Popovich is a man of mys­tery

San An­to­nio coach most com­fort­able when he’s alone

National Post (Latest Edition) - - Sports - BRUCE ARTHUR in Cleve­land

Ev­ery­body

knows Pat Ri­ley, with his slicked-back Gor­don Gekko hair, or Phil Jack­son, the soul patched Zen Mas­ter. Sim­i­larly, Larry Brown is well­known, if only be­cause he has coached in al­most ev­ery city in North Amer­ica, at one time or the other.

But the fourth face on the Mt. Rush­more of this era’s NBA coaches is San An­to­nio Spurs Gregg Popovich, in case you haven’t no­ticed. And, of course, you prob­a­bly haven’t.

Popovich went i nto l ast night’s Game 4 against the Cleve­land Cav­a­liers on the brink of a fourth ti­tle in nine years, or as many as Ri­ley won with the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers. But to the ca­sual fan, he is not gen­er­ally talked about as a coach­ing ti­tan; he might not be brought up at all.

And un­like the Ar­mani-clad Ri­ley, or the book-writ­ing Jack­son, or the needy Brown, the man they call Pop is not in­ter­ested in self-pro­mo­tion. He is com­fort­able be­ing him­self, and be­ing alone.

“He just lives to be who he is,” Spurs gen­eral man­ager R.C. Bu­ford said this week. “He’s al­ways been that. Look at his his­tory. It’s not a typ­i­cal march into coach­ing: The [Air Force] Academy, spy school. He’s a dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­ual.

“How many go be­come spies if they like be­ing with other peo­ple? That’s not a good fit. He likes be­ing by him­self. He likes go­ing walk­ing in the vine­yards and smelling the roses, and I think he stayed true to him­self.”

So in­stead of writ­ing a book, or gen­er­at­ing mil­lions on the lec­ture cir­cuit, Popovich tends to his mas­sive wine col­lec­tion — 3,000 bot­tles, ap­par­ently — or vis­its the Brooke Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter in San An­to­nio to talk to wounded sol­diers. He lives his life.

“He’s not a good NBA Cares guy,” says Spurs as­sis­tant coach P.J. Car­les­imo, re­fer­ring to the NBA’s tele­vised char­ity cam­paign. “He cares. But if no­body knows, he’s hap­pier about it. Given a choice, he’d rather go with­out the film crew.”

Popovich’s road to this place, as Bu­ford noted, went through Soviet stud­ies at the Air Force Academy, es­pi­onage train­ing, six years in the mil­i­tary and some time play­ing for the Army bas­ket­ball team.

And the game grabbed him. So in­stead of be­ing a spy, Popovich be­came a coach (Could he have whipped the CIA into a dis­ci­plined, suc­cess­ful or­ga­ni­za­tion?). He be­came the coach of a Di­vi­sion III col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia named Pomona-Pitzer, liv­ing with his fam­ily in a dorm for the first two years — “I would have been fat, dumb and happy to be at Pomona for­ever; I loved it,” he says — and then went on to be­come an as­sis­tant un­der his close friend Larry Brown, then with the Spurs.

Now, 19 years later, Popovich is both coach and ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions in San An­to­nio, which makes him the em­peror of a pros­per­ous king­dom, in­deed.

“Pop will tell you and I’ ll tell you too, Tim Dun­can is a huge part of all this,” said Spurs chair­man Peter Holt ear­lier this week. “But it starts with Pop. It’s his vi­sion.”

The vi­sion is an ex­pan­sive one. Of­ten, Popovich will stroll into prac­tice and start talk­ing to his play­ers about the Su­dan, or a for­eign elec­tion, or the Demo­cratic de­bate. Sure, he has crafted an out­stand­ing bas­ket­ball or­ga­ni­za­tion, de­signed a Zi­ploc defence, and built strong, com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships with his play­ers, start­ing with his sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with his star, Tim Dun­can. But that leaves plenty of brain left over.

“I think bas­ket­ball’s a small part of his life,” says Car­les­imo, who has been with Popovich for five years. “I think he loves it, and I think he’s ex­cep­tion­ally good at it, but he has a lot of other in­ter­ests.”

But if you ask Popovich about his bas­ket­ball ac­com­plish­ments, he can be brusque, and is re­luc­tant to open up — hey, he was a spy — and the re­sult is a grey-haired, craggy-faced guy who does not care what you think of him. Think Bill Belichick, with a per­son­al­ity.

When asked if he has thought about be­ing lesser-re­garded than the Ri­leys and Jack­sons of the world, Popovich is blunt.

“No,” he says, draw­ing a laugh from the room­ful of re­porters. “I’m not be­ing a wiseass — no, I don’t care.”

So it is left for oth­ers to speak of him, for him, as his team flies un­der the radar.

“Hon­estly, I think Pop likes it that way,” says Dun­can, who has trusted and fol­lowed Popovich over Dun­can’s en­tire ca­reer. “I be­lieve he’s as good as any­one ever, but it doesn’t mat­ter to him. He’s about that chal­lenge ev­ery year, about putting a team back to­gether ev­ery year, about get­ting guys to play the right way, and what­ever recog­ni­tion comes with that down the line, it’ll come in time.”

There is a quote from philoso­pher Ja­cob Riis in the hall­way lead­ing to the Spurs locker room, trans­lated into the lan­guages of var­i­ous Spurs: Slove­nian, Span­ish, French. It sums up the in­ter­na­tional man of mys­tery, and the king­dom he has cre­ated.

“When noth­ing seems to help, I go look at a stone­cut­ter ham­mer­ing away at his rock per­haps a hun­dred times with­out as much as a crack show­ing in it. Yet at the hun­dred-and­first blow it will split in two and I know it was not that blow that did it but all that had gone be­fore.”

Popovich is the mas­ter stone­cut­ter, lead­ing his army of lesser stone­cut­ters. They keep break­ing stones.

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