There are a few things we’ve come to expect over the years from San Antonio Spurs basketball. The team will always find a way to make the playoffs, no matter how much talent and pedigree it loses during the offseason. Coach Gregg Popovich will generally deliver grumpy end-of-quarter interviews no matter how well his team is playing. And once in a while, we can expect a furry, winged menace to descend from the rafters and terrorize their home court.
The local bats of San Antonio have long held a reputation as unruly Spurs fans, occasionally crashing games and disrupting play. In recent weeks, though, the bats have claimed season-ticket holder status with the red-hot team, which has won six-straight contests. In three of the team’s past six home games, including this past Sunday, one of the flying mammals has brought a Spurs’ game to a screeching halt for minutes at a time, as various team staffers furiously scrambled to apprehend the flapping intruders.
All of which raises the obvious question: Why is the arena plagued with bats so often?
After spending many sleepless nights investigating the matter — in truth, I just called a couple of local specialists — the answer actually makes pretty good sense. The AT&T Center is 25 miles southwest of Bracken Cave, which is home to more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats, making it the largest summer bat colony in the world.4
What’s more, it’s logical that bats would fly past the arena, particularly during the winter months. The stadium is almost directly in the bats’ migration path from Central America and Mexico back to Bracken Cave, where maternal colonies fly to have and nurse their newborns (nearly doubling in number).
Still, the team’s proximity to the real-life Batcave alone doesn’t explain how the bats are working their way inside the venue.
There are a couple of potential factors at play. First, the San Antonio arena — a few miles outside of the city’s downtown area and adjacent to a golf course — is perhaps the closest thing to a suburban venue in the entire NBA. The massive, brightly illuminated presence that attracts moths and other insects in an otherwise quiet area might be appealing to bats5 that are looking for food on a given night, according to Judit Green, who has worked as an urban wildlife biologist for 30 years with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Beyond that, experts suggest that the 750,000 square-foot stadium almost certainly had — or potentially still has — a tiny crevice somewhere, releasing just enough warmth outside to entice bats and birds that are looking to escape the area’s colder-than-usual temperatures for a night. (The Spurs declined to comment or to make a facilities specialist available to be interviewed for this story.)
“I’d guess there’s a small vent or other opening to the outside that’s attracting the attention of migratory bats,” said Merlin Tuttle, an Austin-based ecologist who has studied bats for 60 years and founded Bat Conservation International in the 1980s. “When cold fronts hit, sometimes that’ll drive the bats wintering in San Antonio to look for a place that gets them out of the cold.”
Once a bat does make it into the arena, we’ve seen time and time again what type of hilarity may ensue. It was nearly a decade ago in 2009 — on Halloween, fittingly enough — that future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili endeared himself to Spurs’ fans even more by swatting a disruptive bat out of the air with his bare hand.
To be clear, the AT&T Center isn’t alone in producing odd animal-related headlines. It’s nothing new for pro sports, particularly ones played outdoors, to be interrupted by uninvited animals like squirrels, cats, birds, bugs, dogs and rabbits, just to name a few. And bats have also popped up once each this year at NBA games in Utah and Indiana, respectively.
But the San Antonio arena has developed a reputation for general weirdness over the years. Aside from a pigeon that flew overhead at the arena in early January, a snake was found in the visiting locker room before a playoff game between the Blazers and Spurs in May 2014. A month later, during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the air conditioning stopped working — a development that became controversial after visiting star LeBron James cramped, shifting the momentum of the contest away from Miami and toward San Antonio. The Spurs went on to dominate the series, and James left the Heat the following month in free agency.
While the team did hire a designated pest-control expert following the Ginobli incident, the little-desired task of removing the bats usually falls to arena staffers who just happen to be on the court — and needless to say, it doesn’t always go so well. A handful of Spurs’ employees often give unsuccessful chase to bats, usually armed with nothing more than towels. Even Coyote, the team mascot, has gotten in on it — and, in a few cases, has actually been the one to round up the bats, illustrating just how much of an all-hands-on-deck process it can be.
Rob Wicall, who served as the mascot for nearly two decades before stepping down in 2016, sounded almost envious of all the bat run-ins there have been lately. For years, well before Ginobili’s bat-swat back in 2009, Wicall kept a fishing net he’d bought and the mascot’s Batman costume accessories nearby,6 just in case a bat ever got loose in the arena.
Ginobili took care of the problem just before Wicall could suit-up and come to the rescue back in 2009. But during his farewell season, Wicall got another chance to be the hero before a game in December 2015, and he made it count. He couldn’t see that well — the costume allows little to no peripheral vision — but he tracked the bat into the painted area before somehow nabbing it with his net. When he realized he’d succeeded, Wicall — in Coyote’s full Batman attire, with the PA announcer playing the old-school Batman theme song over the speakers — lifted his arms triumphantly.
“It was one of those bucket-list things for a mascot, because you’ve not only solved a problem in the arena, but you’ve also brought entertainment,” said Wicall, adding that it took him less than 45 seconds total to dash into his changing area and throw on Coyote’s Batman accessories.
But not everyone relishes these run-ins. Spurs forward Rudy Gay sought shelter from a bat by hiding behind ref Zach Zarba last month. And Nets All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell, who has now had two separate bat experiences at AT&T Center the past three seasons, took refuge in the tunnel leading to the locker room as four bats circled over the court.
Bucks center Brook Lopez, on the other hand, would activate a Bat Signal if he could. As a comic-book aficionado, Lopez told SB Nation early in February that he’d welcome being bitten by a bat in hopes that it might make him a superhero.
“I’m just going to make myself available [to the bat],” Lopez said. “At that point, it’s up to the bat. A lot of it is up to fate in these superhero stories. But I want to give myself a shot.”
Fate seemed to be listening. A bat flew past Lopez on Saturday in San Antonio. Fortunately — or perhaps unfortunately, given Lopez’s hope of becoming a superhero — he wasn’t bitten.