Most of the time, Jesse Kass was already in class when the San Antonio Spurs arrived at Santa Monica High School for morning shoot-arounds. But the 2006 graduate was too big of a basketball fan not to have heard rumblings about the NBA team’s sessions on campus during its trips to Southern California.
“I remember a few times walking past the North Gym and peeking in through small glass windows on the door and getting a quick glimpse of Tim Duncan,” Kass said.
And he wasn’t the only one.
By May 2004, when Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher turned four-tenths of a second into an epic buzzer-beating game-winner in San Antonio, the opponent’s presence at Samohi during the Western Conference playoffs was creating a frenetic climate at the local high school.
“Word got out on campus that the Spurs were coming in, and it seemed like every kid was there at the back gate getting ready to greet them,” said Marty Verdugo, a Vikings basketball coach at the time. “They got in, and they were good sports about it. But I was a little nervous because [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] doesn’t like that kind of stuff.”
Verdugo serves as the link between Samohi and the Texas franchise that started using its gym some 15 years ago, cementing a trend of professional sports teams renting out space for practices and workouts at the school district’s flagship site. The visits by the Spurs, shrouded in as much secrecy as their public game schedules allow, build on Santa Monica’s standing as a city that welcomes high-profile clientele with regularity.
And with the NBA kicking off its 2016-17 season this month, they’re bound to be back before long.
The year was 1999, and Verdugo got a call from Mike Budenholzer.
The two had become friends while working at basketball camps the Bay Area, and Budenholzer — who now coaches the Atlanta Hawks — was serving at the time as an assistant coach with the Spurs.
With the NBA strike nearing an end and the league preparing for an abbreviated season, Budenholzer asked Verdugo to join Popovich’s staff as a video coordinator. Verdugo excitedly took the job.
It was certainly a memorable year for the Spurs, who won their first-ever NBA championship. And it was a whirlwind season for Verdugo, who worked long days to assist a roster that included Duncan and David Robinson as well as Avery Johnson and Steve Kerr, among others.
Verdugo enjoyed contributing to San Antonio’s success, but the arrangement was difficult considering the demanding hours and the considerable time away from his wife.
“It wasn’t in the cards for me to stay there and keep that kind of life and commitment,” he said.
So Verdugo returned to Santa Monica, became an assistant coach for the Samohi boys basketball team and eventually took over the girls program.
The Spurs, who preferred the beach vibe over Downtown L.A., were already regular visitors at the Loews and Shutters hotels in Santa Monica. They figured could use their relationship with Verdugo to squeeze in some practice time on the Westside before games at Staples Center.
“They just wanted somewhere quick where they could work out,” Verdugo said. “I got to know Pop pretty well when I was there, and he would bring his team in when they played the Lakers and Clippers. He would call and schedule it.”
San Antonio isn’t the only professional sports team that has rented out the main gym at Samohi.
The Oklahoma City Thunder practiced there during the first round of the 2010 playoffs, when they lost a series to the Lakers in six games. The Miami Heat used the space in January 2015. And former Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, now a member of the New York Knicks, put up some shots on the Vikings’ court earlier this year.
“We do have professional sports teams who rent our facilities from time to time, particularly Samohi,” Santa Monica-Malibu school district spokeswoman Gail Pinsker said.
Rental permits are handled through the district’s Facility Use Department, which was previously run by Carey Upton and now led by Jerry Gibson. Upton still oversees the department as the district’s chief operations officer.
The local Board of Education recently approved an updated fee structure for facility rentals, setting the commercial rate for practices in the Samohi gym at $100 per hour. And while the court isn’t NBA-length, teams have found it convenient for shoot-arounds and walkthroughs.
SMMUSD sites are rented out to businesses, nonprofits and other local organizations as well as sports teams, and revenue from the permits goes into the district’s general fund. The district in 2015-16 made more than $1.14 million in net income from facility rentals in 2015-16, including more than $41,900 for Samohi gyms.
Outside groups’ use of school facilities must not disrupt students and learning, Pinsker said.
“As with all events that are permitted during the school day that might interest students, the continued success of NBA shoot-arounds at Samohi during the school day depends on students generally not being aware they are occurring,” she said. “If they were publicized, they wouldn’t be able to continue.
“We look forward to being able to effectively offer a variety of clients privacy so they continue to use our facilities, as this revenue source is important to our budget.”
It was the delight of a lifetime for Katy Keating.
A member of the Samohi girls basketball squad during Verdugo’s tenure at the helm, Keating was sitting with teammates in the stands as Duncan and other Spurs players launched halfcourt shots for fun after a practice in 2008.
She and other members of Verdugo’s roster were allowed to be in the gym during San Antonio’s session at Samohi, receiving special treatment thanks to Verdugo’s relationship with Popovich and Budenholzer.
“She goes, ‘Hey, Coach, ask if I can have a shooting contest,’” Verdugo recalled. “So I go, ‘Hey, Tim, Katy wants to know if you want to have a halfcourt shooting contest.’ And he goes, ‘C’mon, let’s go.’”
So Keating, an all-league honoree who went on to play at the University of San Francisco, traded heaves with one of the best power forwards in NBA history. It was an epic showdown.
“Katy ended up beating him,” Verdugo said. “All the players were heckling Tim. It was really cool. That was one of the thrills of my coaching career. That was one of those unbelievable moments.”
Many members of the campus community have tried to steal their own moments with the Spurs when the team has visited. Some students have lurked in the wrestling room, trying to see the NBA stars from afar. Others “would ‘just happen to be’ by the back gate” to watch them arrive, Verdugo said.
The rivalry between the Spurs and the Lakers made the sessions all the more intriguing to students.
“It was a big distraction during the playoffs,” he said.
Austin Slough remembers it well. It was spring 2008, and his senior year at Samohi was winding to a close as San Antonio was preparing to face the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
A devoted Spurs fan who spent part of his childhood living in San Antonio, Slough happened to be wearing a 2003 team championship shirt one morning when he heard from a security guard he knew that his favorite franchise was on campus.
“I went over to try and take a peek,” he said. “There were San Antonio media all over the place.”
So much for secrecy.