Mark Burnett can’t get Victor Wembanyama out of his head. Well, he could, but it would be like taking a knife to the “Mona Lisa.”
Burnett, a San Antonio Spurs superfan, had Joe Barajas, a well-known local barber, shear Wembanyama’s likeness into the side of his head just over a week ago. He, like pretty much everyone else in the basketball world, had been expecting the Spurs to select Wembanyama No. 1 overall in the N.B.A. draft on Thursday.
“I wanted to show Victor something special, that the city of San Antonio already loves him,” Burnett said at a draft night party at the Spurs’ home arena, moments before San Antonio indeed selected Wembanyama, who had shared a photo of Burnett on his Instagram account.
Fanatical? Perhaps. But also eminently reasonable, and not just because of the immense promise of Wembanyama, a 19-year-old French basketball star. As San Antonio’s sole major professional sports franchise, the Spurs are the beating heart of the seventh-largest city in the United States.
“I want to do the best I can in every aspect of the job,” Wembanyama said during his introductory news conference on Saturday in San Antonio. “The fans have been the best at their job. I can only hope to be at their level.”
That magic, though, has recently gone missing in the River City. The Spurs have not been to the playoffs in the past four seasons; they had made it every year since 1997, winning five championships. A miserable 2022-23 campaign, where they tied for the worst record in the Western Conference, granted a silver lining: a tie for the best odds to receive the No. 1 pick in the draft. Now they have Wembanyama.
“It’s going to be a huge uptick for the economy,” said Aaron Peña, who owns two bars in San Antonio and plans to open another in two weeks. “We’re already planning to host not only opening-night parties, but every Spurs game. It’s going to be a party.”
For some business owners, the party has already commenced. Chip Ingram owns Roo Pub, an Australian-themed bar inspired by Patty Mills, a former Spurs guard from Australia. Ingram got a big crowd in his pub on May 16 after he announced that if the Spurs won the draft lottery that night, he would pick up the tab. That night might have cost him a pretty penny, since the Spurs won, but Ingram said the spotlight made it more than worth it.
Ingram has spruced up his menu with a “Wemby Burger” that includes foie gras and French onion strings. After a $1 promotional deal on draft night, the burger now costs $21.50 — a nod to the Spurs legends Tim Duncan, who wore No. 21, and David Robinson, who wore No. 50. They, too, were No. 1 picks.
Economic research casts some doubt on the potential strength of the Wembanyama effect in San Antonio. A 2017 paper from Daniel Shoag of Harvard University and Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute found that LeBron James’s return to Cleveland in 2014 boosted the number of restaurants and other eating and drinking venues close to the Cavaliers’ arena. But that wasn’t the case in Miami when James joined the Heat in 2010, though he had a significant effect on employment close to the arenas in both cities. Economists have long argued that professional sports franchises and their stadiums don’t do much to help local economies.
“I think people are going to be into the Spurs no matter what, but this just does give more attention to San Antonio,” said Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who was also the secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama. “It gives a boost to the city in terms of how much it’s in the national spotlight. It raises the profile and visibility of the city with people, and that’s always good for business.”
Shea Serrano, an author and television writer from San Antonio, never passes up an opportunity to discuss his beloved Spurs. He said he “lost my mind” when the Spurs won the draft lottery.
“It felt in the city at that moment like we had won another championship,” he said.
Brandon Gayle, chief operating officer of the Spurs, said the team had seen a sharp increase in demand for season tickets — and from a younger, more diverse demographic than usual. San Antonio’s population is about 66 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race and 23 percent white alone, with less than 10 percent of residents who identify as Asian or Black/African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gayle said the Spurs wanted to expand their reach further into Mexico and Austin, Texas, where the team has played several games in recent seasons.
From the opening of the Spurs’ arena, the AT&T Center, before the 2002-3 season to the 2018-19 season, the last time the team made the playoffs, San Antonio always ranked in the top half of N.B.A. attendance. They were in the bottom five the past two seasons
Carly Tovar represents the second generation of a three-generation Spurs family. She attended the draft night party with her young son, Mario Calderon, and her father, Ralph Tovar, who started rooting for the Spurs when the team moved from Dallas in the 1970s. The Spurs won their first title in 1999, when Carly was in high school. Over the protests of her father, she went downtown to join in the celebration, where fans walked on the freeway, honked their car horns in jubilation and soaked in the victory over the Knicks.
“I came up with David Robinson, Avery Johnson, and I was able to appreciate the next generation with Duncan and Robinson,” Carly said. “So now we get to see that happen for the third time.” She motioned to her son.
Ralph agreed. “It’s good for our city,” he said. “It’s got what we call la lumbre, the fire.”
The renewed energy around the Spurs has visibly changed San Antonio, in the form of striking Wembanyama homages from local artists. Oscar Alvarado, a tile mosaic artist who traces his family’s San Antonio roots back nearly 300 years, built an 18-foot-tall Wembanyama cutout from steel and plywood. Colton Valentine crafted a larger-than-life mural of Wembanyama palming two basketballs on the outside of a bar in the artsy neighborhood of Southtown, earning a visit from Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich. And Nik Soupe was perhaps the boldest of them all: He finished a mural of Wembanyama wearing a Spurs jersey nearly two months before the draft lottery.
Several fans said Wembanyama’s ability to generate a palpable buzz was decidedly “un-Spurslike.” Duncan was notably quiet and rarely did interviews or commercials, much like Kawhi Leonard, who helped the Spurs win their most recent championship, in 2014.
But so far, Wembanyama has reveled in the spotlight. He beamed in a video on Instagram as a horde of fans greeted him after he landed in San Antonio on Friday.
“He should expect legions of little old ladies saying prayers in Catholic churches for the Spurs to win,” Castro said, “and his success being celebrated by people like he’s a member of their family. That’s the level of enthusiasm and how personally that a lot of folks take it over there.”