SAN ANTONIO — Most everyone who went to the AT&T Center on Friday was expecting a notable night and hoping for a good game, and they got both, but they were also at the epicenter of shocking news that reverberated throughout the NBA.
DeMar DeRozan was back in town for his one and only time this season (until the NBA Finals at least), and was a few buckets away from becoming just the 50th NBA player to score 20,000 points.
The same young Spurs who got blown out on opening night in this building, who most assume will be heading for great odds in the draft lottery, had gone on the road and beaten the Pacers, Sixers and Timberwolves in consecutive games.
Members of the media gathered for Gregg Popovich's pregame comments at 5:45 p.m. Friday, a little less than two hours before tipoff was scheduled. After a few minutes, the Spurs staff notified the assembled reporters that Pop was running late and that he would speak around 6:15.
Coach Popovich is rarely late for such things, though it didn't seem particularly weird. Perhaps it was, and I was just hungry and happy to get a few minutes to eat something. We got back to the press room and waited some more. Two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes.
Then, at 6:23, the press release came in.
'Are you seeing this?'
An entire room full of phones attached to Spurs reporters buzzed simultaneously, meaning it was either ESPN's NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski or a release from the team. This close to the game, the latter usually means a late change to the injury report.
"Are you seeing this?" someone asked those nearby, looking around the room to see a similar reaction. "Is this real?"
When someone said aloud that Josh Primo had been cut, my initial reaction was that he had misspoken. "Primo fell on his back in Minnesota. We knew he was out tonight," I thought to myself. I read the release, then I read it again.
"The San Antonio Spurs today announced that they have waived Joshua Primo.
'It is our hope that, in the long run, this decision will serve the best interest of both the organization and Joshua,' said Spurs Sports & Entertainment CEO RC Buford.
Primo was selected by the Spurs with the 12th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
The Spurs organization, including front office executives, coaching staff and players, will have no additional comments to share at this time."
Those 78 words hit Spurs world like an explosive blast and set off a wave of disbelief, confusion and concern across the NBA.
Those who cover the team looked at each other with a million questions. All we knew for sure was that the Spurs had just made the shocking decision to waive 19-year-old Josh Primo, and that's probably why Gregg Popovich had been so late.
'That's all I choose to say'
Pop walked in moments later. He was immediately asked what led to Primo's release.
"Have you all gotten the statement that we made?" he asked, in a genuine and quiet tone. "That's all I choose to say about that right now. We're just gonna stick by what we've told you all."
A long pause followed. Pop is a tough man to read, but his presence felt heavier in this moment. There seemed to be a mix of seriousness and sadness. He spoke briefly but glowingly about Gorgui Dieng and DeMar as human beings.
"One of the best that I've ever coached. I still stay in touch with him, he's just a sweet man," he said of DeRozan.
When asked whether the team eventually would have further comment on the decision to cut Primo, Pop wasn't having it.
"Were you in here when I said that we were just gonna stand by the statement?" he asked sarcastically, but not in a funny way.
Not much was clear at that point, but it was clear that whatever had happened here was not a laughing matter.
The Primo pick
The Spurs selected Primo 12th overall just over a year ago, which was a surprise to just about everybody. Many mock drafts had Primo going in the second round, but GM Brian Wright and company used a lottery pick on the then 18-year-old because they believed in his potential to grow well beyond the 3-and-D role he played in his lone college season.
San Antonio reached for the youngest player in the draft based on the idea that he would have become a sure-fire lottery pick if he stayed for his sophomore year. They wanted to get in before the hype and help him build his body and point guard skills in one of the NBA's best player development systems. They were also high on his apparent maturity and leadership qualities.
At the start of his second season, Primo was beginning to show in the past few weeks why the Spurs made the pick. He was coming off the bench and creating offense off the dribble, running the second unit or playing with the starters a la Manu Ginobili. The scoring numbers won't blow you away, but the change in how he was getting buckets and making plays for himself and others was a positive sign.
He was brimming with potential and showing on-the-court growth, and he was quickly becoming one of the stars of this young team. When the Spurs announced Self as their new jersey sponsor, Primo modeled the new threads. His baby face was applied to Self billboards up and down the I-35 corridor. He seemed quiet and confident, but personable and charming.
Just two weeks ago, the Spurs exercised their team option to bring Primo back in 2023-24 for $4.3 million.
Two weeks later, he suddenly was off the team.
What just happened?
It was immediately apparent that there was no good basketball reason to do this, and certainly there was no financial one either.
This was very different from last season, when first-round pick Luka Šamanić was waived ahead of opening night. While that was noteworthy and somewhat surprising, San Antonio had clear reasons.
Šamanić's on-court growth and production had not impressed, and more than that, it seemed he didn't have the competitive edge that Pop demands of his players. Cutting him also allowed the team to keep Keita Bates-Diop around.
Primo had produced and progressed, and he seemed to be on a path to starting at point guard for this team sooner or later. What could have possibly happened that led the team to part ways with a player whom they thought had star potential and in whom they already had invested so much?
The news sunk in across the arena and across the fan base Friday night, and if you had assembled a word cloud of all the responses, you probably would have seen a lot of question marks and expletives. The information void about the move was filled with questions, speculation and misinformation.
The show goes on
An hour after the news broke through the Spurs' home arena, the young team that had to be about as surprised as everyone else in the building played a basketball game in front of fans who were still processing the news.
The pregame hype video featured Primo a few times, but at the arena's merch shop, his No. 11 jerseys were nowhere to be found. If you go on the Spurs' team shop online and search "Primo," you will get no results. You can still get jerseys for Joe Wieskamp and Devontae Cacok, though.
The tipoff went San Antonio's way, and the young Spurs were on it from the jump. Keldon Johnson drilled a triple to kick off a three-point party. Rookie Jeremy Sochan passed to veteran Josh Richardson, who drained one, then Sochan got it back to Keldon for another. Tre Jones fed Jakob Poeltl for a layup, then gave it to Johnson for his third three with a hand in his face. Then Jones set up Sochan for just the third three-point make of his young career.
The Bulls took a timeout to discuss the 17-5 hole they found themselves in. Every starter for the Spurs had touched the ball, and the only guy who didn't score dropped three dimes. Their half-court offense unselfishly created quality looks and converted on them at a high clip.
Becky Hammon returned home to a hero's welcome from the Spurs crowd, celebrating her championship as a rookie head coach for the Las Vegas Aces. On the TV broadcast, she broke down San Antonio's success on offense.
"There's a reason why you're shooting such a great percentage, you're shooting open ones," she said with a laugh. "You do that, you give yourself a great chance to win against anybody."
DeMar crossed his way into a number of jumpers as the Bulls climbed back, and when he hit the one that sent him over 20,000 points for his career, Pop immediately called a timeout so the entire arena could acknowledge it together.
"He's extremely skilled and confident, he's strong as an ox, got a great touch to go with that strength," Pop said after the game. "He's also unselfish, you see him getting in the lane and finding people everywhere. It was driving us crazy, you try to stop him and he finds other people. He's just a splendid player."
Pop put Blake Wesley into the game for his NBA debut, and the rookie showed absolutely no fear. On consecutive possessions, he fed Poeltl for a dunk, then went out of his comfort zone to hit a three, then soared into his comfort zone for a driving layup.
The Bulls went ahead by as many as nine, but the Spurs came back with another brief flurry of threes and led by two at the break.
Keldon continued to hit threes and pressure the rim, and DeRozan continued to get buckets in an up-and-down battle. San Antonio continued to whip the ball around, and the game itself was extremely fun to watch.
In the third quarter, all of the reporters' phones buzzed again, this time for a tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski. It was a statement from Josh Primo to ESPN, about three hours after the Spurs broke the news.
"I know that you are all surprised by today's announcement," Primo wrote. "I've been seeking help to deal with previous trauma I suffered and will now take this time to focus on my mental health treatment more fully. I hope to be able to discuss these issues more in the future so I can help others who have suffered in a similar way. I appreciate privacy at this time."
Trauma and mental health are deeply serious and should be treated as such. Primo has been through a bit, having lost his mother to cancer in 2012. There could be more pain that isn't a matter of public record. You can never know the totality of somebody else's emotional state.
It seemed unlikely, however, that the Spurs would waive a player because he was struggling with his mental health. If he needed time away, even if he never intended to play basketball again, it would have been easier for both him and for the team to place him on the injury report and do whatever they could to help him as he took a leave of absence.
These were the thoughts going through fans' and reporters' heads as the game continued Friday night. If this was a mutual decision, wouldn't team and player have come out and said something together? Primo probably wouldn't have asked to be cut, especially given the alternatives.
The game continued as the question came more into focus: What could have caused the Spurs to sever ties with Primo so dramatically at a time when it seemed he was on his way to becoming a face of the team?
It was clear Friday night that we would learn more sooner or later. Twenty-nine teams were trying to figure it out, and it's hard to keep a lid on something like that. It felt that at any moment, all of our phones would ring again with more details.
Young Spurs show spark
The Spurs went to the fourth quarter tied at 94 as fans at the AT&T Center and on social media tried to make sense of the entire situation.
DeRozan made his way to the free throw line against Wesley and Sochan, who Popovich said got an education. On the other end, the pair of rookies scored to answer.
The Spurs fell down by 7, then Johnson came roaring back. He finished an and-1, then got more free throws, then hit another three to put the Spurs back in front. He's been one of the best shooters in the league this season.
Johnson and DeRozan traded free throws, then Tre Jones stepped out and hit a three. Poeltl scored twice, capping an understated 21 and 13 night. Jones turned it over, but recovered it immediately to finish a layup that put the Spurs up four in the final minute. Then he hit free throws to ice it.
DeRozan scored 33 while getting to his 20K milestone, but Johnson matched his scoring output and led his upstart Spurs to the win against another talented opponent.
San Antonio assisted on 37 of their 46 made baskets. They shot 42% on 38 attempts from deep and outscored the Bulls in the paint in a year when the mid-range shot has been a rarity for the Spurs.
'We're a family'
The players knew Primo better than the reporters did, and they had to be as surprised as the rest of us, but they buckled down and focused on the task at hand.
"We're a family, and we stay together," Johnson said after the game. "We went out on the court and played hard. We've been playing hard all year, and we continued that tonight. We stuck to our game plan and executed."
The Spurs have seen their young guys grow individually and as a team, and as shocking as their 5-2 start to the season has been, especially in light of their tough early schedule, it doesn't seem like a fluke because of the effort, pace, play style and selflessness that this team is playing with. They know they're underdogs, but they also know that they can beat the overdogs if they play well.
San Antonio got the win without Devin Vassell, who has been off to a promising start this year. They also got the win without Josh Primo, who up until an hour before tipoff was also off to a promising start this year.
Everyone who went to the AT&T Center on Friday night saw a compelling game where the home team pulled off another unlikely win and the old vet who left on good terms made history. Still, most who shared that fun night left the arena with a big question mark that hadn't yet been answered.
The explanation came about 24 hours later.
On Saturday evening, Woj and Ramona Shelburne reported for ESPN that the Spurs waived Primo because of allegations that multiple times, he exposed himself to women.
The report added that a woman who worked for the Spurs alleged that Primo exposed himself to her. She has hired attorney Tony Buzbee, who represented many of the women who sued Deshaun Watson for sexual misconduct.
The seriousness of the allegations certainly explained why the Spurs moved as decisively as they did. Primo has not yet made any further statement since the accusations came to light.
The report that there were multiple alleged instances raises a new set of questions. How many times did this allegedly happen? When, and where? How many victims? When were allegations first reported to the Spurs, and how did they respond?
Before tipoff on Sunday, Popovich declined to answer many of those questions. The team hasn't responded to ESPN's report or expanded beyond their initial statement.
"I think under the circumstances, I think it's inappropriate for me to say anything beyond what we have already put out for our statement," Popovich said.
Those questions will only persist for as long as the Spurs decline to answer them. It's possible that the answers won't come from anything other than court filings and investigative reporting.
Buzbee's law firm said that they will hold a press conference in Houston Thursday to discuss the allegations against Primo. The report states that the firm represents a former consulting psychologist for the team who made allegations against him, and that she will make a statement and answer questions at the press conference.
"The Buzbee Law Firm represents former San Antonio Spurs consulting psychologist Dr. Hillary Cauthen," they said in an email to KENS 5. "At the conference, Tony Buzbee will discuss allegations made by Dr. Cauthen and others against NBA player Josh Primo, the events that precipitated the release of Primo, the veracity of recent public statements made by both the Spurs organization and Primo, interactions with individuals within the San Antonio Spurs organization, and the expected path forward. Dr. Cauthen will be present to make a public statement and answer pertinent questions. No proprietary information will be shared at the conference. HIPPA restrictions will be observed."
Primo has not been charged with a crime. Woj and Shelburne reported that other teams were trying to understand the situation better as they considered whether to claim him off waivers before Sunday's deadline.
Those teams are aware of Primo's talent and potential, and they're also aware that countless players have survived and thrived in their careers despite allegations or even proof of misconduct. Those teams, however, also had to consider how Primo's time in San Antonio came to an end. After 48 hours to learn more and think about it, none of the other 29 teams claimed him.
No team in the league had a better sense of Primo's potential than the Spurs, who invested heavily in helping him reach it. They saw him as a marketable star, a potential franchise cornerstone.
Even so, before anyone outside the organization caught a whiff of impropriety, the team that shocked the world by picking him 12th just a year ago had made another decision to shock the world.
Josh Primo was cut and out of the league before his 20th birthday.