Popovich is a man of mystery
San Antonio coach most comfortable when he’s alone
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.