After Spurs’ title that year, someone took a picture from the team plane. It’s unclear who took the photo, but it clearly shows Robinson, Rose, Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and Sean Elliot all playing the video game StarCraft on their laptops. Larry O’Brien’s championship trophy sits in the corner of the frame.
The photo has gone viral multiple times on platforms like Reddit and Twitter, usually with a post expressing surprise at an NBA championship team celebrating its title by goofing around in a real-time strategy game like it’s a high- School AV Club. In contrast, last year’s champions, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated midseason, playing cards on the floor in an airplane aisle. Cards were also favored by championship teams like the 1973 New York Knicks, who played on the way home after winning everything. Other photos of NBA team planes generally show players listening to music, eating, reading, and otherwise relaxing. This Spurs shot shows a LAN party, a way for gamers in the ’90s to connect computers and go head-to-head.
“I’m used to having fun on the plane, dice games, card games, so coming to the Spurs it was like being in church,” said Mario Elie, a three-time NBA champion who was previously with the Spurs signed the strike-shortened 1999 season and said he brought “a little meanness” to the team. “Very nice guys who shake hands with everyone and I kind of had to change that a bit.”
Rose said he played video games before joining the team in 1997 and mentioned series like Madden, Zelda and Diablo. But he said it was Sean Elliott, whom he referred to as the “Yoda” of the group, who specifically drew him and Tim Duncan – then both in their early years – to StarCraft.
“We saw him play it with Dave Robinson, so younger players, like we do when we see older players doing something, started doing it,” Rose said of herself and Duncan.
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StarCraft is a science fiction real-time strategy game by Blizzard Entertainment. The game, originally released in 1998, has since spawned a popular sequel and several expansion packs and add-ons. The competitive esports scene is highlighted by The International, a global championship that regularly boasts a tens of millions prize pool.
The highly rated title, which revolves around three different races fighting in a galaxy far away, features a story campaign as well as multiple multiplayer modes, such as Capture the Flag, Deathmatch and Melee, in which players try to conquer each other’s bases to destroy.
When asked if he thought the team leaders who play “StarCraft” reflect a different team culture compared to Jordan and Pippen who play high-stakes cards, Rose said they did. Still, he pointed out, “Whatever Jordan did, it produced results, six championships.”
That’s not to say that StarCraft didn’t have its perks. Playing with these three teammates (the group was dubbed the “IBM gang” by the rest of the team) led to better performance on the pitch, according to Rose.
“Every time you’ve spent that much time together, all together, it makes you more likable and closer,” he said.
The “StarCraft” sessions never got as intense or as supposedly rich as a Bulls deck. (Rose said the gambling took place during practice during shooting games on the court.) Still, the IBM Gang took video games seriously, especially when they started to get more competitive. Rose said players would run back to the team bus after games to get their laptops so they could hop straight back on.
“The games got so good that we started playing at the hotel. We spent every amount of time not playing the game on the court,” Rose said.
“[Robinson] was in his computers,” Gaze recalled. “I did not understand it. That wasn’t my way. … But I was kind of jealous,” he said.
Elie also said he didn’t play, but recalled how many times the IBM Gang did.
“I just remember those guys who played every away game,” said Elie. “These four guys played all the time… it was to relieve some tension. It was very competitive.”
Elie drew a comparison between this Spurs team and the New England Patriots in terms of professionalism and leadership. “It was kind of a nerdy team,” he said. “I look at [Spurs Head Coach Gregg] Popovich likes it [Patriots Head Coach Bill] Belichick, only prettier. And you never had to worry about where the guys on this team were at night.”
Blick agreed. “This team didn’t do anything to jeopardize concentration,” he said.
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After the Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in New York City, Rose recalled partying and partying with his teammates. But on the flight back to San Antonio on the crew plane, not having much else to do, they pulled out their laptops and started playing.
One memory that stuck out to Rose after the game, around the moment the photo was taken, was a casual comment from Robinson, whom Rose called one of the smartest people he’d ever met.
“David could literally build an airplane, but we used to joke about how he forgets things,” Rose said. “We left the scrum and he said, ‘What piece are we playing?’ ”
On the plane, Rose said that “out of nowhere” Robinson said he might get a bonus for winning the title – but he wasn’t sure.
“He said if he got the bonus he would buy us Rolex. And he did it the very next week,” Rose said.
Rose was traded to the Knicks in 2005 but said he continued to play StarCraft with his Spurs teammates, though they eventually moved to World of Warcraft and then League of Legends and played online together “for hours”.
Although Robinson and Duncan led the Spurs on court and ended their careers as two of the best big men in the game, they weren’t even team MVPs in StarCraft.
“To be honest, Sean was the best back then,” he said.