Every year since the early 1980s, Bill Melson and a handful of buddies would begin every Spurs season with the same ritual. The men would crack open the newly arrived season tickets they shared, line up on the court in Melson’s backyard and shoot free throws to determine who gets the first crack at the choicest games.
This season, Melson’s annual shoot-off has been postponed, the latest collateral casualty in the NBA’s ongoing labor dispute.
Citing a “gulf” separating the bargaining positions of NBA owners and players, commissioner David Stern on Monday announced the cancellation of the first two weeks of the regular season, which had been slated to open Nov. 1.
“It feels like a betrayal,” said Melson, 70, a retired San Antonio real estate developer who has owned season tickets since the team played in the now-demolished HemisFair Arena. “I don’t feel like they have the best interest of the fan at heart.”
A pall descended over the NBA on Tuesday, a day after negotiations to lift the owner-imposed lockout imploded again in New York, engulfing billionaire owners, millionaire players and rank-and-file team employees alike.
Caught in the crossfire are fans, gnashing their teeth at the prospect of not having their beloved teams to watch — for now and perhaps a full season.
The lockout, 104 days old, has now erased the first six Spurs games from the schedule, three of them at the ATT Center. The most notable one is a Nov. 4 visit from the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.
The revised schedule has not gone over well among fans locally, where the Spurs have become as much a part of the cultural fabric as the Alamo and Tex-Mex.
“It’s disappointing to me that maybe greed on both sides would cause a disruption to something that means so much to people in San Antonio,” Melson said.
On Tuesday, the Spurs and other NBA teams began offering refunds plus 1 percent interest on a monthly basis to season-ticket holders for lost games.
Spurs officials would not say how many fans had requested their money back Tuesday, citing an NBA gag order on lockout-related talk. If charter-level season-ticket holder Barbara Finch is any indication, however, a number of prime seats could be opening up at the ATT Center.
“I’m not happy about it at all,” said Finch, a real estate agent whose late husband first purchased season tickets 25 years ago. “I have a mind to get my money back and cancel.”
That’s no small sacrifice. Finch’s tickets are 10 rows from the floor, at center court, just behind the seats reserved for the family of Spurs star Tim Duncan.
Spurs forward Matt Bonner, one of three vice presidents of the National Basketball Players Union, said players feel fans’ pain, especially at a time when interest in the NBA — at least measured by television ratings — is on the uptick.
“It’s disappointing and frustrating,” Bonner said. “From a players’ standpoint, we want to play. You’d think there could be some sort of compromise, but we’re not going to do a deal that’s not fair.”
While players blame owners for the impasse, owners predictably blame the players.
In San Antonio, and elsewhere in the basketball world, fans don’t seem to care who is at fault. They just want the stalemate resolved.
“It seems like fans are always the ones who suffer in things like this,” said A.J. Hausman, a local meat distributor and longtime Spurs season-ticket holder.
Once the lockout is finally lifted, be it next month or next year, the NBA will almost certainly face an uphill battle to win back disenchanted fans. Some, like Finch, will be a tougher sell than others.
“I’m really busy with a lot of other things in life,” said Finch, adding she might keep her tickets if the lockout ends soon. “I have other things to do.”
Others, like Melson, might not need much persuasion.
He says he attends most of the Spurs’ 42 home games a season. Frequent trips to the ATT Center between October and May (and June, should the Spurs go especially deep in the playoffs) have become a fixture of his yearly rhythm.
Given the location of his primary seats — front row, just behind the Spurs’ bench — many of the players have become as familiar to him as family.
“I’m one of those that probably would come back,” Melson said. “Maybe that’s what they’re counting on.”
With the NBA on indefinite hiatus, Melson says he will focus his rooting energies on the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. He’ll pay closer attention to the Major League Baseball playoffs.
He plans to run in the San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon next month.
“I’m behind on my training,” Melson said. “I could use the time to catch up.”
Melson will miss Spurs games for as long as the lockout requires. Yet the game he will miss most is the one held annually just off his back porch.
Like the NBA, Melson’s season-ticket shootout will return eventually. One day, he hopes sooner rather than later, Melson’s partners will return to his backyard basketball in hand, hoping to score tickets to see high-profile teams like the Los Angeles Lakers or Miami Heat in person.
Or maybe not.
“I might just lock them out,” Melson said with a chuckle. “Make them come back some other time.”