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NBA season kicks off Tuesday: It's Wemby-mania in San Antonio

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A new NBA season tips off Tuesday, and many eyes will be glued on the league's overall No. 1 draft pick, 19-year-old Victor Wembanyama, who was selected by the San Antonio Spurs. He's 7 feet, 4 inches tall, nicknamed Wemby and is being called a once-in-a-generation talent. He's considered the best prospect since LeBron James was chosen No. 1 by Cleveland 20 years ago. And I've watched all of his games so far - he good. San Antonio is now gripped by Wembymania (ph) as expectations and hype are as sky high as Wemby is tall. Here's Texas Public Radio's Brian Kirkpatrick.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO SPURS GO VICTOR WEMBANYAMA EDITION")

CAMPANAS DE AMERICA: (Singing) Wembanyama, Wembanyama, go Spurs go...

BRIAN KIRKPATRICK, BYLINE: The former French pro, fondly nicknamed Wemby, is celebrated in a local mariachi song, a style of music sometimes reserved to tell the stories of heroes south of the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO SPURS GO VICTOR WEMBANYAMA EDITION")

CAMPANAS DE AMERICA: (Singing) Go Spurs go...

KIRKPATRICK: The song by mariachis Campanas de America is not the only tribute. The teenager has yet to set foot on a court during a regular season game, but there's already an 18-foot-tall painted plywood statue of Wembanyama on a south side avenue. Cardboard cutouts of his head now fill sports bars. There are hamburgers on menus named after him, and there was a sighting of a one-of-a-kind Wemby license plate. Mark's Outing, a burger joint near downtown, is home to one of many barrio wall murals that has popped up around town of the potential star. Owner Mark Outing says the love is mutual between the city and Wembanyama.

MARK OUTING: We've actually ran through a lot of guys who end up in San Antonio, and they're not grateful to be here, so we've seen a lot of them leave. But he seems to be really, really excited about coming to play for a team. And I always said, if you really like what you do, and you're excited about it, then you're probably going to make a tremendous impact not only on San Antonio but on the game in a whole.

KIRKPATRICK: Wembanyama turned up to see the mural at Outing's place and thanked its artist, Michael Sanchez, which left him a little choked up.

MICHAEL SANCHEZ: Just showed a lot of him the way he really is when he showed up just to meet me, you know what I mean?

KIRKPATRICK: Wemby has crisscrossed the city to thank other fans like Sanchez, wearing his newly adopted cowboy hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICTOR WEMBANYAMA: Howdy, y'all. This is Wemby.

KIRKPATRICK: It's all captured in a Spurs video making the rounds on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEMBANYAMA: We're in San Antonio now. I'm going to take you around town to show you guys the most faithful fan base in the NBA.

KIRKPATRICK: Wembanyama has been compared to LeBron James. He's equally talented on offense and defense. And his eight-feet arm span makes it hard for offenses to pass a ball around him. But the Spurs' sometimes gruff Hall of Fame head coach Gregg Popovich says he's already annoyed by all the Wemby questions from the media. He says the young player still has to put in the work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREGG POPOVICH: He's no different from anybody else, you know? He's got to develop and improve knowledge of the game and some of his skills just like every other player.

KIRKPATRICK: For his part, Wembanyama says he's ready to play whatever role is needed within the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEMBANYAMA: I know I can bring some help to this team, and the best way for me to help - it's to not put me in a box, I think. So he knows it. He's learned to know me, and I'm learning to know him.

KIRKPATRICK: Fan excitement is running so high, Spurs fans feel a sixth NBA championship may be within sights.

LARRY RAMIREZ: They want to win another championship. The Spurs have missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. Spurs fans are not used to that.

KIRKPATRICK: That's Larry Ramirez, sports director at San Antonio TV station KSAT 12. He's covered the team for a couple of decades. He says Spurs fans have grown weary of not just losing but losing their glory days under past greats such as David Robertson, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, another once-young Frenchman who played here. Then, a sports miracle of epic proportions this year - the Spurs landed the NBA's No. 1 pick.

RAMIREZ: And now you add in Wemby. Spurs fans - they're going crazy nuts in a good way because they can see on the horizon that the Spurs are going to be contending once again for NBA championships. I don't think it's going to happen right away.

KIRKPATRICK: Wembanyama seems to be handling all the hype and pressure well so far, and he says he definitely feels the love from fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEMBANYAMA: It's really, really funny, you know, walking around and - or driving around and just seeing my face sometimes. But I love it, you know? It's always in a sane, healthy way, you know? People here - they treat me like family. Even though they don't know me personally, they treat me like family.

KIRKPATRICK: Spurs fan Angelica Guzman-Jeffery may have best summed up fans' hopes for Wembanyama and the Spurs this season on the June day the Spurs made him their No. 1 pick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELICA GUZMAN-JEFFERY: The city goes the way the Spurs go. I know that's kind of funny, but I just feel that way.

KIRKPATRICK: She's not the only one that feels that way. All of Spurs Nation feels that way. For NPR News, I'm Brian Kirkpatrick in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Kirkpatrick