab in the middle of the lower level and opened the doors to 68,323 fans, setting a single-game N.B.A. attendance record in the process. The Spurs fell, 144-113, but what was one more loss in a season already full of them?

Many of the San Antonians who turned out wore jerseys from yesteryear.Credit…Josh Huskin for The New York Times

“I thought it was a great night,” said Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who could tell, even as the game sped toward a lopsided result, that fans were enjoying themselves. “There must have been a lot of beer sales.”

About three years ago, Casey Heverling and his colleagues at Spurs Sports and Entertainment began to brainstorm ways to commemorate the team’s 50th anniversary. They knew they needed to incorporate the Alamodome, but how? Put a plaque on the building? Do some sort of photo shoot?

“And then someone said, ‘Well, maybe we can play a game there,’” said Heverling, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the AT&T Center, where the Spurs now play their home games. “And then someone else said, ‘Does anyone know what the largest attendance is for an N.B.A. game?’”

The answer was 62,046 for a game on March 27, 1998, when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls faced the Atlanta Hawks at the Georgia Dome. One caveat: The 2010 N.B.A. All-Star Game at Cowboys Stadium, a retractable-roof colossus in Arlington, Texas, now known as AT&T Stadium, drew an announced crowd of 108,713. But the attendance record for a regular-season game seemed possible to Spurs officials.

“I’m convinced there’s no other community in the country that would show up like San Antonio has shown up for this team,” said Becky Kimbro, the team’s senior vice president for brand engagement.

Still, any fears that Kimbro might have had about fans’ showing up were eased in early September, when the Spurs sold nearly 25,000 tickets on the day they were made available to the general public. In recent weeks, the team unleashed a final advertising blitz by flooding the airwaves and social media. (Props to anyone from San Antonio who somehow avoided hearing about the game.)

“We pulled pretty much every lever in the marketing handbook,” Kimbro said.

On Thursday, Golden State practiced at the Alamodome to get used to the environment. Coach Steve Kerr, who used to play for the Spurs there, said it was a bit “draftier” than a normal arena. At least two of his players, however, were familiar with its unusual atmosphere. DiVincenzo and Jordan Poole faced each other at the Alamodome in the 2018 N.C.A.A. men’s championship game. DiVincenzo scored 31 points to lead Villanova past Michigan (and Poole) in front of 67,831 fans.

“It put me on the radar,” DiVincenzo said.

One of the oddest parts of that experience, he said, was running out from the locker room to take the court — because it took forever. The court might as well have been in a different city.

A view from the nosebleeds.Credit…Josh Huskin for The New York Times

Before Friday’s game, Golden State’s Stephen Curry reminisced with his teammate James Wiseman about Wiseman’s introduction to the N.B.A. as a first-year player in 2020-21, when arenas were largely empty because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“And now you get this unique experience,” Curry said.

Mark Martinez, 25, who wore a Spurs cape and wrestling mask, was among the early-arriving fans. He came with his wife, Alyssa, 25; their two young sons, Tristen, 7, and Zaiden, 3; and his father, Juan, 63. They had lower-level seats with less-than-ideal sightlines.

“But just to be here with everyone is fun,” Martinez said. “Everything is perfect.”

Mark Martinez dressed up and came with his family. “Everything is perfect,” he said.Credit…Josh Huskin for The New York Times

Older arenas tend to be forgotten, or worse. Friday’s game coincided with the fourth anniversary of the implosion of the Bradley Center, the Bucks’ former home in Milwaukee, which was demolished after Fiserv Forum went up next door. Beloved in its own way, like an old cardigan, the Alamodome has stuck around, hosting everything from college football games to monster-truck rallies to concerts. (Tickets are still available for the W.W.E. Royal Rumble on Jan. 28.)

On Friday, the Spurs took the court to “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G., an old-school song that fit the event’s throwback feel. Many of the San Antonians who turned out wore jerseys from yesteryear — Tim Duncan jerseys and Sean Elliott jerseys and Manu Ginobili jerseys, as well as T-shirts with an unmistakable image of David Robinson rising above hapless defenders.

Simply being back at the Alamodome — known as “the Dome” locally — jogged memories for longtime fans. Memories of Robinson’s quadruple-double in 1994. Memories of the water cannon that doused fans at the home opener to the 1994-95 season after some pregame pyrotechnics triggered the fire safety system. Memories of Duncan, fresh out of Wake Forest, gracing the building as a rookie phenom in 1997-98. And memories of the franchise’s first championship in 1999, a title run that Elliott galvanized by sinking a game-winning 3-pointer in the Western Conference finals — a shot long celebrated as the Memorial Day Miracle.

The Spurs are 13-30 after Friday’s game and are struggling this season, which made the festivities even more special. The good times, now and then, were worth savoring.

“It feels like a finals atmosphere,” said Cordero Maldonado, 36, who was dressed in a robe as “Spurs Jesus,” and had seats with his wife, Karsen, 27, in multiple locations. “We’ll be omnipresent.”

The game included an appearance by one of the Spurs’ more distinguished employees: their mascot, the Coyote, who rode around on a small motorcycle and stationed himself at halfcourt before the start of the fourth quarter to assist Robinson in announcing the official attendance. The Coyote unfolded a white poster to reveal the handwritten number, a scene that bore vague shades — intentional or not — of Wilt Chamberlain’s posing for his iconic photograph after scoring 100 points in 1962.

After Golden State went about their more prosaic business of winning a basketball game, Spurs officials began to prepare for their return to the AT&T Center, with three more home games in a six-day stretch, starting Sunday against the Sacramento Kings.

Fans, meanwhile, stuck around for a fireworks show, which was staged outdoors this time.

“It feels like a finals atmosphere,” said Cordero Maldonado.Credit…Josh Huskin for The New York Times

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