San Antonio Mission

Gregg Popovich is the winningest coach in Spurs history—and the only one to have won an NBA title. This year his team is making another run at the championship. So why do so many of his critics think he's mediocre?

Late last October a circle of reporters and cameras surrounded San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as he held the 2000-2001 season’s first post-game press conference. His team had just handily defeated the Indiana Pacers at the Alamodome, and the mood was upbeat. Popovich praised several of his players, but within moments somebody asked, “Do you think the offense is a little more spread out now, away from what used to be too much reliance on the inside game of Duncan and Robinson?” “Too much?” Popovich shot back. “‘Too much’ got us a championship. If ‘too much’ gets us another championship, I’ll take it.” There was a moment of strained silence just long enough not to allow another question, then an assistant said, “That’s it.”

It was a brief and almost casual exchange, during a ritual designed to provide a handful of quotes for the ten o’clock news and the morning papers. Later Popovich would privately tell the reporter, “I knew what you were trying to ask. I was just screwing with you.” Yet the moment encapsulated the Spurs’ recent history, the fan and media obsessions with the team, and Popovich’s often prickly relationship with the press. On the first night of the season, the questions were already in the air: Can Popovich’s Spurs, rudely derailed in the playoffs last year by injuries and facing the resurgence of the L.A. Lakers, regain the championship form of the 1998-1999 season? Or would the Spurs’ championship banner—forever qualified, in Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s dismissive opinion, by the “asterisk” of the lockout-shortened fifty-game season—continue to hang by itself from the Alamodome roof?

Those are the sorts of grandiose reporters’ questions that coaches prefer to answer on the floor, not in press conferences. Certainly everybody within the Spurs organization has long since tired of hearing the variations on that reporter’s inquiry: Can the Spurs diversify their offense from the “inside-out” game initiated by entry passes into their Twin Towers, power forward Tim Duncan and center David Robinson? When an outsider asks such questions, the implied criticism triggers an instinctive defensiveness. Nobody better expresses that irritation than the 52-year-old Popovich, who, in the words of San Antonio Express-News reporter Johnny Ludden (the poor soul foolish enough to ask that leading question on opening night), “just does not worry about his image.”

According to Ludden, he and Popovich—”Pop” to those on a first-name basis, which apparently includes most of San Antonio—in fact get along fine, although the coach has “worn out two or three beat reporters.” He dismissed the post-game moment as a mild instance of Popovich’s reflexive reporter baiting. “He’s not always the world’s greatest quote, but he’s sharp, well read, and he knows what’s going on,” Ludden says. “He has his moods, but he’s also a pretty incredible success story.” And then Ludden delivers a judgment of Popovich that will be repeated several times within a few days by other reporters, colleagues, and players: “What you see is what you get.”

When you look at Gregg Popovich, what you see certainly does not fit the stereotype of the high-profile professional sports coach, genus NBA, at least as popularly embodied by L.A.’s Jackson or the Miami Heat’s Pat Riley. Popovich has the physique of an ex-hoopster but none of the mannered stylishness now common among coaches. He wears his thinning gray hair in a throwback brush cut befitting a 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy (with a degree in Soviet studies). Considering the coach’s off-the-rack wardrobe, another reporter commented dryly, “He’s obviously not trying to win any Armani contests.” Popovich’s ruddy complexion and prominent nose are sharply accented by a smile so lopsided as to often seem a snarl, if his sparkling, ironically hooded eyes didn’t give him away. And he clearly has little patience for either foolish or personal questions. When asked for an extended interview for this story, he responds politely but firmly, “I’m not trying to be Mr. Humble, but I just can’t take that crap. I think it’s about the guys—I really do.”

Yet Popovich’s occasionally uneasy relationship with the press is not simply a matter of professional indifference. Popovich did rise from humble coaching roots, as an assistant at the Air Force Academy, then as the head coach at division III Pomona-Pitzer, to stints as an assistant with the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, before being hired as the Spurs’ general manager in the spring of 1994. Popovich appointed Bob Hill as the head coach, and with David Robinson as the Spurs’ spectacular anchor, Hill had two successful regular seasons, winning 74 percent of his games. But they weren’t championship seasons, and Popovich was dissatisfied when the Utah Jazz defeated the Spurs in the playoffs in 1996.

Then came the next season. Robinson was injured when it opened, and the team got off to a 3-15 start. In December Popovich dismissed Hill and took his place—on the very day Robinson returned to the lineup. But there would be no miracles, coaching or otherwise. The team finished the season 20-62, its worst record ever, and Popovich had become the guy who fired the popular Bob Hill and hired himself. (Even with the championship the Spurs would win two years later, longtime fans still mutter over Hill’s abrupt departure.) The miraculous silver lining to the disastrous 1996-1997 season turned out to be draft lottery day, when the Spurs won the rights to Wake Forest star Tim Duncan. Duncan became the offensive dominator the Spurs needed to complement Robinson’s defensive tenacity, and the results were immediate: At 56-26 the next year, the Spurs recorded the largest single-season turnaround in NBA history. A year later, Duncan led the Spurs as they defeated the New York Knicks for the championship.

Yet if the trophy bought the coach some public forbearance, it hardly silenced the naysayers. The conventional sportswriter knock on Popovich remains that he is at best a mediocre coach who has the good basketball sense to stay out of the way of his star players. Spurs fanatic David

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