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Texas' nice guys just may finish first

Funny how a national championship can turn a town on its head. Consider the San Antonio Spurs fan who spelled "Go Spurs Go!" with hundreds of white Styrofoam cups tucked into a chain-link fence.

Or the Spurs Western Conference Championship flags that flutter from nearly every car on the road.

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June has never been a big sporting month for Texas, a state that enshrines football as a rite of autumn. But this June is different.

Today, there are not one, but two national championships up for grabs. To date, the Dallas Stars are in the middle of a series with the Buffalo Sabres in the Stanley Cup finals of the National Hockey League. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs - the ultimate good guys in a league brimming with prima donnas - tip off here against the New York Knicks tonight in the first game of the National Basketball Association championships.

Both basketball - and certainly hockey - may appear somewhat alien to the Lone Star State, but Texans are warming fast to these winter pastimes. They're learning to appreciate the finer points of both a three-point shot and a well-tuned Zamboni.

"This is the biggest sporting thing to happen in the 17 years I've been here," says Jay Howard, voice of the Spurs on radio station WOAI here. In an unscientific poll, listeners rated the Spurs making the finals as the biggest event in city history, bigger than the Final Four college playoffs, a visit by the pope, and yes, even the Battle of the Alamo. Mercy, that is big.

Perhaps it's not unusual that San Antonians would unleash such enthusiasm. After all, the Spurs are the only team in town, and they have made their fans wait 23 years to reach this point. Casual fans may be attracted just to the fact that the Spurs will have their first-ever crack at the NBA title, but longtimers have a deeper need to win. They seek vindication for a team that played by the rules, avoided all the high elbows, and eschewed the trash-talking of more famous teams elsewhere.

Love those role models

This niceness is exactly the reason Marianna Blase got interested in the Spurs, and eventually basketball as well. Introduced to the Spurs in 1990 by her daughter, Mrs. Blase got so hooked that she began to tape every game. During her days as an actress, she even used to take her radio with her to the theater.

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"It's a relief to have a team that you wouldn't mind having in your living room," says Blase, who notes that she has even managed to get her husband to watch the games with her. But she does get emotional about her team, and she prefers not to make any predictions. "I really care a lot about these positive people winning, but I'm not going to talk about that."

Indeed, the soft-spoken, aw-shucks sweetness of the Spurs makes them sound like the cast of "Up With People." Team leader and 7-footer David Robinson, a devout Christian, gave $5 million to a charity that donates computers to poor children. Tim Duncan and Sean Elliott are also active in community groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs. Not a single player on the team could be termed a potty mouth or a ball hog. This is the NBA?

Up in Dallas, the sport and names are changed, but the selfless story is much the same. Stars fans marvel at the depth of a team that can lose a key player like winger Brett Hull, and watch another player like Joe Nieuwendyk fill the void.

Of course, some would argue that Texas hockey is an affront to nature. On nights when it's 90 degrees outside, the ice at Dallas's Reunion Arena takes on the character of a Slurpee. Under these conditions, "fast break" is a relative term.

Even so, Texas hockey may be here to stay, as thousands of northern migrants, also known as "Yankees," move south each year to take jobs in the booming high-tech economy. The southern migration is affecting not only Texas sports culture, but also the culture of the regions left behind. Add up the minor-league teams sprinkled throughout the state (including the curiously named Austin Ice Bats), and Texas has more professional hockey teams than Canada has NHL teams. Go figure, eh?

Hoops 'r' us

But don't talk hockey at Fatso's Sports Garden in the south part of San Antonio. In this enormous sports bar and grill, with more televisions than a Circuit City, hoop is the only sport worth talking about and the Spurs is the team expected to win.

"Everybody's going nuts," says Benny Costello, owner of B.J.'s Mexican Restaurant, taking a break over a plate of fries at Fatso's. "I waited in line for three hours and I still didn't get a ticket."

Steve Wilkinson, owner of Fatso's, although apparently not its namesake, was more fortunate. He got free tickets from a food supplier. "I'll be there Wednesday, you better believe it," he says.

Meanwhile, Fatso's itself will turn into something between a madhouse and a shrine as some 800 fans arrive four hours before game time, crowding into the restaurant and spilling into the sand volleyball courts out back, where a large-screen TV will broadcast the game live.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," enthuses Mr. Wilkinson, adding, "Hopefully not."

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