SAN ANTONIO, Tex. — They're loud, doggedly persistent and at times utterly tasteless.
Whether they're the member of the zoning board, the vice-squad captain, the short-order cooks, the nurses, or the co-owner of the hardware store, every last one of them sitting in section 20 in HemisFair Arena's northwest corner is a bum.
Don't believe it? Want to give the matronly nurse in the third row the benefit of the doubt?
She'll pull out her membership card and prove it.
She's one of about 120 certified, numbered and notorious Baseline Bums.
When you're one of the San Antonio Spurs' end-zone regulars, you get the card, cut-rate tickets, the occasional chance to wave the big Texas flag that hangs over the railing, a section of your very own--and part of a tradition that began when the American Basketball Assn.'s Dallas Chaparrals moved to San Antonio and gave the city its first major-league franchise.
The Baseline Bums are the friendly folks who hung then-Denver coach Larry Brown in effigy after he said the only thing good about San Antonio was the guacamole. "The ironic thing about it," says George Valle, the hardware store owner and one of the Bums' ringleaders, "was that when we hung him over the dressing-room door, the dummy had the same color pants and shirt Larry Brown had on that night. We didn't have any idea what he would be wearing, but we got it right."
When Chicago guard Quintin Dailey was playing his first game in San Antonio after pleading guilty to assaulting a nursing student, one of the Bums wore a nurse's uniform and ran on the floor--where another Bum "attacked" him-her.
After the home of Los Angeles center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was gutted by fire, destroying his collection of jazz records and other valuable artifacts, the Bums proudly displayed melted records the next time the Lakers came to town.
"Jabbar was always badmouthing the Spurs and the Bums," says Valle. "But he's not a hustler. One time, he got hurt and we just razzed him something fierce.
"Two years ago, when Denver played here in the playoffs, Dan Issel went down with a hurt knee. When he got up, we gave him a standing ovation. That's one thing the Bums appreciate, hard work. We admire him for the way he plays. If he's on the court, he's not going to loaf on you, like Jabbar does."
Away from the court, the Bums have legendary, twice-yearly barbecues; run toys for tot campaigns and canned food drives; and warm up for the games as seriously as the players in saloons near the arena.
Yes, the Bums can be cruel. But, for the most part, they're just having fun. "They're only vicious in the verbal sense," says Nuggets assistant coach Allan Bristow, the former San Antonio forward and assistant coach who became an honorary Bum by going through the time-honored initiation: "You say something in Spanish, drink a shot of tequila and get an honorary Bums T-shirt, which I wear proudly."
Above all, and above the visiting-team entrance, they're always there. And they've been there since 1973.
Founders Larry Braun and David Boyle had a similar group of rabble-rousers, and ire-raisers, at the games of baseball's minor-league San Antonio Missions in 1972. The next year, the general manager of the Missions--John Begzos--moved into the front office of the city's new basketball team, and Braun and Boyle brought the Bums with them. Begzos sold them their seats for $1 apiece.
Twelve years and a 600% price hike later, the Bums still haunt the corner. The membership requirement is that a Bum must attend 80% of the home games and be a "vocal Spurs fan," says Valle.
These days, Richard Elizondo and Rudy Hettler run the organization. At least to visiting teams, Valle is the most visible of the Bums, not only because of his physique--he is, well, rotund--but because he is a regular in the bar of the hotel across from the arena, where most of the visiting teams stay. And the same man who helps lead the jeers for the visitors shares a drink or three with them afterwards.
On the final weekend of the regular season, for example, Valle became an adopted member of the Utah Jazz traveling party.
"I was over at the Marriott, sitting with (coach-general manager) Frank Layden and Hot Rod (Hundley, the announcer) and all that bunch," says Valle, "and someone said, 'Why are you sitting talking to these guys?'
"I said the ballgame's over, and these are my friends."
Valle also remains close to Bristow. The two men take fishing and hunting trips together in the offseason. Valle remains a big fan of Denver coach Doug Moe, the Spurs' charter NBA coach. Valle's partner in his Devine, Texas, hardware store is New Jersey coach Stan Albeck, who was with the Spurs from 1981-83.
"Allan Bristow's like a brother to me, but during the game, I hate him as much as the players," says Valle. "When Doug Moe was here, he was a good fan of the Bums. He'd drink a few beers with us."
Moe and Bristow aren't the only reasons this series ever so slightly divides the Bums' loyalties. The Nuggets' owner, of course, is San Antonio businessman Red McCombs, a former partner in the Spurs. McCombs used to tell the bartender in the Lone Star Pavilion across the street from the HemisFair Arena to give the Bums all the beer they wanted, and he would pick up the tab. "By game time," says Bristow, "they'd all be primed and ready." Or if the Bums found themselves shut out of team functions by some higher-up ("I used to crash them, but they ruined it for me one year by inviting me," said Valle), McCombs would either wave them in or tell the bartender to take care of the Bums.
Buy beer for a Bum, and you've got a friend for life.