As Spurs get ready for Wembanyama, a new practice home is taking shape

The Rock at La Cantera will host the Spurs’ soon-to-be-ready new facility as part of what will be a $500 million complex by the time all the building at the site is completed

Victor Wembanyama #1 of the San Antonio Spurs poses for a portrait during the 2023 NBA rookie photo shoot at UNLV on July 12, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Victor Wembanyama #1 of the San Antonio Spurs poses for a portrait during the 2023 NBA rookie photo shoot at UNLV on July 12, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.JAMIE SQUIRE (Getty Images via AFP)

RC Buford has spent nearly a decade plotting this. He’s been all over the world, visiting 200 places, seeing what works for other teams. Ideas kept coming, not just from the basketball landscape, but from skiing and soccer and eSports and cycling and even Formula One. Hour after hour, day after day, he became more consumed by the idea and more immersed into how to make it reality.

His task is almost done.

The San Antonio Spurs — just in time for No. 1 overall draft pick Victor Wembanyama’s rookie season — are about to get a new practice home, one that might be among the most advanced in the world.

It’s called The Rock at La Cantera, which will host the Spurs’ soon-to-be-ready new facility as part of what will be a $500 million complex by the time all the building at the site is completed. It’s not just a practice gym with a big locker room and some toys; it’s going to be part of what the team envisions as a “global center for excellence in human and athletic performance” — not to mention a massive commitment to the city of San Antonio.

“We’re not trying to build this to be the best in the NBA,” said Buford, the Spurs’ CEO and part of all five of the franchise’s championship runs. “We’re going to build this for our needs and to have the best environment we can to help develop the Spurs’ culture. It’s not about being better or worse than anybody.”

It’s a natural pivot for Buford; he was the architect of Spurs’ teams, and now he’s basically an architect of the Spurs’ next building. There is no detail that’s overlooked; the practice court area in the new facility has basically the same exact dimensions and layout as the team’s current one — even the height, just over 26 feet, is the same, to try and mimic the same acoustics for when coach Gregg Popovich barks out things during workouts — and there’s even a reason why the new pizza oven near the team dining area is set up where it is.

Popovich has yet to be inside the new complex, which is still very much a construction zone but will be ready for training camp in a little more than two months. He gave Buford two mandates for the new facility: take care of the people, and protect the culture. And Spurs players, from the minute they park their cars inside the underground garage, will get reminders of the culture.

“We really tried to have this idea and this concept of a sense of arrival,” said Phil Cullen, the senior director of basketball operations and organizational development for the Spurs — and the project manager for the facility. “So the players ascend up the stairs, they’ll start seeing the sight lines on the court and then they’ll see the championship banners. And foundationally, what this space is built on, is the Pound the Rock quote.”

It is a Spurs credo, the quote from Danish social reformer Jacob Riis: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

It also provides a happy coincidence: It took the team that was getting the site ready for construction about four months to grind through enough rock for parts of the building’s foundation, moving tons and tons of stone an inch or two at a time.

Steps were taken to protect the environment and lessen demand on resources; there’s a water recapturing system, solar panels on the roof, windows even angled the right way to protect against glare and keep the building cooler. It’ll be the largest mass timber constructed building in Texas, the Spurs said.

“The Holt family made the direct mandate that we had to develop this to have an impact for our community,” Buford said, speaking of the Spurs’ ownership. “It could not just be the best practice facility in the world. We had to develop it so the community could interact with it.”

The Spurs outgrew their current practice home — 37,000 square feet, with an outdoor Olympic-sized pool in the back so Tim Duncan could swim laps — long ago. There’s at least 90,000 square feet of space for basketball operations in the new home, with more locker room space, bigger meeting rooms, a much larger team video area and more. (Still unclear: If Popovich will have a wine closet as he does in the current facility.)

The original plan called for expanding the current facility. That plan didn’t last long.

“It became clear that the cost of making what we need to happen here was really making this cost effective to build someplace else,” Buford said as he gave a tour of the site, wearing a hard hat that bears his name.

There will be a couple of large viewing windows in what will be called the Spurs Club over the practice court. There’ll be bar in a long reception area behind those windows. Buford and Cullen get just as excited when they look out the windows, away from the court, and point to what is now just piles of dirt and rocks. In time, there’ll be a park for the community to enjoy, a splash pad, a restaurant, a big outdoor screen where people can come watch movies or games. There’s already a huge dog park, and the complex sits on a trail that rings basically the entire city — about 130 miles in all.

“You think about opportunities to engage in family nights,” Cullen said. “The idea and the concept was that families could come here, have an experience that they did not have to pay a dollar for. If you want to come and just have your kids have a good time, that’s what this is about.”

Again, every detail seems to be thought out. The hydrotherapy pools are 8 feet deep to allow even the tallest players — Wembanyama is 7 feet, 3 1/2 inches — to be fully immersed in the water. There’s enough room on site for everything from basic athletic training needs to medical imagery. There are rooms designed with mental health in mind. It’ll have enough storage to make the Spurs’ equipment managers the envy of the league.

They are building a palace, just in time for Wembanyama’s rookie season and the Spurs returning to the NBA spotlight after a four-year rebuild. It is also good luck that all the stars seem to be aligning at once.

“It’s very fortuitous, and it’s also incredibly emotional and comes with a great deal of responsibility,” Buford said.

Some Spurs employees say the project is part of Buford’s legacy. He shoots down that talk immediately.

“This is not for me. This is for our team,” Buford said. “This is for our community.”

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