SAN ANTONIO — Watch the Thunder play on home hardwood, either in person or on television, and you’re bound to see Tom Travis.
Sits courtside down the way from the Thunder bench right beside the scorer’s table. Ends up right behind Scott Brooks often when the Thunder coach leaves his seat during games. Rants and raves like a crazy man with regularity. Occasionally yells at officials with such, um, vigor that you wonder if any of Brooks’ technical fouls might actually have been because of him.
You know who the passionate, animated Thunder fan is.
Bet you don’t know he’s a Spurs fan, too.
As the Western Conference Finals tip off Monday night in San Antonio, no one is torn quite like Travis. He’s a San Antonio native and an Oklahoma City transplant. But even more than that, he’s been behind the curtain and seen what makes the Spur Way a philosophy that the Thunder has tried to replicate from Day 1.
Thunder brass insists that the franchise is nowhere near the Spurs. Four championships and an NBA record 17 consecutive playoff appearances would back up their assertion.
But since these two teams last met in the Western Conference Finals, it’s obvious that big brother is still older and wiser. The Spurs made the NBA Finals last year and were a free throw away from winning it all. But it’s also obvious that little brother is growing up.
“The Thunder are right there,” Travis said. “If the Thunder are patient … and they take the core group of people that they have and they continue with that professional approach, the Thunder are going to have a great run.
“The Thunder are going to have this long-term successful franchise.”
Travis isn’t speaking only as a fan.
Yes, that’s how he started out, of course. He grew up in Kerrville, the Texas town an hour northwest of San Antonio that is now known as hometown of hotshot quarterback Johnny Manziel.
“I’ve been telling everybody that Johnny Manziel is the second-best player to ever come out of Kerrville, that I’m No. 1,” Travis deadpanned.
Sports were a big part of Travis’ life as a kid, but in that area in the late ’60s and early ’70s, high school sports were king. There were college football fans. Texas. Texas A&M. But with no pro teams, high school sports and high school football in particular was paramount.
Then in 1973, the Dallas Chaparrals moved to San Antonio and became the Spurs. Travis’ father took him to see the Spurs for the first time in 1974.
He was hooked.
When Travis settled in San Antonio after college to work for IBC Bank, which is headquartered there, he became an even bigger fan. Grand days of George Gervin and Larry Kenon gave way to even grander days of David Robinson and Sean Elliott. The Spurs always seemed to have a good team — oftentimes a title contender — and as the lone pro team in town, the Spurs were part of the fabric of the city.
“It’s kind of like the Green Bay Packers,” Travis said. “The whole town … has just always been big time behind the Spurs.”
But then in 1993, one of IBC’s board members called Travis.
“The Spurs are about to sell to some guy in Florida,” the board member told him.
“What?” Travis said.
Spurs owner Red McCombs was facing financial problems with his auto dealerships and needed to sell the basketball franchise. Les Alexander was interested in buying and moving the team to Florida.
Travis and other business leaders in San Antonio scrambled. With heavy hitters like Southwestern Bell CEO Ed Whitacre and USAA insurance chairman Gen. Robert McDermott in the room, it was decided that they would put together an ownership group. There would be several investors, and no one would have a huge piece of the pie.
But all of them would pony up in an effort to keep the Spurs in San Antonio.
In the group of investors was The Oklahoma Publishing Co., which publishes The Oklahoman and whose publisher at the time, the late Edward L. Gaylord, had major investments in San Antonio. Its representative on the Spurs board of directors was Clay Bennett, now chairman of the Thunder.