Sometimes a story is so unusual that you shake your head while you’re typing its opening line. So here goes: The San Antonio Spurs can’t stop winning since their stadium got invaded by Mexican free-tailed bats.
That’s right, since a small group of winged creatures rocked up at AT&T Center on Jan. 31, the Spurs have won every home game, putting the team on an upward trajectory that has them positioned as the most in-form franchise in the league.
Two nights later things got even more riotous. Another bat influx stumped stadium staff and delayed a game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Finally, The Coyote, San Antonio’s team mascot, sprinted onto the court armed with a net and dove dramatically to snare the intruder, prompting a standing ovation.
By the time the Spurs beat the Golden State Warriors on Monday night the home streak had extended to 11 games (nine of them post-bat invasion) and coach Gregg Popovich is doing it again. At the start of the season, the Spurs were picked by many to miss the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. Instead, they are powering through a packed Western Conference scrum, and could climb as high as third to secure home court advantage.
And we know what happens when they play at home. Especially when the bats show up.
“As an organization, having bats turn up at your games is probably a bit of a headache,” Fox Sports Southwest play-by-play announcer Bill Land told USA TODAY. “But the fans go crazy for it. It lifts the atmosphere, the mascot gets involved, and whenever it happens the team is winning. In the weirdest of ways, it has been part of the way the season has turned around.”
There is history involved here. One of the more bizarre moments came nearly a decade ago, on Halloween night in 2009. Manu Ginobili was never a player who shirked a challenge and in keeping with his fearless approach, reacted to the appearance of a swooping bat during a game against the Sacramento Kings by swatting the flying mammal out of the air.
Such actions make for dramatic television but are medically unadvisable – Ginobili had to get injections as a safeguard against contracting rabies. When The Coyote had his bat moment at the start of February, chants of “Manu” struck up around the arena. Bats have halted play at three of the team’s last seven home games.
Opposing players have had mixed emotions.
“No, no,” Brooklyn’s DeAngelo Russell told USA TODAY, when reminded he had stayed in the tunnel while the bat was caught. “No bats. I don’t want a part of that. I’ll just wait.”
Atlanta’s Trae Young believes that “if you are not afraid of bats, I don’t know who you are,” according to SB Nation. Brook Lopez thought that getting bitten by a bat could give him a 75 percent chance of acquiring super powers. New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale voiced concern for the bats’ welfare.
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Which raises this point: Why are there so many of them? The short version is that AT&T Center is on a direct migratory flight path for the colonies of Mexican free-tailed bats which have a habitat at Bracken Cave, just a few miles away. When they pass by the arena they may be attract by the warmth.
The bats have impressive wingspan but are able to squeeze into tiny gaps and make their way into the arena.
San Antonio struggled to a 1-7 mark on their annual Rodeo Road trip, a long stretch of February travel enforced when the arena gets taken over by the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Since then, it has been nine straight wins in all games to put them at 42-29 and in outstanding position.
“No, it is all thanks to the bats,” joked local fan Peter Merlin, 45. “Seriously, of course it is the team that is doing it but the way the fans reacted to the bats shows how positive we are feeling about how everything is going.”
Popovich always seems to find a solution. With a new-look squad and injury blight – including losing Dejounte Murray to a torn ACL before the season tipped off – things appeared bleak. But Popovich kept spirits high during a poor early stretch that rooted the Spurs near the foot of the conference.
“No one expected Derrick White to blossom into such an effective player so quickly,” Land said. “DeMar DeRozan is refreshed. LaMarcus Aldridge has been gangbusters since a slow start. The team is taking more pride in defense.
“The objective all along was to get into the playoffs. Pop wants to be playing your best basketball when you get into April. The team is on course for that.”
NBA teams sometimes go on runs that look more impressive than they really are. Not so here. The Spurs’ streak has included triumphs over the Warriors, Bucks, Nuggets, Trail Blazers and Thunder. Overall, they are 29-7 at home. No one is going to relish playing them.
The Spurs going on a strong playoff run would be less of a shock than a writer getting through a story like this without using a single bat or Batman-related pun.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno