The story behind the 1999 Spurs championship StarCraft photo

Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson was one of the greatest centers to play the game, as recognized by the NBA’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams. That did not stop his teammates from making fun of his video game habit.

Malik Rose, Robinson’s teammate and fellow gamer on the NBA championship-winning 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs, remembered getting ribbed for firing up his laptop so often after games or practices.

“Dave got it, too!” Rose said. “But secretly, everyone else wanted to get into it.”

Following the Spurs’ title that season, someone snapped a photo from the team plane. It remains unclear who took the photo, but it clearly shows Robinson, Rose, Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and Sean Elliot playing the video game “StarCraft” on their laptops. The Larry O’Brien championship trophy sits in the corner of the frame.

The photo has gone viral numerous times on platforms such as Reddit and Twitter, usually with a post expressing surprise at an NBA championship team celebrating its title by nerding out on a real-time strategy game as if it was a high school AV club. By contrast, the previous season’s champions, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated midseason, playing cards on the floor in the aisle of a plane. Cards were also favored by championship teams such as the 1973 New York Knicks, who played on the way home after winning it all. Other photos from NBA team planes generally show players listening to music, eating, reading and otherwise relaxing. This shot of the Spurs features a LAN party, a way for gamers in the ’90s to interconnect computers and play head-to-head.

“I’m used to fun on the plane, dice games, cards games, so when I got to the Spurs it was like I was in church,” said Mario Elie, a three-time NBA champion who signed with the Spurs before the strike-shortened 1999 season and said he brought “a little nastiness” to the team. “Very nice guys, shaking hands with everyone, and I sort of had to change that a little.”

Rose said he played video games before joining the team in 1997, mentioning series such as Madden, The Legend of Zelda and Diablo. But he said it was Elliott, whom he called the “Yoda” of the group, who turned him and Duncan — both rookies — on to “StarCraft” specifically.

“We saw him playing it with Dave Robinson, so younger players, like we do when we see older players doing something, we started doing it,” Rose, who is now head of basketball operations at the NBA G League, said about himself and Duncan.

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“StarCraft” is a science fiction, real-time strategy game made by Blizzard Entertainment. The game, originally released in 1998, has since spawned a popular sequel and several expansion packs and add-ons. The highly rated title, which centers on three distinct races battling in a distant galaxy, features a story campaign as well as several multiplayer modes, such as capture the flag, deathmatch and melee, in which players attempt to destroy one another’s bases.

Asked whether he felt that the Spurs’ leaders playing “StarCraft,” as compared with Bulls stars Jordan and Scottie Pippen playing high-stakes cards, reflected a different team culture, Rose said it could. Still, he pointed out: “Whatever Jordan did, it produced results — six championships.”

That’s not to say “StarCraft” didn’t have its benefits. Playing with those three teammates (the group was dubbed the “IBM Gang” by the rest of the team) translated into better performance on the court, according to Rose.

“Anytime you spent that much time together, all together, it makes you more fond of one another and made you closer,” he said.

The “StarCraft” sessions never got as intense, or as allegedly rich, as a Bulls card game. Still, the IBM Gang took video games seriously, especially as they began to get more competitive. Rose said the players would run back to the team bus after games to grab their laptops so they could launch right back into it.

“The games got so good we started playing at the hotel. We spent any time not on the court playing the game,” Rose said.

“[Robinson] was into his computers,” said Andrew Gaze, another Spurs player. “I didn’t understand it. That wasn’t my go. . . . But I was sort of envious.”

Elie also said he didn’t play but remembered how often the IBM Gang did.

“I just remember those guys playing on every road game,” Elie said. “Them four guys played all the time … It was to release some tension. It was very competitive.”

Elie drew a comparison between that Spurs team and the New England Patriots in terms of professionalism and leadership. “It was sort of a nerdy type of team,” he said. “I consider [Spurs Coach Gregg] Popovich like [Patriots Coach Bill] Belichick, just nicer. And you never had to worry where guys on that team were at night.”

Gaze agreed. “That team wasn’t doing things to jeopardize focus,” he said.

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After the Spurs beat the Knicks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in New York, Rose recalled celebrating and partying with his teammates. But on the plane back to San Antonio, with not much else to do, they broke out their laptops and started playing.

One memory that stuck with Rose from around the moment the photo was taken was an offhand comment from Robinson, whom Rose said was one of the smartest people he ever met.

“David could literally build an aircraft, but we used to joke about how he’d forget things,” Rose said. “We’d leave the huddle, and he’d ask, ‘What play are we running?’ ”

On the plane, Rose said that “out of nowhere” Robinson said he might be receiving a bonus for winning the title — but he wasn’t sure.

“He said that if he did get the bonus, he would buy us Rolexes. And he did, the very next week,” Rose said.

Rose was traded to the Knicks in 2005 but said he continued playing “StarCraft” with his Spurs teammates, though they eventually moved to “World of Warcraft” and then “League of Legends,” playing together online “for hours and hours.”

Though Robinson and Duncan led the Spurs on the court and ended their careers as two of the best big men in the game, when it came to “StarCraft,” they were not even team MVPs.

“If I have to be honest, Sean was the best then,” he said.


An earlier version of this story misidentified The International as a “StarCraft” esports event. The International is a “Dota 2” tournament.

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