San Antonio Mission
Gregg Popovich is the winningest coach in Spurs historyand 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?
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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 Bennett, the editor of the newsweekly San Antonio Current, describes the Spurs championship celebration as an event that unified the city and “one of the great moments of my life.” As for Popovich, he shrugs: “Lady Bird Johnson could have coached that team to the championship.”
As if to justify such barbs, Popovich himself refuses much of the public credit for his team’s success. On December 19, when he became the franchise’s winningest coach, he insisted that not even an announcement should mark the occasion and told reporters that “a hundred different people” could have done the same thing with the same players. When pressed to suggest what he brings to the Spurs, Popovich answers carefully. “I just hope that I can be a facilitator and create an environment in which these guys can be successful,” he says. “As coaches, what we try to do is keep an environment available where they can continue to flourish and not hold them back.”
Popovich’s ruling principle, that the Spurs are a “real team deal,” echoes throughout the organization. Yet to a man, his players and his staff describe Popovich as the central organizing force behind the team’s success. Some credit his personnel decisions and evenhanded treatment of all his players more than his nuts-and-bolts coaching—”His greatest strength,” says Robinson, “is bringing in complementary players”—but all attribute the team’s focus and consistency to the direct influence of Popovich and his administrative and coaching assistants, most of whom have worked with him for years. It is certainly testimony to Popovich’s ability to nurture relationships that his own college coach, Hank Egan, has been a Spurs assistant since 1994.
New team members Derek Anderson and Danny Ferry credit Popovich’s presence with having much to do with their decisions to join the Spurs. Even more important to the team’s immediate future was Tim Duncan’s decision not to leave when he became a free agent at the end of last season. Certainly the city’s recent vote to build a new arena had an effect, but Duncan says he concluded that this team remains the right place for him and that Popovich’s personality was part of that. “Pop’s a great guy,” Duncan says. “I like playing for him; I like how honest he is and how up-front he is.” Popovich says bluntly, “Tim decided based on basketball. He wanted to be in the place where he thought he had the best opportunity to be successful, basketballwise. And in the end, that’s what he made his decision on.”
Yet it’s also reasonable to conclude that “basketballwise,” Popovich has been central to the players’ general level of comfort and commitment. One recent test of the coach’s skills was Sean Elliott’s prolonged kidney illness, which required a transplant and ended with the forward’s seemingly miraculous recovery. Throughout Elliott’s convalescence, Popovich refused to speculate about the speed of his recovery or his potential return to the team, repeating simply that Elliott’s health was the only priority. Elliott says he appreciated how Popovich handled the situation, especially when the coach was criticized for being overprotective. “He was misunderstood in a way, that he was trying to keep me from playing,” Elliott says. “But he was being cautious and really trying to protect me.”
As reluctant as he can be to talk about himself, Popovich opens up quickly when he begins to talk about basketball. He comes by his professional obsession naturally. He was born in the basketball hotbed of East Chicago, Indiana. The town was home to the perennial champion East Chicago Washington High School Senators, in a state where high school basketball is as important as high school football is in Texas. “If you grew up in East Chicago and if you thought sports, you thought basketball,” Popovich says. “All I cared about, through about age eleven, was if I was going to be an East Chicago Washington Senator. I wanted to play for [legendary Washington coach] Johnny Baratto.”
To the youngster’s chagrin, his family moved to suburban Merrillville when Popovich was in the sixth grade. “I was crushed. My mom had to beat me with a broom to get me out of the house,” he says. “I remember that. I was out in the garage one night, and she came running out with a broom, just beat me over the head, kicking my butt out into the street because I would not leave, because I just wanted to go back and play ball.” Popovich never played for Baratto, but he returned for pickup games whenever he could. He became a high school star and was recruited by the Air Force Academy, where he became the leading scorer during his senior year. In 1972 he was the captain of the Armed Forces team that won the Amateur Athletic Union championship.
At his now stratospheric professional level, Popovich still obviously relishes “teaching basketball,” although he shies away from the public relations demands of a business that is simultaneously private and public. “All the hoopla and the stuff that goes with it is tiresome,” he says. “It’s something I don’t enjoy, but because it is a business, I understand it completely, and you need to embrace it.” He laughs resignedly. “I’m telling you very honestly that I don’t like all that. But you have to embrace it.”
But will he be able to embrace another championship? So far this season nearly everything is clicking. With a new arena (complete with $100,000 luxury boxes) under construction, Duncan re-signed, Robinson healthy, and Anderson and Ferry working out well, Popovich has ample reason to be happy, if not content. Young center-forward Malik Rose has developed into an impressive force, and Steve Kerr, often neglected last season, has found his way back into the rotation. Kerr was traded to the Spurs from Chicago two years ago, where he played for Phil Jackson. He says that while Jackson and his “Zen-mystical” psychologizing worked well for the often soap-operatic Bulls, Popovich and the Spurs are clearly a good, if different, fit. “Pop is just much more straightforward: What you see is what you get,” he says. “He’s not going to mess with your head; he’s not going to play mind games.” And the coach’s personality, Kerr says, is reflected throughout the franchise. “The one thing that struck me immediately here was how smoothly the whole operation ran.”
Yet as they approached the All-Star break, the Spurs clearly remained a work in progress. Comfortably dominant at the Alamodome, they were playing below .500 on the road, a mark of vulnerability come playoff time. Injuries to Avery Johnson, Elliott, and Rose were constricting the offense, and more than once Popovich blasted his squad for being soft on defense—a charge that has dogged the Spurs over the years. The low point was a 105-104 December defeat to Chicago, in which the Spurs’ lackadaisical defense handed the Bulls only their fourth victory of the year. Luckily for the Spurs, the other Western Conference favorites—the Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers—had their own problems, and no team had pulled away from the pack. By mid-January, the Spurs were still fighting for first place in the Midwest Division with Utah, Minnesota, and (surprise!) Dallas. The Spurs remain confident they have the talent to win another championship, but all admit they still lack consistency.
That inconsistency has frustrated Popovich, but it hasn’t detracted from his love of the game. “I know this sounds corny, but there’s a certain smell to practice,” he told Johnny Ludden at midseason. “Every time you go, you feel like an eighteen-year-old kid lacing up his sneaks again. And as long as you feel like that, why would you want to stop?” I asked him if the game has changed in larger ways, if he feels he is sometimes a long way from those pickup games in Indiana. Popovich smiled wryly. “Well, I think a lot of the innocence is gone, in the sense that it has become a lot more ‘entertainment-involved.’ So I think you have to work a little harder as you get older to make sure that you remember we’re still playing basketball. I think the people who are playing it are still learning it out on the street, the way we did, and enjoying it growing up, and getting that pure joy out of it.”