SANTA MONICA, Calif. — A mechanical problem that forced the Spurs to spend seven hours on a tarmac in New Orleans early Tuesday morning could result in the defending NBA champions switching charters midway through the Western Conference finals, an NBA source said.
The team's bizarre travel story came seven weeks after Minnesota-based Champion Air, which transports several other NBA teams, including the Lakers, declared bankruptcy and announced it would ground its 16-plane fleet May 31.
But shortly after that announcement, NBA and Champion officials said the Spurs would continue flying the airline through the playoffs or until further notice.
Thanks to what happened in New Orleans, that could come sooner than expected.
Asked if the team, in light of what happened in New Orleans, would consider making a change soon, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “We'd consider walking. I have a feeling (general manager) R.C. (Buford) is on top of it.”
The NBA source said there's a good chance the Spurs could start using another carrier even before Champion ceases operations. Among the candidates, the source said, are a major airline carrier and a well-known charter entity. Northwest, the source said, will be the Spurs' carrier next season.
After beating the Hornets on Monday night to advance to play the Lakers, the Spurs arrived at the New Orleans airport set to fly one of Champion's Boeing 727s immediately to Los Angeles.
But when the mechanical problem came to their attention, the Spurs decided to spend the night in New Orleans while waiting for Champion to fly in another plane from Minneapolis.
With a major convention packing the city's hotels, the team was forced to spend the night on the tarmac until a new plane arrived around 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday. The team arrived in Los Angeles a few hours later.
All told, the Spurs spent about 11 hours on the plane.
“We got to the plane around midnight or something like that,” Popovich said. “Mechanical problem. No mechanic. Then no plane. Then no hotel. We called about 15 or 20 places, so we spent the evening on the plane. It was eventful, weird.”
This isn't the first time the Spurs have had problems with Champion since it announced bankruptcy. On April 5, what a team spokesman called “minor repairs” delayed a flight from Salt Lake City to Portland, Ore.
According to an examination of Federal Aviation Administration records by the San Antonio Express-News in April, Champion has racked up hundreds of safety and maintenance incidents while running its aged fleet on what the newspaper called a “taunt financial shoestring.”
The Lakers took news of the Spurs' travel nightmare in stride. Asked if he felt for the Spurs, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said, “No. Not at all.”
Said Lakers forward Pau Gasol said, “There is no sympathy. This is not a time for sympathy... No sympathy. No mercy. This is a time to compete.”