THE ED­U­CA­TION OF A COACH

A fine Cal­i­for­nia wine, a spir­ited ar­gu­ment, a well-ex­e­cuted play out of a time­out — these are a few of Gregg Popovich’s fa­vorite things. Don­ald Trump? Not so much.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY KENT BABB

Gregg Popovich called his old bas­ket­ball coach from the Air Force Academy in late Jan­uary and asked what Hank Egan, a friend and men­tor of nearly 50 years, was up to. ¶ Noth­ing? Then Popovich had a deal for him. Leave the late Jan­uary chill of Colorado Springs, hop a plane and spend the week in sunny San Antonio, where Popovich — ar­guably the NBA’s best coach but def­i­nitely its most complex fig­ure — coached the Spurs. Air­line tick­ets, a ho­tel room and two good seats for Egan and his wife at AT&T Cen­ter — “Pop,” as he’s known, would take care of it all. ¶ Egan agreed, but be­cause this was Popovich he knew the pack­age wouldn’t ex­actly be free. The 68-year-old Spurs coach isn’t just a five-time NBA cham­pion and the ar­chi­tect of a fran­chise that is a model of con­sis­tency. He is also one of the most cere­bral fig­ures in pro­fes­sional sports, and one who has emerged as a force­ful and un­re­lent­ing critic of Pres­i­dent Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s more con­tro­ver­sial poli­cies. ¶ More than just a high-pro­file sports fig­ure with a mega­phone, Popovich — pre­vi­ously best known off the court as a pro­fes­sional grouch — has re­vealed the in­ner work­ings of a cu­ri­ous, nu­anced mind with a se­ries of opin­ions note­wor­thy for their thought­ful­ness. ¶ “I’d just feel bet­ter,” Popovich told re­porters the day af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, “if some­one was in that po­si­tion that showed the ma­tu­rity and psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional level of some­body that was his age. It’s dan­ger­ous, and it doesn’t do us any good.

“I hope he does a great job. But there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween re­spect­ing the of­fice and the per­son who oc­cu­pies it. That re­spect has to be earned. It’s hard to be re­spect­ful of some­one when we all have kids, and we’re watch­ing him be misog­y­nis­tic and xeno­pho­bic and racist and make fun of hand­i­capped peo­ple.”

More re­cently, Popovich has crit­i­cized Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der ban­ning im­mi­grants from seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries, and this past week the coach sug­gested that the United States in Trump’s first month had the feel of a coun­try be­ing “in­vaded by an­other power.”

The NBA, which holds its an­nual All-Star Game in New Or­leans on Sun­day, is no­table for the will­ing­ness of its stars and ex­ec­u­tives to wade into po­lit­i­cal and so­cial ac­tivism. Within the league, Popovich stands out as a cred­i­ble voice.

“Some­times when life moves along,” he told re­porters be­fore a game at In­di­ana this past week, “you’re pre­sented with sit­u­a­tions where you find it nec­es­sary to speak be­cause so many peo­ple ei­ther seem to be afraid to or, more sin­is­ter, are un­will­ing to face things and let things go and worry about their own sit­u­a­tions.”

Popovich has never been es­pe­cially will­ing to let things go. In fact, de­bate might truly be his fa­vorite sport.

When Egan’s phone rang a few weeks ago, he heard the ur­gent voice of a man he’d first known as a walk-on player at the Air Force Academy. Back then, Popovich, a strik­ing com­bi­na­tion of mil­i­tary man and Viet­nam-era free spirit, spoke two East­ern Euro­pean lan­guages, ma­jored in Soviet stud­ies and drove a yel­low Corvette. In his mind, he was go­ing to be­come a real-life James Bond. But when that pur­suit lacked the Sean Con­nery glam­our he ex­pected, Popovich re­turned home to mas­ter a com­pli­cated and di­verse game — and to find his voice in an un­cer­tain world.

Now here he is, and eight days af­ter Trump was sworn in, Popovich called his for­mer coach and in­vited him to San Antonio. Egan might not open his bill­fold for a week, but he knew Pop was bunched up and in the mood to ar­gue; Egan, a wise­crack­ing cen­trist from Brook­lyn, was a re­li­able spar­ring part­ner.

“He’s on a mis­sion to ed­u­cate me,” the 79-year-old re­tired coach said by phone late in his week with Popovich.

Egan was sit­ting in a ho­tel room then, and a few hours later he and his wife would head to Popovich’s house. He knew they’d eat some com­pli­cated dish Egan would never re­mem­ber, and af­ter a while the Spurs coach would bring in a few selections from his 3,000-bot­tle wine col­lec­tion.

Then at some point, one of them would say some­thing to light the evening’s fuse, and with the pump primed with opin­ions and plenty of good red, away they’d go.

A nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity

He’d sit in the bleach­ers af­ter losses, alone and fum­ing. Popovich was some­how less pa­tient then, and athletics of­fi­cials at Di­vi­sion III Pomona-Pitzer — two small col­leges in South­ern Cali- for­nia that shared an ath­letic depart­ment — knew their men’s bas­ket­ball coach needed a novel way to blow off steam.

So into gym walked Pop’s des­ig­nated ar­guer, armed with a few con­ver­sa­tion starters to get the coach’s mind off an­other bad game.

More than 30 years ago, long be­fore Popovich’s ornery wit turned NBA side­line in­ter­views into a form of awk­ward per­for­mance art, Steven Kob­lik’s job was to tame a less sub­tle beast. Popovich put his hand through a black­board once, threw chalk at play­ers some­times and once chal­lenged any player to take a swing at him.

Kob­lik, a schol­arly type with a col­lec­tion of doc­toral de­grees, was the Sage­hens’ aca­demic ad­viser; his real job, he says now, was to keep Mount St. Popovich from erupt­ing. The most ef­fec­tive tech­nique was to en­gage Pop in a de­bate, a twisted form of re­lax­ation for the coach’s rest­less mind.

Some­times Kob­lik would bring up the Korean War or the un­der­rated pres­i­dency of Dwight Eisen­hower; he could chal­lenge Popovich on the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in Swe­den or Is­rael. Be­fore long, Popovich could barely re­mem­ber the lat­est loss.

Kob­lik saw a young coach with a nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity about the world. Cul­ture fas­ci­nated him, dif­fer­ences in­trigued him; he could talk books or in­ter­na­tional af­fairs or the Rea­gan White House for hours. Popovich re­vealed he spoke Rus­sian and Ser­bian (his im­mi­grant par­ents’ na­tive tongue), though find­ing much more about him was a chal­lenge. In be­tween the postgame ther­apy ses­sions, Popovich ex­plored the two cam­puses and went look­ing for new ways to ex­press him­self.

He joined the schools’ fra­ter­nity com­mit­tee and be­came in­volved in the cam­puses’ women’s com­mis­sion. A part-time as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor, Popovich moved his wife and two chil­dren into an on-cam­pus dorm, and when his mind wan­dered, he’d in­vite friends or play­ers over to ar­gue about bas­ket­ball or de­seg­re­ga­tion or the ex­is­tence of God. If a con­ver­sa­tion was stim­u­lat­ing enough, Popovich would ap­proach his tiny wine rack, eight or nine bot­tles that were the seeds of a vast col­lec­tion, and let the con­tents and con­ver­sa­tion breathe.

“If he saw some­thing that he thought was in­equitable or wrong,” for­mer Pomona-Pitzer player Tim Dig­nan says, “he spoke up for it. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.”

Other times, as many oth­ers dis­cov­ered, the man just liked to ar­gue — and those who be­came his friends had that in com­mon with him. Popovich would go on about the complex fla­vors of some Cal­i­for­nia grape, and just to watch Popovich ap­proach crit­i­cal mass, Kob­lik would praise the finest vin­tages of Coors Light.

Popovich was al­ways try­ing to prove some­thing, on and off the bas­ket­ball floor. He’d join pickup games with his play­ers, never above throw­ing an el­bow or a fist to cre­ate an open­ing. “Man,” for­mer Sage­hens co-cap­tain Dan Dargan said re­cently, “you never wanted to guard him.”

He was al­ways look­ing for the lit­tle ad­van­tages, a hall­mark later of his coach­ing ca­reer, and he dis­cov­ered that his pro­fes­sor­ship al­lowed for a one-year sab­bat­i­cal. He spent it as a vol­un­teer as­sis­tant at the Univer­sity of Kansas, one of col­lege bas­ket­ball’s most pres­ti­gious pro­grams. Dur­ing that year, Popovich was such an ea­ger vol­un­teer as­sis­tant, such a tire­less learner, so de­ter­mined to be heard and no­ticed that leg­endary coach Larry Brown would in­deed re­mem­ber him and, in 1988, of­fer him a job with the Spurs. It was a startling ca­reer jump from bas­ket­ball’s low rungs to its moun­tain­top, even for a tal­ented coach. Other than two sea­sons as an as­sis­tant coach with the Golden State War­riors in the early 1990s, Popovich has been in San Antonio since.

He’d still call Kob­lik some­times, es­pe­cially when he craved a rol­lick­ing de­bate, but over time Popovich learned to blend his in­ter­ests: bas­ket­ball with politics or his­tory or an old-fash­ioned ar­gu­ment. He showed doc­u­men­taries some­times dur­ing film ses­sions, ar­ranged field trips to his­toric sites, in­vited guest speak­ers such as the for­mer Olympian John Car­los, who raised his fist on the medal stand in 1968, to share re­marks with his team.

Popovich be­came pur­posely dif­fi­cult dur­ing in-game tele­vi­sion in­ter­views whose pur­pose he never un­der­stood. Only Craig Sager, the late Turner Sports reporter whose gar­ish suits and un­break­able charm were the per­fect coun­ter­weights to Popovich’s im­pa­tient snarl, seemed to draw per­son­al­ity out of Popovich.

“I was al­ways wait­ing for the next big in­ter­view,” said Craig Sager Jr., whose fa­ther died in De­cem­ber but who still answers his phone oc­ca­sion­ally to hear Popovich’s voice. “I would al­most keep score: One for Popovich, zero for Sager tonight.”

Sager was a wor­thy op­po­nent, and that’s all Popovich ever wanted.

“He just wants to ar­gue. He wants to de­bate. He wants what he calls a par­tic­i­pa­tory en­vi­ron­ment,” said Danny Ferry, who played for and later worked with Popovich in San Antonio. “He does pe­ri­od­i­cally en­joy mix­ing up a lit­tle dirt.”

Em­brac­ing his pro­gres­sivism

For all the con­ver­sa­tion starters and de­bate kin­dling, there is one topic he re­fuses to touch: that of Gregg Charles Popovich.

In the early 1990s, he was the best man at Larry Brown’s wed­ding, but now Brown can­not re­mem­ber a sin­gle con­ver­sa­tion in which Popovich talked about him­self. Reg­gie Min­ton, still a close friend years af­ter they were as­sis­tant coaches at Air Force, learned on long re­cruit­ing trips that the best way to keep a con­ver­sa­tion go­ing was to avoid ask­ing Pop about Pop.

“He has made some new friends,” Min­ton said, “but he has prob­a­bly lost some other friends in the process.”

Popovich is fa­mously pri­vate, con­ver­sa­tional eva­sion an­other fa­vorite pas­time, and noth­ing ends con­ver­sa­tions or in­ter­views faster than a pivot to­ward his per­sonal life. The Spurs de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest for this story, and fol­low­ing a news con­fer­ence be­fore a game in Philadel­phia this month, Popovich abruptly ended an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post af­ter learn­ing that the in­tended ar­ti­cle’s sub­ject was Popovich him­self.

But the truth is, even some of his close friends know only su­per­fi­cial de­tails about him. He prefers cook­ing shows to ESPN, and he treats the re­lease of the NBA sched­ule like a hol­i­day be­cause he can comb Za­gat for new restau­rants to try. Popovich likes avant-garde movies and pres­i­den­tial bi­ogra­phies, and though he earns $11 mil­lion per year to coach bas­ket­ball, he wishes his life were as cool as An­thony Bour­dain’s.

Cul­ture or politics or the gift of Tim Dun­can, the fu­ture Hall of Fame cen­ter who was the foun­da­tion to all five of San Antonio’s cham­pi­onships, are ripe top­ics. But how he grew up?

“We talked about God, we talked about re­li­gion, very per­sonal things,” said Kob­lik, who has known Popovich for close to 40 years. “But never about his child­hood. That just wasn’t part of what we talked about.”

The rea­sons he left Mer­ril­lville, Ind., to en­roll at the Air Force Academy de­ter­mined to play bas­ket­ball de­spite not hav­ing been re­cruited?

“We never have dis­cussed that,” Egan said, “and I would not want to dis­cuss it with him . . . . You don’t ask ques­tions about that stuff.”

The mys­te­ri­ous three years be­tween grad­u­at­ing from the Academy and re­turn­ing to the school and even­tu­ally be­com­ing an as­sis­tant coach?

“I thought he was a spook,” said Dargan, the for­mer Pomona-Pitzer player. “You go to the Air Force Academy and speak Rus­sian and you dis­ap­pear for a few years? Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. No­body knows.”

Ac­tu­ally, Kob­lik did pry that much out of him: Popovich spent part of those three years trans­lat­ing Rus­sian chat­ter on the bor­der of Turkey, Kob­lik said. But he was less “007” than stenog­ra­pher, which was bor­ing to him, and so he re­turned home.

Over the years he em­braced his pro­gres­sivism, the ag­ing hip­pie who never stopped want­ing to fight the power, though for a long time he did so qui­etly. He made do­na­tions to Demo­cratic causes and can­di­dates, but last year he be­gan dis­play­ing his lean­ings more pub­licly.

He ex­pressed sup­port for San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick, who knelt dur­ing the na­tional an­them be­fore games last sea­son as a form of protest against po­lice bru­tal­ity and so­cial in­jus­tice. He at­tended last year’s gay pride parade in New York and, dur­ing last fall’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, openly won­dered whether the United States was ap­proach­ing a tip­ping point sim­i­lar to the one that led to the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire.

“The ques­tion is: Are we in that process and we don’t even know it?” Popovich was quoted as say­ing in Oc­to­ber by the Wall Street Jour­nal. “I re­ally am start­ing to think about that. It’s not just the two can­di­dates. It’s the way the whole thing is be­ing treated.”

He ze­roed in on Trump, say­ing af­ter he won the elec­tion that the re­sult made him feel “sick to my stom­ach.”

“What gets lost in the process are African Amer­i­cans, and His­pan­ics, and women, and the gay pop­u­la­tion — not to men­tion the eighth-grade de­vel­op­men­tal stage ex­hib­ited by him when he made fun of the hand­i­capped per­son — I mean, come on. That’s what a seventh-grade, eighth­grade bully does. And he was elected pres­i­dent of the United States.

“We would have scolded our kids. We would have had dis­cus­sions un­til we were blue in the face try­ing to get them to un­der­stand these things. He is in charge of our coun­try. That’s dis­gust­ing.”

Popovich, who in 2015 was named the new coach of the U.S. Olympic bas­ket­ball team, cleared his mind — or so­lid­i­fied his thoughts — by go­ing for long walks or drives, oc­ca­sion­ally di­al­ing old friends to ask what they thought about some is­sue con­fronting the coun­try. Be­fore he fully made up his mind, he wanted to con­sider the views of oth­ers.

They’d talk, and he’d lis­ten or some­times ar­gue. Ev­ery once in a while, if the dis­cus­sion was good enough, Popovich would ask whether the friend might like to come down to San Antonio, open a few bot­tles of the good stuff and talk more about it.

In­ter­est in other peo­ple

The day af­ter the din­ner at Popovich’s house, Egan spent the first Satur­day of Fe­bru­ary watch­ing from the mid­dle of the lower level of AT&T Cen­ter.

The Spurs dis­man­tled the Den­ver Nuggets, and Egan found him­self ad­mir­ing the flu­id­ity of San Antonio’s of­fense, the chem­istry of its play­ers, the dis­ci­pline he can trace back to the Academy. But mostly he watched Popovich, who in his 21st sea­son is the long­est-tenured head coach in U.S. pro­fes­sional sports, iden­tify with play­ers and coaches who tran­scend cul­tures, na­tions and back­grounds: Tony Parker, a point guard from France; Manu Gi­no­bili, a shoot­ing guard from Ar­gentina; Kawhi Leonard, a small for­ward from Los An­ge­les. Four years ago, 10 of San Antonio’s play­ers were born out­side the United States, the most in­ter­na­tional ros­ter in NBA his­tory. Popovich’s as­sis­tant coaches in­clude Becky Ham­mon, the first woman to be hired full-time as an NBA as­sis­tant, and Et­tore Messina, a famed Euro-League coach.

“He is gen­uinely in­ter­ested in other peo­ple, from other places,” Egan later said of Popovich. “That might scare some coaches, but Pop looks for­ward to it.”

Egan said the din­ner con­ver­sa­tion wound up be­ing milder than he’d imag­ined. Popovich was in a good mood; maybe his com­ments about Black His­tory Month, sys­temic racism and more crit­i­cism of Trump — who he blamed for fu­el­ing racism by at­tempt­ing to dele­git­imize Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency by ques­tion­ing his cit­i­zen­ship — helped re­lease the steam.

“It’s a cel­e­bra­tion of some of the good things that have hap­pened and a re­minder that there’s a lot more work to do,” Popovich told re­porters in early Fe­bru­ary, piv­ot­ing to­ward race re­la­tions in gen­eral. “But more than any­thing, I think if peo­ple take the time to think about it, I think it is our na­tional sin.”

Egan was in the arena when Popovich made those re­marks. The en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence, he said, made him think back to the 1960s, when a kid from In­di­ana ar­rived at the Air Force Academy and re­fused to keep quiet.

He’d ask ques­tions and test bound­aries and ar­gue un­til Egan told him to go away. He’d do so for a while, but then the team would be on a bus or a plane, headed on a road trip to some new and in­ter­est­ing land, and the kid would slide into the row next to Egan.

The coach would roll his eyes but let him talk, about Viet­nam or the coaches’ game plan or what­ever else was on his mind, Egan oc­ca­sion­ally en­ter­tained but mostly won­der­ing when the day would come that the ar­gu­men­ta­tive kid would grow out of this.

AL BELLO/GETTY IM­AGES

BILL STREICHER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Gregg Popovich, here with Tony Parker of France, has coached Spurs teams with a di­verse mix of back­grounds to five NBA ti­tles.

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