In the middle of the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ home opener, the stands seemed to blanch. A wave of seats across the bleachers became vacant, covered only by the white T-shirts that had been given to everyone in attendance. Rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama was in foul trouble and was now consigned to the bench. Many took the opportunity to purchase hot dogs, water, team gear, or otherwise to walk off a growing sense of restlessness, the anxiety of delayed excitement. The seven-foot-four French rookie, whose debut was among the most anticipated in NBA history, had wooed fans to the stadium but, two thirds through the game, it felt as if he’d rudely stood them up.
Wembanyama’s arrival in San Antonio was a near-celestial event, at once long anticipated with systematic precision, like a total eclipse, and also enrapturing. For many in town, it was a fresh opportunity to catch a game with hope after the team’s glory had faded with Tim Duncan’s retirement and Kawhi Leonard’s departure; for others—many of whom have stuck around through the franchise’s recent swoon—Wembanyama’s arrival meant they could no longer watch their favorite team. At a pretzel stand, a cashier sneaked peeks at her smartphone stream of the game in between fulfilling orders. With a sellout crowd of 18,947 in the Frost Bank Center, breaks had grown rare. An elevator attendant followed the action sparingly from a screen in his small capsule after it emptied with each run; he recalled, with some fondness, the games last season when he’d had to transport fewer folks and thus had an unobstructed view.
“Usually I can peek in to watch, but it’s too busy tonight,” Sandra Estrada, a lifetime San Antonian who’s worked in Guest Services at the arena for a few seasons, explained to me. She mentioned that, whenever she heard the crowd roar, she’d steal a glance at a TV across from her stand and catch the game largely in replay. “Better to be here than watching the game on my couch. Seeing a crowd excited gets me excited. And I haven’t ever seen it like this.”
Wembanyama, the number-one overall pick in last spring’s NBA draft, indeed has a gravity about him. Observers say he seems to defy physics, but what he actually does is defy clean metaphor. He’s enormous, as many basketball players are, but unlike most players his height—or even remotely as tall as him—he shoots a smooth jumper and can weave through defenders with the ball. In his warm-up routine, keenly watched by fans who arrive early, he bends like an origami crane. (No man his height should be able to touch their toes; Wembanyama does splits.) On defense, his wingspan seems to stretch like Silly Putty as he swats shots out of the air or reaches across the court for steals and deflections. And he moves like a wind chime: still for long stretches of time, and then, on minute atmospheric change, able to quickly wriggle away from a defender.
Before the game even started, there had been a run on his jerseys at the team store. All that remained were kids’ sizes, and even there, he seemed alien: Wembanyama’s surname needed to orbit the tight geometry of an extra-small.
Great hype, however, doesn’t lend itself to cool enjoyment. By tip-off, the crowd’s desperation was palpable. It wasn’t enough that no one had ever seen a player like Wemby; they wanted to see him fill up a box score in a way few rookies do in their NBA debuts, so many fans eyed the JumboTron between plays like politicians watching polls on election night.
There was just one problem of improperly eclipsed intent. Fans were there to watch Wemby; the Spurs were there to try to win. On the court, Gregg Popovich’s team famously prioritizes ball movement, which means no player, not even one of Wembanyama’s gravity, is ever a true epicenter. Off the court, the franchise seemed to match that ethos, almost smugly downplaying its new star. A pregame hype video featured the whole Spurs rotation in equal measure; during player introductions, Wembanyama came neither first nor last.
In the opening minutes of the game, Wembanyama seemed like the promised physics-bender. On defense, his length disrupted all attempts at a well-spaced offense. The Dallas Mavericks flowed away from him. After Wembanyama slid over in help defense and blocked his first shot of the season, enigmatic point guard Kyrie Irving stopped trying to slash through the paint to the rim altogether. Mavericks star Luka Dončić, already famous for his stepback move, seemed to exaggerate the retreat in his shooting motion to ensure he could shoot over the looming Frenchman.
On offense, though, other forces prevailed, and Wembanyama struggled to get the ball. After the tip, he didn’t touch it for a few possessions—and the Spurs hummed without him. For most of the first half, he lingered on the perimeter, while the rest of the team slashed with the ball. His first four shots—five if you include a field goal waved off by an off-ball foul—were from beyond the three-point arc. His few ventures into the paint were unsuccessful: stouter defenders had their way bodying him, and he’d waver like a tent pole in a strong gale.
In other circumstances, it might have been no matter: the Spurs were winning—they never trailed in the first half. But winning did not seem to solve everything. At the half, Wembanyama had only six points, and the crowd stewed on his lack of touches. Famously, styles make fights; but style makes fans, and viewers were denied a central pleasure of seeing something new.
And then, no longer by design, Wembanyama was barely on the floor at all. Owing to two early fouls, he didn’t play most of the second quarter. Owing to a third and fourth foul early in the third, he barely played that quarter too. After he collected a fifth in the opening minutes of the fourth and headed back to the bench still stuck at six points, the crowd collectively groaned.
As the fourth quarter waned away, Wemby seemed to get antsy on the sidelines, standing up frequently to stretch at the baseline—each time coaxing the audience to cheer in expectation that he was getting warm to reenter the game, before he’d sit back down.
When he eventually came back in with seven minutes left, he finally became a focal point of the offense requisite to the crowd’s demands. The first possession with him on the court, the team ran a pick and roll with him setting the screen. Finally crashing the paint, he caught a lob, barely needing to jump, and softly dunked it. The ball hung on the rim for an agonizing second before toppling in.
That seemed to loosen Wembanyama. On his next touch, he sank an off-the-dribble three. On the subsequent possession, he ran ahead in transition and deposited a dunk: with little need to get vertical to reach the rim, there was little punctuation in the form of a slam. He had to offshore the disrespect of the dunk from the actual play to his celebration of it, puffing out his chest and mean-mugging to the crowd.
On the final few possessions, the team couldn’t get him the ball, turning it over before it could swing his way, and the Spurs fumbled away a late lead. With the game out of reach in the final minute, many fans started heading for the exits, while those who remained jeered at them for leaving early. Despite the loss, there was relief in the crowd, as if having just narrowly made a connecting flight. Wembanyama hadn’t been the best player on the court (that would be Dončić) or even his team (Devin Vassell), but the San Antonio faithful had seen enough.
Even those who couldn’t watch were pleased. Far from the stadium, at a spillover parking lot on the unmanicured back lawn of a funeral home, a cheerful attendant collected payments. It had been a while since the cars reached all the way here, he said, noting that the last few seasons had been bad. He couldn’t catch any of the game, but the Spurs were back.