Last Sunday morning, exactly a week ago, I received word that my grandmother, my Nanny, had passed away. We knew the end was near, but it still shocked me. When someone lives to be 101 1/2, well, you do kind of think they might live forever.
Several years ago I wrote this piece for my grandmother about her late-in-life love for the San Antonio Spurs. I interviewed her and her brother, George McClaugherty, for the article. It’s no longer timely, but I wanted to share it, in memory of her.
Never Too Late for Go Spurs, Go!
Until she hit her 90s, Nell Hensley was not a sports fan, much less a basketball fan.
“In fact,” she said, “when I got the paper, the first thing I threw away was the sports page.”
These days the sports section is the first part of the paper that she reads. How did this 93-year-old woman go from being a sports-hater to a bona fide pro basketball fanatic? Well, that’s the effect the San Antonio Spurs have on the people of the Alamo City.
Nell lives at the Towers on Park Lane, which is located across the street from Fort Sam Houston. Although she has resided in San Antonio for over 50 years, Hensley never followed the Spurs until recently.
One spring evening a few years ago, while Nell was flipping channels, a Spurs game caught her eye. She didn’t know enough about basketball to know what team they were playing or what was happening.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll watch a little bit,’” she remembered. Nell became so entranced, she watched until the end of the game. “I guess the Lord just led me over to the right channel. Now I don’t miss a game — ever!”
Nell is still learning the ins and outs of threes, fouls, and technicals. She used to go to bed after the weather forecast on the 10 o’clock news. Now she listens to the sports segment so she can check on her team.
She said that following the Spurs helped her to face difficult situations, like her daughter’s recurrence with cancer.
“It’s them that’s helped me,” Nell said. “It gets me interested in something and gives me something to look forward to.”
On October 27, 2006, she attended her first NBA game with her grandson-in-law (my husband). It was a preseason game. She knew immediately who the Spurs were playing this time.
“Oh, that’s the Mavs. That’s Avery Johnson,” she said.
Eight months later she was still talking about that preseason game.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I loved every minute of it!” she said.
Nell dressed in a black pantsuit with silver emblems for the game. She’s never been the T-shirt type — more the three-inch heels type. Since fancy footwear doesn’t go well with a cane, she wore black flats by Easy Spirit.
Until that game at the AT&T Center, Nell didn’t know that the Silver Dancers performed during halftime. She didn’t know about the Kiss-Me Cam or the Smile Cam. She didn’t know the Coyote came into the stands and flirted with the audience. Her grandson-in-law bought her a pair of Spurs pom-poms, and she shook them at the Coyote when he came to her section.
“It was the most beautiful thing!” she gushed.
That Christmas, her great-grandson (my son) gave her a Spurs key chain embossed with her name. She carries her access card, which functions like a key, on a plastic spiral bracelet. Nell’s Spurs key chain now dangles from that same bracelet, announcing to everyone her love for her favorite team.
She said that the Spurs have many fans at the Towers, “and a lot of them single ladies.” When residents see her key chain, they talk Spurs: Ginobili. Duncan. Parker.
“I’m always into Tony Parker. He’s so cute the way he does it,” Nell said.
Her favorite Spur is Tim Duncan, Mr. Fundamental.
“I like how Tim Duncan holds the ball in that pigeon-toed stance, like some little kid that’s been scolded,” she said. “When he gets fouled, his eyes get big as saucers.”
If Nell had been a fan 25 years ago, she could have attended home games with her brother and seen another Spurs icon — George “Iceman” Gervin. In the early 1980s, when the Spurs played downtown at the old HemisFair Arena, Nell’s brother, George McClaugherty, and his wife, Shirley, had season tickets. But Nell never attended a game with them.
“It never dawned on me that I’d want to see them,” she said. Now she wishes she had taken an interest earlier.
If she had, she might have participated in an exciting night. Her brother was a friend of then-coach Stan Albeck. On a night the Spurs played the Knicks, Shirley McClaugherty was in a car wreck. The radio announcers later dedicated the game to her. Afterwards, Coach Albeck came to Northeast Hospital to bring the McClaughertys a game ball signed by both teams.
Nell may only have a key chain to symbolize her devotion to the Spurs, but her friends and family know her passion for the team is real. She predicted how the 2007 championship series would unfold.
“It’s gonna be hard with this James,” she said, referring to LeBron James, who was still with the Cleveland Cavaliers at the time. “I just know the Spurs are gonna win. I think they’ve got the rhythm now.”
The Spurs certainly did have their rhythm. They swept the Cavs in four games, and Nell was glued to her television for each one.
“It was wonderful,” she said, speaking of the championship game. “And I was so sorry when it was all over because I’m gonna miss it so much. I don’t know what I’ll do with the time.”
Although she became a fan late in life, Nell was not too late to experience the joy that comes when the home team wins a national championship. For the Spurs, it was their fourth title. For Nell, it was her first.
Go Spurs Go!