If we have learned anything at all in the past few seasons about the San Antonio Spurs, it is that they are not a normal everyday pro basketball team. What they are fairly faithfully reflects their city, which is about as American as enchiladas and about as laid back as bedlam. Early last week, for instance, it was a San Antonio gone muy loco on the occasion of the Spurs' first playoff series victory since 1968, when they were still operating out of Dallas as the ABA Chaparrals.
That their victims were the Philadelphia 76ers, chased out of town with huevos rancheros all over their faces after the Spurs' 111-108 seventh-game stunner, meant little compared to the fact that the Spurs finally won. This rare happenstance ignited 16,055 fans and a whole city into a scene reminiscent of V-J Day. Around town flags waved, horns honked, bars overflowed. Out on the court revelers discoed and Mexican hat-danced, climbed the basket stanchions and spilled torrents of Lone Star beer. A meek P.A. announcement—"Come on, we need this floor to play Washington next week"—went unheeded.
In the locker room, various Spur luminaries sang the praises of—well, themselves. George (Iceman) Gervin declared that he was the key to the game, and thereby the series, what with his 33 points against the Rookie of the Playoffs, Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks. "The rap was out that Cheeks was doing a heck of a defensive job on me," said Ice. "So I made up my mind to destroy him."
Mike Green, the back-up center who had filled in for the injured Billy Paultz with 20 points and eight rebounds and who canned the basket that ensured victory, suggested that he was the key Spur, and said of his opponent Darryl Dawkins, the villain (as far as the Spurs' fans were concerned) of the series, "Dawkins can take that mouth of his on an extended summer tour."
Guard James Silas, he of the miraculous comeback after two years off with a knee injury, said that he would make the difference in the conference finals against Washington. Team owner Angelo Drossos pronounced the moment "the greatest of my life," and Doug Moe, the mellowest coach in America, said, "I ain't thinking about Washington. I'm thinking about drinking beer and going home to Big Jane," which is how he always refers to Mrs. Moe.
Whatever camaraderie existed between the coach and his boss was momentary at best, because for months stories had been circulating that because of their differing philosophies, Moe will be removed from his post with one year remaining on his contract, regardless of the outcome of the playoffs. This rumor was fueled by, of all people, Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams, who was quoted in a San Antonio newspaper as telling an acquaintance, "I understand that Doug is through here." Williams may meet the same fate, along with his coach, Billy Cunningham.
In case no one noticed, the 76ers departed from the playoffs for the third straight year A.D. (Anno Doctori), and in each of those years they have made their exit one round earlier. Next year the mini-series? Meanwhile, the improbable Spurs added to the playoff hysteria on Friday by snatching the home-court advantage away from the Bullets with a 118-97 runaway in Landover, their first win ever there. The Spurs went back to San Antonio with the series tied after losing Game 2 Sunday 115-95.
The Spurs have a fine fast break and a hot-shooting offense, but purists who favor a quiet, workmanlike, unselfish team must look elsewhere. For on top of all those egos rides probably the biggest of them all, that of the man who is as important to the Spurs as anyone, 26-year-old Forward Larry Kenon. Believe this: Kenon is one of the four or five best small forwards in the NBA. His numbers over the regular season—22.1 average, 50% shooting, 9.6 rebounds and four assists a game—compare favorably with those of the bigger names. And Kenon's 27 points and eight rebounds in the clincher against Philadelphia were as crucial as Gervin's, Green's and Silas' contributions.
To anyone who asks him, Kenon makes his own opinion of himself perfectly clear. "I'm the best all-round forward in the game," he says. "If anyone takes the trouble to look, they'll see that I'm the one who makes our team go. I'm the most important guy out there. I love to rebound and run the ball right up the court. I was the first forward to do that. Now others are imitating me. I make cross-court passes that no one else dares, and then I follow the ball like I got it tied to a string. I play good defense, though I don't get a lot of credit for that. Look, I'm not out for an argument. I say that I'm the best. Anybody else has the right to say that about himself."
While some of the other small forwards have better statistics in some categories, none is better in all of them than Kenon, and all have had more acclaim. "Go ahead," says Kenon, "throw the names at me."
•Julius Erving: "I'm a better rebounder than he is."
•Walter Davis: "He can't rebound or play defense like I can."
•Marques Johnson: "He can't pass like I can."
•Bernard King: "He can't run like I can."
When it comes to his current foil, Washington's Bobby Dandridge, Kenon pulls up short. "I'm not going to give him anything to chew on," says Kenon. "Why don't people just watch our series and see for themselves?" In Game 1, Kenon had 24 points and 21 rebounds compared to 25 points and eight rebounds for Dandridge. On Sunday Kenon scored 25, with eight rebounds and Dandridge had 21 and 10 rebounds.
"Now you look at those 21 boards [in Game 1] and tell me that they weren't the key to the game," says Kenon. "If I don't get the ball, we don't run. If we don't run, Ice doesn't get his points, Silas doesn't get his points and we don't win. I'm just pointing out the facts."
At the conclusion of the playoffs, Kenon's original six-year contract will expire and he likely will be the league's hottest free agent, after Bill Walton. To teams like Chicago, San Diego, Golden State, New York or Denver, Kenon could be just the man to fill a void. Though Kenon has done no negotiating with the Spurs since early in the season, the feeling among several team officials is that the tightfisted Drossos will not come across with the kind of money—oh, say, $300,000 to $500,000—that Kenon can ask for, and probably get, elsewhere.
Additionally, there is the feeling that Drossos, seeking more respect in the NBA community, may want to tone down the Spurs from the running, gunning, jingling, jangling outfit that they've become, an image particularly enhanced by Moe's throw-it-up-and-let-'em-play coaching style.
"If there's any way possible," says Kenon about his impending free agentry, "I'll be back. But I don't feel like I owe anybody anything. If they don't come up with what I feel I deserve, I'll just have to say thank you and goodby."
San Antonio is not a media capital, witness the fact that it took Gervin several years to be "discovered," and then only because he became the first guard ever to win consecutive NBA scoring titles. Given Kenon's history, no wonder he is upset at remaining in the shadows.
It has been that way all of his career, beginning in Birmingham, Ala., where he played just one year of high school basketball after growing from 6'0" to 6'7" in a year and a half. Following a stint at Amarillo (Texas) Junior College, he went to Memphis State where, in his one season, 1972-73, he took the team from obscurity to the NCAA finals. That game in the St. Louis Checkerdome was one of the more memorable finals, but not for anything Kenon did. That was the game in which UCLA's Walton had what many remember as the greatest individual college game ever played—hitting 21 of 22 field-goal attempts. "Well, it wasn't me who checked him," says Kenon.
From there Kenon joined the ABA's New York Nets and became a rookie starter opposite Erving, after whom he had been named "Dr. K" at Memphis State. That year the Nets won the ABA championship, and Kenon was demoted to Mr. K, "as the Nets already had a Doctor," he says.
Kenon was inspired by Erving's balletic game and took some vestiges of it with him when he was traded to San Antonio in 1975. He has played in the last two NBA All-Star games, but only now, as the Spurs finally get the attention they should have gotten long ago, is Kenon getting any real notice.
"Some people say I'm cocky," says Kenon. "I know that's how I sound. But I know the difference between cocky and confident. I don't want anybody to think that I'm flying off the handle. Like I say, people can just watch me and make up their own minds."