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

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