The Ascension of the Toros; and the Joys of Minor-League Basketball

Don’t look now, but the Austin Toros have the longest winning streak in the D-League. After this weekend’s home back-to-back against the Bakersfield Jam – a double overtime thriller on Friday night followed by a low-scoring slog on Saturday that ended with a buzzer-beating three-pointer from B.J. Elder – the suddenly not-so-lowly Toros, who started off their season with 12 straight losses, have won their last six. Now out of the cellar in the Eastern Division, boasting a respectable 12-16 record, and only seven games out of first, the Toros are nobody’s to kick around anymore.

Besides being a barn-burner and the most exciting event the Austin Convention Center has probably ever hosted, Friday night’s game was a small watershed for the second-year Toros, an evening of legitimacy and recognition. “Affiliate Night,” it was dubbed, to acknowledge the Toros’ ever-growing connection to the NBA and to its affiliated teams – the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets, and the Boston Celtics - and the Spurs sent some of their best and brightest up I-35 to honor the occasion. Not Tim Duncan or Tony Parker or even Beno Udrih, but rather the lovely and talented Spurs Silver Dancers, the equally lovely and talented Coyote mascot, and the extremely talented but something less than lovely Spurs legend “Iceman” George Gervin, who did a fantastic job of waving to the crowd before the game. All in all, the evening had an air of significance about it, like the Toros and the D-League were finally taking their rightful place at the professional-basketball table. Thank God coach Dennis Johnson and his team had the good sense to have won a few by the time the moment occurred; one can only wonder what Gervin and the Coyote would have thought of the team if they had come into the game 0-28.

From the very beginning of the game, you could sense something was happening with the team, something wonderful. I think we can credit the shift largely to the presence of guards Cheyne Gadson and Troy Bell and center Loren Woods, all of whom were acquired over the last month or so and all of whom have come in and made their teammates better players. Jamar Smith and B.J. Elder, in particular, shone like new pennies out there on the court, revivified and re-energized (though you’d never know it to look at their faces; they’ve got dead-pans Buster Keaton would have paid for). Now that they don’t have to create their own shots anymore, now that Gadson and Bell are playing in-out, penetration-dish basketball, seeing the court with the vision the team was sorely lacking before, Smith and Elder are shooting better and look more comfortable and confident out on the court. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

At the end of the night, the Toros had beaten the Jam 112-107, in one of their strongest performances yet.

In addition to being a brilliant display of team basketball and a heartening two-and-a-half hours for all Toros fans, Friday’s game was a great example of how - when the stars are aligned and the moon is the exact right distance from the Earth, positioned just so - minor-league sports can be the absolute greatest, oddest, and most exhilarating way to spend $10. Better than a movie, odder than a modern-dance concert, more exhilarating than three shots of well scotch.

Halfway through the first quarter, for example, as perfect punctuation to a rousing Gadson-to-Smith alley-oop that put the Toros up by 10, the power went out on the scoreboard. I don't know how they managed it (my understanding of electrical wiring is suspect at best), but it was the scoreboard and only the scoreboard (including both shot clocks) that went down. Not the house lights, not the electrical outlets – just the scoreboard. For the next 10 minutes, the game was shut down while league and venue officials attempted to fix the problem. Which was a shame because the Toros were rolling. The real shame, however, was that when the power went out it didn’t take the soundboard and speakers with it. The only thing worse than sitting in frustrated silence for 10 minutes waiting for a game to restart is waiting those same 10 minutes while the sound guy blares out full-length versions of songs that, up until that point, he would only have deigned to play in 15-second snippets between plays. What a special brand of torture it was.

(What I’m trying to say is that we as a society need to declare once and for all that “YMCA” is a piece of crap that should never be talked about, much less listened to, again. We need to forget about it and move on. Can we agree to that? Maybe a petition is in order.)

Then – bam! - suddenly the lights on the scoreboard turned back on. Fantastic. No more disco. Cheers rose from all corners of the arena (where fans were waiting in extra-long refreshment lines). Game on. But wait, the 24-second LEDs were still out. Now we knew what the score and the time on the game clock were, but we still had no idea how many seconds were left on the shot clock, which meant, I guessed, that we’d have to revert back to the days before the shot clock, when teams held onto the ball for minutes at a stretch, a time when the Fort Wayne Pistons could score 19 points in an entire game and still beat the Minneapolis Lakers, a time, I’m guessing, when NBA basketball was absolute torture to watch – a prison term, a punishment, a trip to the pillory.

But rather than revert back to those long-forgotten, ill-begotten days, league officials decided that the best thing to do would be to have the team’s announcer - the silver-haired, silver-tongued Mark Hoenig - call out the remaining time, in five-second increments, so that the players on the floor and the fans in the stands would know what was what.

So, for the next five minutes, as arena electricians tried frantically to restore the power on the shot clock, the sound of Hoenig’s voice echoed solemnly across the arena every five seconds – stripped of its usual passion and stentorian flare, now the very example of time’s unwavering and inarguable indifference: tempus fugit – like a computerized voice on a spaceship counting down the last seconds before a self-destruct mechanism goes off, dooming all souls onboard: “20 … 15 … 10 …” The players seemed to take the inconvenience in stride, like they’ve seen and will see worse. It was Hoenig, rather, who seemed momentarily off his game. Normally, his job is to growl and cajole and cheer and inspire and move – to be the voice of the Toros, entirely partisan – so at first he didn’t seem to know what to do with his newfound impartiality. But soon he found his way, and for the next three minutes he provided fans with a curious yet winning display, assuming two disparate personalities at once as he cut off his own excitable play-by-play and color commentary to calmly signal once again the inevitable passing of another five seconds: “JAMAAAAAAARRRR SMITH! WITH A BEAUTIFUL SLAM … twenty … DUNK, WITH AN ASSIST FROM … fifteen … BEEJAYYYYYYY … ten …. ELDER! … five …” This was schizophrenia and minor-league sports at their finest. Three cheers, Mr. Hoenig. Three cheers.

I realized at the game just how small professional basketball cheerleaders are. I saw the Silver Dancers standing off to the side of court while I was standing in line for pizza (not that I was looking, mind you) and was amazed at how tiny they were. Most of them must have been less than five-feet tall. Remarkable. I’ve since decided that I should do a more in-depth study on the subject. Hours of research and personal interviews will be necessary.

Halfway through the second quarter, after a questionable call, Jam assistant coach and former NBA player Ike Austin was given two quick technicals and ejected from the game for grousing at the referees. In response, Austin, who may be the largest, most intimidating man I’ve ever seen up close, went thundering onto the court like a bull to confront the closest ref, who, wisely, chose to walk away from the mass of muscle barreling toward him. Standing 6-feet, c10-inches tall in his stocking feet, with a bald head and a beautifully tailored suit straining to contain his enormous chest, Austin looked more like a bodyguard for a hip-hop artist than an assistant coach of a D-League team. As Austin was being dragged from the court, screaming and shouting and turning red in the face, members of both teams picked up various pieces of his jewelry that had fallen onto the court during the fracas and returned them respectfully, extending their arms so as to not get too close.

It is a widely accepted fact (in San Antonio, anyway) that the Spurs’ Coyote is the finest mascot in all of professional sport. Me, I don’t care one way or another about mascots and can’t understand the way one would go about distinguishing between one or another, much less determine which one might be the best. But I got a small indication at the end of halftime on Friday. The bug-eyed beast passed the five minutes before the third quarter shooting behind-the-back free throws and missing every time, throwing his hands up in mock frustration and self-disgust, much to the delight of the fans and cheerleaders nearby. He must have missed 20 in a row (on a related topic, stay tuned for a blog about my performance this past Sunday at the Ramsey Park courts). When the buzzer sounded, summoning the players back to the court, the Coyote gave it one more shot, heaving the ball backward over his enormous felt head toward the basket. Of course the ball hit nothing but net, sending shockwaves through the arena and a wave of love down from the stands onto the Coyote below. Maybe it’s this attention to drama – these last-second heroics – that make him the best. Maybe he knew all along. I don’t know; he’s still just a grown man in an animal suit to me.

In another display of the joys and surprises one can expect at minor-league games (and of the Austin Convention Center's inconstant electrical makeup), the air conditioner came on randomly and without explanation just in time for the second half. Outside, the temperature was creeping down toward the high 30s; inside, the AC was running like it was mid-August.

You just don’t get this kind of action at the AT&T Center.

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