Culture / Sporting Life

Tilman Fertitta Out of Luck as Spurs Steal NBA Draft Lottery Night and Victor Wembanyama: San Antonio Is Suddenly the Center of the Basketball Universe

As the Pingpong Balls Bounce, Texas' NBA Franchises See Their Fates Drastically Shift With No Billionaire Insurance

BY // 05.16.23

Tilman Fertitta spent $2.2 billon to buy the Houston Rockets and more than doubled his money. But it turns out even a business-shrewd billionaire can’t buy the type of luck that helps produce an NBA Championship. The NBA Draft Lottery turned into one big letdown for the Houston Rockets with the San Antonio Spurs winning the No. 1 pick and the right to draft transcendent prospect Victor Wembanyama.

Suddenly, San Antonio will be the center of the basketball universe. The Rockets get the No. 4 pick. . . and a whole lot of uncertainty. In other words, the Rockets are in the same limbo they’ve been in since that Game 6 home loss to the shorthanded Warriors in 2019 essentially ended their last near elite era.

The Rockets came into Tuesday night’s pingpong ball lottery with a 40 percent chance of landing a Top 3 pick. Instead, general manager Rafael Stone, Patrick Fertitta and company are left outside of the coveted Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller trifecta. . . left with a whole lot of uncertainty.

The Rockets will have to become title relevant again the extremely hard way. And if you think signing a soon-to-be 34-year-old, Game 7-disappearing James Harden is going to change that, you’ve living in a fantasy land. The same type of land where Jose Abreu is any type of a star anymore.

Things aren’t that much better for the Dallas Mavericks. Yes, the Mavericks’ shameless late season tanking shenanigans did allow them to keep their own lottery pick rather than give it to the Knicks. But with that pick only ending up being the 10th overall selection, you have to wonder whether all the maneuvering was really worth it.

At least, the Mavericks still have Luka Doncic. Even if he’s suddenly now the second most interesting basketball player in Texas.

Yes, Victor Wembanyama is that special, that tantalizing.

The Spurs landing Wembanyama may make Gregg Popovich want to coach another six years. Having this 7-foot-4 multi-dimensional Frenchman and Tim Duncan in the same coaching career almost seems unfair. And indeed, it’s crazy how many NBA observers almost anticipated the Spurs to get this No. 1 pick — the most coveted No. 1 pick since LeBron James was in the lottery — going into the random, accounting firm audited selection. Even though the Spurs had the same 14 percent chance to grab No. 1 as the Rockets and the Detroit Pistons.

NBA conspiracy theorists could have a field day with this NBA Draft lottery for decades to come, but one unassailable truth is what Wembanyama instantly means to San Antonio.

With the Spurs already starting to experiment with playing a few games per season in nearby Austin, triggering more than a little anxiety in San Antonio, the only professional sports franchise in the area gets an instant identity. The Spurs are the home of Victor Wembanyama, the most intriguing young athlete in the world.

The 19-year-old Wembanyama is a near Hakeem Olajuwon potential shot blocker with guard skills on offense. He’s a teenager who’s already dominated in a pro league, much like Doncic, who the Mavericks managed to brilliantly steal despite having only the No. 5 pick going into his draft.

Wembanyama is basically something out of that Tenet movie, not quite bending to the laws of regular physics. Being dubbed a unicorn has become one of the most overused terms in modern sports, but with Wembanyama it actually applies.

Only, he’s a purple unicorn that spits out rainbow lightning.

“I’m trying to win a ring ASAP, so be ready,” Wembanyama says in his post NBA lottery ESPN interview. Yes, he already is dropping neat lines.

The hype around Wembanyama is otherworldly too. Which may make San Antonio, the perfect place for the phenom. Even with its proximity to ever-hyped Austin, the world’s new tech center, San Antonio brings a cloistered basketball environment. One with Popovich ready, and often eager, to bark at anyone who voices the hype too loudly.

Wembanyama will arrive in the NBA with the world’s grumpiest 74-year-old bodyguard shielding his way. Many will declare it the perfect situation.

Victor Wembanyama and Houston

Still, it would have nice to see this international phenom in the United States’ most diverse city. Houston proved to be the perfect landing spot for Yao Ming and Wembanyama would have been similarly embraced. Of course, Fertitta infamously let loose his “Pray for Victor!” plea at his Mardi Gras festivities in Galveston.

University of Houston Cougars beat Rice University to win the Bayou Bucket, Saturday at TDECU Stadium
Tilman Fertitta has made his feelings about Victor Wembanyama clear. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

No celestial being answered those pleas. So now what? Rick Pitino once lost his mind when the Celtics failed to win the NBA Draft lottery and get Tim Duncan, lamenting his bad luck for seemingly more than a decade. Don’t expect Tilman Fertitta to wallow in a similar manner. You don’t become a billionaire by living in the past.

Wembanyama is basically something out of that Tenet movie, not quite bending to the laws of regular physics. Being dubbed a unicorn has become one of the most overused terms in modern sports, but with Wembanyama it actually applies.

Rafael Stone will have to prove that he’s the GM that so many Rockets fans think he is now. Nothing will come easy for the Rockets now. Like it has been since 2019.

San Antonio and Popovich hold the lottery ticket back to worldwide relevance. It’s good to be Victor or a Spurs fans. Rockets fans have nothing close to that certainty.


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